WHY WOMEN NEED TO TRAIN DIFFERENTLY
Original article by Sarah Berry for The Sydney Morning Herald
We may be able to train as hard as they can, but in our efforts to prove that we can do everything men can do, many women dismiss the fact that we benefit from training differently.
Hormonally, physically and psychologically adjusting the way that we train can make exercise more enjoyable and deliver better results.
Cycle your training
Instead of ignoring our menstrual cycle or trying to push through ebbs and flows of energy, by working with the hormonal changes over the course of each month we can get the most out of our bodies and minimise the risk of injury.
"Our menstrual cycle is a taboo subject still," says Nardia Norman, former personal trainer of the year.
"If more women were able to embrace it and realise it's an important part of our health ... if we made that conversation less icky, women would start to improve."
Norman admits she was once tough on herself and pushed hard the whole time.
"I used to be the trainer who trained twice a day and ate very low calories. I got myself very sick," she says.
Now, she cycles her training.
"For two and a half weeks I'm really strong and can lift all the heavy shit I want," she says. "And for about four days out from my period, I walk every day, I do some fun stuff and am more nourishing."
During the first two weeks after our period, the female hormone oestrogen is at its highest. This gives us a natural energy boost and is, Norman explains, the best time for strength and high intensity training.
The second two weeks or so, during the luteal phase, result in a dip in oestrogen and a rise in progesterone.
During this phase, our bodies can benefit from backing off the weight training a bit, upping the endurance or cardio, as we tend to have more stamina, and eating more protein to aid recovery, which can be compromised at this time.
Then, as we get our period, our hormone levels drop and we are "most like a guy", explains exercise physiologist and human performance researcher, Dr Stacy Sims.
"Pain tolerance is increased; time to fatigue is increased; she has a lower core temperature and greater plasma volume, so she can sweat more and stay cool longer, and from a metabolic state, a woman's body can tap into more carbohydrate stores and recover faster, as compared to the high hormone phase that leads into her period.
"It's during this low-hormone phase that women should aim to hit high-intensity training sessions hard, try for PRs in power and speed activities, and optimise recovery through nutrition."
Norman adds one caveat to Sims' advice: pay attention to how you feel because we are all different and have slightly different cycles.
"Any abdominal pain and bloating has a negative affect on the inner abdominal unit meaning that the abdominal musculature cannot fire," Norman explains, noting that this affects stability while working out. "This leads to an unstable spine and possible injury."
She advises having a flexible approach to exercise in the fourth or fifth week before and during your period.
"This idea that women use their period as an excuse to let her off the hook. So what?" Norman exclaims. "If she's generally [training hard] then let her off the hook. Women are already hard enough on themselves.
"So many women just follow the program they're given – not checking their energy levels. The more women take care of their bodies, the better the results and the more enjoyable it will be."
While many men have grown up lifting weights, many women have not. This means our core control and glute activation are "generally two spots where, for me, women are most deficient", says Melanie Corlett, the owner of women-only strength and conditioning gym Women of Treign.
"There's never really a focus on starting women from the beginning and explaining why we need to do this stuff," Corlett adds. "Men have grown up doing this stuff... a lot of women have never touched a barbell in their lives."
Corlett says women need to learn core and glute activation and be taught the basics of strength training so that we're lifting in a safe environment and less likely to injure ourselves.
It's not just approaching conditioning differently, but understanding biomechanical differences too.
"Our pelvis is wider and shallower and the sacroiliac is less stable than the males'," Norman says, explaining that we may need to adjust our foot position during squats, for instance, having the feet slightly wider apart and turned out an an angle and work more on joint stability, bottom and core activation.
That said, we have certain advantages over men because of our physical make up, Corlett says.
"Women do train quite differently to men – we recover a lot faster than men, we're much more connected to our bodies than men, we're a lot more flexible and we have a lot of hormones that are released that are completely separate to men."
A lot of women Corlett comes across say they feel intimidated by gyms.
"It wasn't a safe space for them," she says. "A lot of them would say, 'I don't feel comfortable going up and lifting weights when there's men. There's never any girls in the weights area in gyms.' Even if you know what you're doing it's intimidating."
Addressing the psychological blocks of training and helping women to feel confident using equipment and taking ownership of their bodies works on several levels.
"The number one predictor of success is accountability," Norman says. "The more empowered you are, the more confident you are to make decisions for yourself."
And we start to see our bodies differently – as capable and as having far greater worth than simply fitting some arbitrary aesthetic.
"Eighty per cent of what we do here is mindset training," Corlett says. "A lot of [women's goals] are fuelled by serious self hate and insecurity. A lot of them come in with goals like 'I don't like this about my body - I don't like my hips or my arms or my stomach jiggles'.
"And then they start strength training and they start to realise all the cool things that their body can do and then their goals start to shift from, 'Oh I want my belly to jiggle less' to 'I want to squat body weight' or 'I want to empower other women to know what it feels like to look at their body from a performance perspective as opposed to an aesthetic perspective.' So there's been this shift from how does my body look to what can my body do."