Female Strength Training

The aerobic exercise myth

Ever noticed the weights room is stereotypically the “male” section and the cardio machine /aerobics room is stereotypically the “female” section?? When asked about this phenomenon, women typically respond with; “I’ve heard I need to do lots of cardio to lose weight”, and “I don’t want to get bulky”.

Initially, most people will have small to moderate weight loss with aerobic exercise. Thereafter their bodies adapt, becoming more efficient and so fewer calories are burnt. So why are distance runners so skinny? Lots of aerobic exercise stimulates the production of stress hormones (cortisol) which are catabolic in nature (they are tissue breakdown hormones). Your body perceives the experience of a stressful situation. These stress hormones oppose the development of muscle mass and with chronic exposure they breakdown muscle tissue, as well as other tissues including bone. Stress hormones also tell your body to hold onto existing fat stores, just in case that lion comes again and you’ll need to run for hours! The body is swept into a sympathetic (flight-or-fight) state, whereby blood is shunted away from the internal organs to the peripheral muscles in preparation for you to take action (fight or flee from danger). Chronic or long term exposure to these stress hormones compromise your tissue building and repair, digestion, production of vital hormones and many other parasympathetic functions which are essential for our survival. Disorders destined to develop are likely to include diabetes, osteoporosis, infertility, menstrual problems, digestive disorders, heart disorders and impaired immune function.

Intense short bouts of exercise or interval training elevates the metabolism greater than steady-state continuous exercise. Aerobic exercise stimulates the metabolism up to 12 hours after exercise; high intensity resistance exercise stimulates the metabolism up to 48 hours (and in some cases up to 72 hours).  Sprinters have the best bodies in the fitness industry, ripped muscles and minimal body fat. A typical long distance runner will on average have a higher percent body fat than a sprinter.


Combine both steady-state and high intensity interval training for long term benefits. Too much high intensity anaerobic exercise over a period of time can be just as exhausting and detrimental to your health as too much aerobic exercise. Alternate aerobic with resistance training sessions to keep your body guessing, making it hard for the body to adapt. Use compound, free weight exercises requiring recruitment of stabiliser muscles, such as the squat or lunge.

Exercise machines versus good old-fashioned free weight training

Machines have a guided resistance and most often require a seated position, eliminating the need to recruit the stabiliser core muscles or postural mechanisms of the body. People who exercise on machines can subsequently get away with not recruiting their stabilisers and inner core muscles (including the transverses abdominus or TVA) and thereby may develop faulty muscle recruitment patterns. Free weight or bodyweight exercises, performed with good technique are gold in the gym, which when chosen correctly will condition the entire body – no need for 100 crunches ever again.

Will I develop bulky muscles??

Personally, I used to be very cautious about weight training, having a naturally mesomorphic (muscular) body type. With weight training, you will certainly develop muscle tone, however Arnie’s aesthetics are a far reality. Females naturally have much lower levels of testosterone, a muscle-building hormone. Oestrogen also suppresses large increases in muscle mass. Female body-builders spend somewhere between 3 – 5 hours a day on a specific hypertrophy program (5-10 sets per ex), not to mention the challenge for women to gain large amounts of muscle and so many female body builders turning to anabolic steroids for assistance. To reduce the chance of bulkiness you either want to reduce the intensity to less than 65% ( > 14 reps) or increase the intensity to greater than greater than 90% ( < 5 reps) for advanced athletes. Reduce the number of sets per exercise and reduce the number of exercises per body part of concern. Starting or ending with cardiovascular exercise also opposes muscle growth.

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Sore neck and frequent headaches

Your head weighs a massive 8% of your bodyweight and today we have evolved into a forward-head culture, putting huge loads on the neck extensor muscles. Females typically have less neck extensor mass than males and their neck and shoulder girdle posture can often be compromised from puberty onwards (forward head and rounded shoulders) which may mirror emotional challenges during these years as the body changes. Tension in the neck muscles and specifically the sub-occipital, legator scapulae and upper trapezius muscles can lead to tension headaches and migraines. A well designed exercise program will aim to counteract postural challenges and restore alignment through body joints, reducing pain and turtle-head aesthetics!

If a woman is considering breast implants, before any action is taken, first look at the position of the shoulder girdle. Rounded shoulders tightens the pectoral muscle fascia, which can cause breast droop! Postural correction comes first, and then if necessary, one is free to consider.

