But I don’t want to get big … I think this is the single most prevalent statement I get whenever I discuss barbell training with women. There is an incredible fear that they’re going to turn in to something resembling a Frankenstein’s monster with a square jaw and cap stone delt’s. No disrespect to the lovely woman gracing the title page of this post.
Fear not ladies … You’ve got several things going for you that will literally make it impossible for you to “Get Big”. In fact, strong women end up looking just like really fit women and unless they have just finished a heavy set of deadlifts, don’t really show much muscle definition at all. Just have a look at 5 time Cross fit Games competitor and Fittest Woman of the year 2014 Camille-Leblanc-Bazinet from the cover of Oxygen.
There are quite a few factors here but lets discuss the main three …
While women and men are (or at least should be) equal under the law, the unfortunate truth is that we are unalike in many ways (many that I am quite appreciative of). Sorry boys and girls but you simply cannot hope your way past the simple fact that we are different. Guys produce Testosterone and girls do not, at least in any useful quantities. The hormonal milieu that we generate within our own bodies drives a lot of things in regards to our appearance, attitudes and yes … Our ability to gain muscle. While young males are bathing in a sea of testosterone (while not necessarily taking advantage of it), girls simply do not normally produce it in any useful quantities for muscular gains but you might produce enough for a little mustache … Please don’t kill me. The truth is that any girl on the cover of muscle and fitness that looks like a body builder is taking something (steroids) to get that way. Muscular gains in females are almost solely driven by the Growth Hormone (IGF) they generate alone and even that is not significant enough to create the overly masculine looking, square jawed females competing in the Arnold Classic each year.
Another item that prevents women from getting big is the fact that they are not very efficient at recruiting muscle fiber in the first place. When a male does a 5 rep max (5RM) set, it is likely that he is recruiting a vast majority of his muscle tissue to complete the set. Because women are not as efficient, their 5RM isn’t truly a 5RM. In fact, once a woman has expended her ability to do the concentric part of a lift, she will still have plenty of energy left to perform eccentric (negative) repetitions because she isn’t technically fatigued in the way that a male would be. This even creates the need to train differently when weights get heavier. A standard trick for extending a woman’s linear progression (LP) is to convert from 3 sets of 5 to 5 sets of 3. This will extend their LP for quite some time whereas this conversion for males only last for a few workouts with more Intermediate programming eventually being the only way forward for them.
Lastly, is the actual programming itself. To understand this, we have to understand a bit more about how a muscle fiber works. Each muscle belly consists of long bundles of Myocytes or muscle fibers. Each fiber contains thousands of Myofibrils and each of these Myofibrils are surrounded by Sarcoplasm which contains the energy that makes our muscles work. When we lift heavy weights and recruit lots of muscle fibers, the Myofibrils are stressed. If we then apply the Stress/Recover/Adapt model properly, we should get Myofibril growth or Myofibril Hypertrophy. Now … The actual Myofibrils are pretty small and any growth will not be the kind of growth that will turn you in to a bodybuilder. On the other hand, if we lift weights that aren’t so heavy and for lots of volume (sets of 10 and 12), we get an entirely different reaction. We don’t have to recruit many muscle fiber to lift the lighter weights but we do need muscular endurance. This particular stress affects the Sarcoplasm surrounding the Myofibril since it is the energy source for the muscle. Applying the stress/recover/adapt model here leads us to the conclusion that we will see an adaptation in the amount of Sarcoplasm that surrounds the Myofibrils and since that area is already much larger than the Myofibril in the first place, any growth in this area will be exponentially more obvious in our physical appearance. That was a long drawn out explanation which simply boils down to a very simple set of rules which fly in the face of everything we have heard since we were kids going to the gym. Low volume with high Intensity causes gains in strength while high volume with low intensity tends to gain more muscular size. Yes … All you women out there doing sets of 20 are well on your way to getting bigger if you keep it up. For general strength, the goal is to bridge the gap between the two different programming results which is why we do our 5’s. Sets of 5 are heavy enough to cause Myofibril stress and have enough volume to drive Sarcoplasmic stress for quite some time.
In conclusion, woman don’t have enough Testosterone to get truly big (without chemical enhancement), they don’t recruit muscle efficiently enough to get truly big (once again without chemical enhancement) and we don’t program in a way that would cause excess size in women in the first place. So … you can relax and get to work setting your next personal record (PR).
See you under the bar.