In general, the size of a man’s heart is larger than a woman’s. So if you’re looking to take care of your heart health, are there better exercises depending on whether you’re male or female?
The simple answer is that women and men can do exactly the same exercises. There are no major reasons why you should choose a different type of exercise based on sex. Your choice is more likely to be based on what you want to achieve, what your body’s needs are, and what you find most comfortable. That being said, there are some things to consider when choosing your exercise program.
The fear many trainers hear from women is that they don’t want to bulk up and lose their “feminine” physique. But this is not a pre-determined outcome. You can choose to strength train in order to gain muscles or just to be stronger, healthier and more confident.
Women tend to have slower muscle mass gains than men, especially as they start with less muscle mass, particularly in their upper body. It has also been thought in the past that lower testosterone in women makes it more difficult to build big muscles. However, higher levels of a particular hormone (IGF-1) in women may supplement testosterone in helping build stronger muscles.
Keep in mind that other elements play a key part in building that muscle. Increasing protein intake and caloric intake in your diet is one. Choosing to do high repetitions and volume instead of higher weight for fewer reps is another. The former will contribute to muscle hypertrophy (growth) as opposed to the latter, which will give simple muscle strength gains.
Don’t let a fear of bulking up prevent you from lifting heavy weights if you are interested in that form of exercise. Without concerted effort in that direction, you won’t end up looking like a bodybuilder. What you may need to consider if you are heading to the heavier weights are things such as body shape and ligament strength. Women have a wider pelvis, which may increase their lower back curve and hip/femoral angle. This may mean some modifications to the form you use when doing lower body exercises, such as deadlifts and squats.
In general, women tend to have more flexibility in their joints, which can also lead to joint-related injury. When lifting heavier weights, it is important to load the tendons gradually and build that stability, as well as to keep the joints within normal biological ranges so that they aren’t strained unnecessarily beyond their stable range of movement. That being said, men with greater joint mobility also need to be aware of these risks.
For some time there has been a stigma around men doing exercises such as yoga or pilates, because they were seen as ‘girly’ exercises. As with weight training in women, this stigma is slowly disappearing.
The necessity for men to have good core stability and flexibility, and its obvious value, is becoming more apparent. There are increasing amounts of research into the benefits of having flexibility and core stability, and more and more elite male athletes singing the praises of these forms of exercise.1, 2
One difference that needs to be noted is the needs of older men and women. While both need to increase their balance training to minimise the chances of having falls, women also need to counteract the effect of lowered oestrogen leading to lower bone density. While men also get osteoporosis in older age, women begin to lose bone density earlier and at a faster rate. Women start to have minimal bone mass decreases from 30 years of age to menopause, and then drastic decrease in bone density during the first few years of menopause.3 For this reason, it is especially important for women, and men to a slightly lesser extent, to begin investing in their bone density from their 30s in order to counteract the effect of losses as they age. The best exercises for increasing bone density are weight bearing (eg, walking, jogging, hiking, dancing) and resistance (eg, weight training) exercise.
In short, any exercise is good exercise regardless of your sex. As long as you are moving your body, you are doing well. Choose your exercise based on what you enjoy and what your body is currently capable of – which may change as you get fitter and stronger – and make sure that, whatever you are doing, you are doing it appropriately and effectively.
1. Pacey V, Nicholson LL, Adams RD et al. (2010) Generalized Joint Hypermobility and Risk of Lower Limb Joint Injury During Sport: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Am J Sports Med. 2010 Jul;38(7):1487-97.
2. Gladwell V, Head S, Haggar M, Beneke R. (2006) Does a Program of Pilates Improve Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain? Journal of Sports Rehabilitation, 2006, Volume 15(4), pp 338-350.
3. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases; Osteoporosis: Peak Bone Mass in Women www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/osteoporosis/bone-mass
About the author
Dr Susan Tyfield
Susan Tyfield is an evidence-based chiropractor who utilises a wide range of treatment techniques and rehabilitation in her sessions. She has been practicing for over 13 years, having achieved board certification both in South Africa, where she had her own private practice, and in Australia, where she has practiced since 2011. She has special interests in sports and performing arts healthcare as well as chronic pain management. She practices out of Waterloo and Darlinghurst, Sydney NSW.