Here’s how women can train like Tarzan and still look like Jane
I was in Europe last month and I was amazed by the progress made in female strength training, something our experts have failed to notice, or even if they have, done little to rectify it. The most important factor in determining a person’s approach to life, sports and fitness is strength. I was in Nice (France) one day when I saw a 16-year-old girl comfortably squatting 250 lb, an astronomical weight for someone from Asia.
I also happened to pick up a book called Bigger, Faster and Stronger written by the famous strength coach Greg Shepherd. As I was flipping through the pages, I realised that most school exercise programmes in the U.S. include a concrete strength programme. The average 12th grade American athlete is a lot stronger than most of our professional athletes. Some of the top school athletes (boys) in the U.S. can bench press 300 lb, squat 400 lb, and lift 250 lb; among the girls, the top athletes bench press 150 lb, squat 250 lb and lift 150 lb.
On my return to India, I met up with an old colleague at the gym. She came with her husband and two daughters. They had all sorts of problems ranging from arthritis, trigger points and dysfunction and had spent the last two years hopping from one clinic to another. At the gym, I started them off on a basic strength programme, and in almost no time, there was lots of improvement, and their outlook to life changed.
I’m often asked about female strength training. My answer is that we have to start strength training for women, irrespective of whether they are power athletes or home makers. Strength training is the key and more so for women in India, who have hardly been exposed to it.
And, the basic principles of training should be the same for both genders — train with bodyweight exercises before using external resistance, train the core (abs and lower back), favour multiple-joint exercises instead of isolation movements, and focus on the “posterior chain” (hamstrings, gluteus and lower back).
Despite the many similarities in male and female strength training, there are subtle differences. First of all, women mature earlier than males. Therefore, they can begin strength training earlier. Also, since women have, on average, less muscle mass, they are also more susceptible to de-conditioning. That is why a female strength-training programme should have the sportsperson continue to train during the competitive season. This is because the drop-off in strength is more dramatic in women when strength training is stopped.
Overall, strength training offers women sportspersons the same benefits that it offers men — increased sprinting speed, strength, balance, decreased body fat levels and a reduced incidence of injuries. Also, studies have proven that strength training can have a positive effect on bone density, which will decrease your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
And, to the question, ““Will I end up looking like a man if I lift weights?”, the answer is: “Absolutely not!” Much of the difference in muscle mass between men and women is attributed to hormones, specifically, testosterone. On average, men produce 10 times more testosterone than women. Unless women are taking anabolic steroids or other male hormones, lifting weights will not make them look manly. Also, there is a difference in muscle mass distribution between men and women, especially in the upper body. This is why men who strength-train look more “muscular” than women who do the same. The bottom line? Women can train like Tarzan and still look like Jane!
(The writer is a CSCS(NSCA), C.H.E.K. and expert trainer)