What works for women who work out
Image by Matthew Bowden
The female body is delicate, dynamic, strong, supple, and obviously very different from a man's body. Besides undergoing monthly hormonal changes, you have a physique designed to handle structural changes - such as pregnancy - that demands proper training and nutrition programs to make it look and perform better.
Losing fat, though important, shouldn't be your only concern. Stairmasters, machines, and aerobics don't adequately address the entire spectrum of your needs. An effective, comprehensive program should deal with systemic issues, movement patterns, shaping and strengthening weaker areas, targeting the pelvis, inner musculature, transverse abdominus and the pelvic and spinal stabilizing mechanisms.
In this issue I'd like to discuss female concerns and considerations for proper program design. First let's talk about some of the physiological conditions that have an effect on training. These include:
PMS/menstruation: PMS is real and must be respected by trainers and coaches. The water retention, cramping, bloating, and joint laxity that accompany menstruation - not to mention the emotional aspect - can lead to injury. A codependency also exists between nutritional habits and hormonal balance.
When you're in the "PMS zone" you should avoid pushing normal workout parameters. To illustrate why, here's a survey of PMS symptoms experienced by Australian female Olympic athletes and the effects on their exercise regimens:
64% Abdominal cramps and bloating
40% Weight gain and breast tenderness
38% Mood swings
34% Back pain
The effects: 66 percent "struggled on," 26 percent cut back on training, and 8 percent stopped training.
Because many athletes are injured while in the PMS zone, I request that all my female clients inform me when they have PMS or are menstruating so that we can adjust their programs accordingly. The bottom line is, don't be afraid to cancel a workout if your symptoms are too severe.
A wider Q-angle: The angle from wider hips (to support childbearing) to a narrower knee width is called the Q-angle. The average female Q-angle is 18 degrees. Excess Q-angle strains the knees, ankles and feet, which results in lower body joint stability, stabilizer dysfunction, and altered length tension relationships that increase wear and tear on your joints and hip musculature.
Lower androgen hormone levels: Androgen levels in women are 20-30 times lower than in men. This is important, because androgen hormones boost the body's capacity to build muscle and improve strength and power.
Fewer muscle cell nuclei: Women have 33 percent fewer nuclei in their muscle cells. The nuclei contain DNA that make up the cells' genetic program and control cellular activities. Because there are fewer nuclei, there is less capacity to read the "message" to build muscle that circulating androgens deliver. For these reasons a man and woman can do the same workout, eat similar meals, and he looks great and she battles the weight.
On the plus side, females have better relative strength endurance than males. For example, if a woman can max out a 100-lb. bench press and a man 200 lbs., and you calculate lifts at 70 percent and 82 percent of one repetition maximum, the woman could probably do 10 to 19 reps while the man could do just 6 to 12.
Women also face various social challenges. A few examples:
Footwear: Wearing high heels creates several problems. For instance, shoes with two-inch heels that immobilize the ankle will tilt the body forward to 22.5 degrees, while four-inch heels create a 45-degree tilt. All your other joints must compensate for these excess forces to hold itself upright.
Depending upon the wearer and how they walk in them, high heels can shorten the calf muscles, hyper extending the knee, inducing anterior pelvic tilt (causing excess low back curvatures), and increasing spinal curvature. Many Japanese women wearing heels consistently walk with their knees flexed, exacerbating ACL (knee area) strain, hip joint stress and causing flatter low back curves. The greater the spinal curves, the more energy it takes to complete any movement, which can overuse muscles and joints.
Valgus (knock-kneed): Women sit with their legs in a "W," ride bicycles and basically do everything with the knees close together. This eventually leads to structural changes in the knees and weakness in hip musculature.
The most effective programs for you will incorporate multi-joint exercises, cross training, conditioning, and coordination drills and balance exercises. These programs really burn fat, work and shape muscles, get the nervous system working at its peak, develop balance, coordination and agility, and tone the postural and stabilizer muscles. They also get your brain more involved and communicating more intimately with your body.
Every woman I train works with balance balls, medicine balls and Bodyblades, runs conditioning drills, lifts free weights, does multi-joint exercises, hops, jumps, throws, balances and stabilizes against forces while lifting. After you're conditioned for it, you'll do Type IIB fiber training as well. This makes you stronger, more stable in the joints, and quicker. We seldom do leg extensions, use machines, or perform simple isolation movements such as concentration curls or pressdowns. Yes, those have their place in training, but they're usually not for the woman working out 2-3 times per week for an hour a session.
None of my female clients do aerobics or spend more than 20-40 minutes three times a week doing cardiovascular work. I modify their diet (reducing carbs, increasing protein, and teaching them timing) while incorporating appropriate supplements. The minimal weight loss so far under this program has been 8 pounds; the most was 22 pounds in two months. And my clients do not "rebound" because they learn how to eat properly.
Various factors will determine training for appearance or pure performance: program style, frequency of training, nutrition and supplements. These are up to you. Your exercise, dietary habits, and lifestyle determine how close you come to your ideal physique and conditioning. I regularly hear complaints about flabby hips, thighs, bellies, arms, not having enough stamina or strength, and so on. You weren't born that way, however, so you can certainly change the situation by altering your daily habits - and by working out at EastWest.