Lower back pain and high-heels

A myriad of causes exist for lower back pain yet it is surprising how often high-heels are neglected from the picture. With an increase in heel height, the body must compensate by either hyperextending the knees, increasing lumbar lordosis or bending the knees and flattening the lower back. The calf muscles can adaptively shorten which then pull the knees into hyperextension and the back into more lordosis. I enjoy wearing high-heels (although my friends would not call them “high”) occasionally when dancing yet can sense their impact after an hour for sure! If you do wear high-heels everyday for work purposes and do suffer from a niggling lower back, consider whether they are a necessity.

Knee Joint Considerations

Collectively speaking, inherent in women’s structural anatomy is a greater ‘Q’ angle than men, or angle from our outer hip bone to knee. This greater ‘Q’ angle has been associated with higher prevalence of non-contact anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. The greater ‘Q’ angle, coupled with a wider pelvis can lead to medial rotational instability of the leg, which occurs more frequently in women than in men. A wider pelvis can also lead to iliotibial band (ITB) tightness, femoral anteversion (inward rotation of the upper leg bone), foot pronation and retropatellar dysfunction (lateral subluxation and chronic patella tracking dysfunction). The best cure is a well designed functional exercise program, based on an individual assessment, with attention given to core, hip, knee and ankle stabilisers.


Women have greater joint laxity or flexibility, which is associated with dysfunctions of the shoulder, lower back, hip, knee, ankle and foot. Check with a qualified professional to determine if you are hypermobile and whether Yoga is or is not a good idea for you!

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As you may or may not know (speaking to both men and women), women’s hormones fluctuate in a cycle each month in the preparation for that possible chance of conceiving a child. Pre-menstrual symptoms may range from bloating, transverses abdominis inhibition (core stabiliser), weight gain / water retention, breast tenderness, back pain, mood swings, irritability, bowel irregularity and fatigue. Lucky hey?! A healthy diet and lifestyle to reduce overall stress can reduce unwanted symptoms, however take note to be gentle with yourself at this time since the body is not primed for heavy or intense exercise. Ligaments are more lax, maximal strength is lower and the body stabilisers are not working as well as usual.

A note about the core..

An important muscle to restore and maintain function is the transversus abdominis (TVA). The TVA, through its connection to the thoracolumbar (mid to lower back) fascia, has a relationship with the diaphragm, the deep stabilisers of the spine and the pelvic floor, as well as the hamstrings and the peroneal muscles of the lower leg and foot. By improving TVA function, the exerciser increases stability of the spine, pelvis and legs. TVA function is frequently dysfunctional after childbearing, caesarean section or hysterectomy. A TVA can be inhibited by inflammation and pain, as associated with food intolerances and allergies, digestive problems and parasite or fungal infections.

For the tummy?

We see people over-doing the crunch exercise (where the trunk only moves through a limited 30 degree range of motion and fails to extend past a neutral position), with little results and maybe even developing back pain. Also, too much trunk flexion and not enough trunk and hip extension exercises commonly results in poor posture and impaired breathing patterns (depressed sternum and first rib angle, shortened neck flexors, tight upper abdominals). So what can you do? Firstly, an assessment by your Exercise Professional is always recommended before prescribing any movement. First you’ll want your TVA and lower abdominals functional and thereafter more functional exercises to incorporate the rectus abdominis and obliques.

For body fat, the major thing is look at your nutritional, hormonal and lifestyle factors. Find a qualified Coach that can help determine how internally challenged your body is and how much exercise is safe and effective. Visit my online coaching for practical exercise programs.


Burgomaster, K.A., Heigenhauser, G.J.F. & Gibala, M.J. (2006). Effect of short-term sprint interval training on human skeletal muscle carbohydrate metabolism during exercise and time-trial performance. J App Physiol, 100: 2041-7.

Burgomaster, K.A., Hughes, S.C., Heigenhauser, G.J.F., Bradwell, S.N. & Gilbala, M.J. (2005). Six sessions of sprint interval training increases oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol, 98: 1985-1990.

Diane Lee Treatment of Pelvic Instability (445-459) Movement, Stability & Low Back Pain The essential role of the pelvis Ed. Andry Vleeming et.al. Churchill Livingstone 1997

Paul Chek, Equal But Not The Same (Correspondence Course) C.H.E.K Institute, 1998.

Tremblay, A., Ysohioka, M., Doucet, E., St-Pierre, A., Almeras, N., Richard, D., Labrie, A., Depres, J.P. & Bouchard, C. (2001). Impact of high intensity exercise on energy expenditure, lipid oxidation and body fatness. Int J Obes RElat Metab Disord, 25: 332-339.

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