How Men and Women Respond Differently to Exercise

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It’s almost as if an unspoken gender law exists that orders, “Men lift weights, play sports and compete in races, and women do fitness classes, yoga and run long distances.”

Stereotypes aside, why is it that men and women seemingly have a different conception over what defines a good workout?

Is this because culture has raised us to believe that there is a certain type of fitness that’s best for our gender? Or because science and biology actually show gender affects the types of workouts we choose?

Moreover, when it comes to improving your personal fitness and getting the most out of your workout, is there one way that works better for women and another that works best for men — solely based on gender alone?

According to a survey by Weight Watchers, women tend to speak about exercise and nutrition in terms of “slimming down” and “dieting.” Men, on the other hand, speak in terms of fitness saying, “I need to hit the gym.”

The same survey showed men tend to view exercise and fitness as more of a sport or fun challenge, whereas women tend to view it as a chore or something they should do (but don’t necessarily always want to do). Researchers speculate that this is because many men are encouraged — more so than women — to join team sports such as football, soccer, baseball and basketball starting in childhood.

For these reasons, it’s no wonder only 17 percent of all women lift weights. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward cardio machines or group fitness classes — thinking that more cardio will “burn calories” and help them slim down faster. In fact, women dominate group fitness and yoga classes. Women outnumber men in a ratio of about 5:1, making up more than 80 percent of spin, bootcamp and CrossFit group fitness attendees. Also, the Yoga Journal reports 72 percent of all yoga classes are taught by women practitioners (even though yoga was founded by men in India).

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness, here are eight (science-backed) differences between male and female response to exercise:

1. Men have more overall muscle mass.

It’s no shock that physiologically, men are about 50 to 60 percent stronger than women due to larger muscle fibers. This means men are able to increase strength or jumps in their weights much faster than women. Even though men tend to be stronger, pound-for-pound, women and men have equal strength for their body types, and women have the same potential to develop the same ratio of strength as men.

2. Women build a booty quicker. Men build guns quicker.

Women tend to have about two-thirds the amount of muscle mass that men do, with a larger difference in upper-body muscle mass (about 50 percent of that in men) to lower-body muscle mass (75 percent). Technically, that means if a man and a woman have the same size muscles, they should have roughly the same strength (especially on squat day). Women tend to have an easier time making their legs stronger or shaping that Kim Kardashian (non-implant) booty, whereas men may have to work harder to overcome the “chicken leg” phenomenon.

3. It takes men longer to recover from workouts.

Since women have lower muscle mass overall than men, women are also able to recover faster from tough workouts than men, simply because they have less muscle fibers. Fit women in particular have lower rates of ATP (energy store) depletion and glycogen depletion during workouts, so they don’t need as long to recover between sets, nor do they experience the same drop-offs in their power output as men. Additionally, men tend to be able to handle more training volume than women. Since women don’t have as much muscle mass, the intensity and volume of their workouts can be slightly less than that of men to see results.

4. Women have more body fat.

Women have more estrogen than men, and the female body is designed to carry more body fat for fertility reasons. Body fat gets a lot of negative connotations, but I challenge you to think about body fat as a necessary part of fitness — particularly if you are a woman. Enough of it (and a regular menstrual cycle for women of menstruating age) means you are healthy.

5. Women burn more fat during exercise.

Women tend to burn more glucose (sugar) at rest than men, who tend to burn more fat during rest. However, during exercise, women are able to burn fat faster — particularly during weight and HIIT-style training.

6. Men benefit more from “carbing up” post-exercise.

Since women burn more fat during exercise and men burn more glucose or glycogen, women use less glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. So, your trainer’s recommendations about fueling up with carbs after a workout may not be as necessary for women, and eating a more balanced plate (even healthy fats) post-exercise may be a better option.

7. Women can handle more carbs than men.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, since women have about 30 percent less muscle mass and twice the body fat of men, women tend to have better blood sugar tolerance than men (i.e., they actually may benefit from more carbs in their diet throughout the day). This is primarily because they have higher estrogen levels than men (which improve the body’s ability to burn glucose or sugar). In other words, men may benefit from a ketogenic or HFLC (high-fat, low-carb) diet, whereas women can often handle moderate intakes of carbs for overall metabolic health without negatively affecting metabolism or body fat.

8. Women can slow progress on low-calorie diets or high-intensity programs.

Men tend to respond more positively to a caloric deficit or increased exercise intensity for body fat loss than women, primarily due to hormone differences. For women, caloric restriction and high-volume training influences cortisol (stress) hormones more greatly, leading to greater likelihood of fat storage.

The Bottom Line

Contrary to popular belief that the human body is the same in its overall response to exercise, as well as many studies conducted specifically on men in the arena, women have a completely different physiological makeup than men.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your personal workout. No matter if you’re aiming for health, improved fitness or to look good naked, you cannot go wrong with a variety of fitness modalities for optimal human potential.

Generally speaking, both men and women need to apply the same general principles: regular weight or strength training for supporting muscle and bone health, a nutrient-dense diet, enough rest to prevent overtraining and energy-boosting aerobic activities to supplement a foundational strength program.

Also, work to minimize nutrition and lifestyle stress, which is often underestimated by both men and women. Nutrition and lifestyle (like sleeping enough, avoiding overtraining and daily movement) are approximately 80 to 90 percent of all the results you see in the gym. So, start there.

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