I knew they were coming, as soon as I hit “Publish.” I knew I’d get at least one or two comments from our female readers asking if last week’s muscle building post applied to them, too. You see, Conventional Wisdom has somehow drilled into our heads the silly notion that men and women are completely different species, especially when it comes to working out. There are definite differences – anyone who’s been married will be able to tell you that! – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re all homo sapiens with the same basic physiological makeup. And so an outfit like Weight Watchers will push the chronic cardio, the ankle weights, and the step classes because of some underlying, self-defeating assumption that women aren’t “meant” to lift heavy weights. It’s insane, it’s preposterous, and it’s downright insulting. Men and women have different work capacities and different natural inclinations, but their bodies still work the same way.
“But I don’t want to get big and bulky!”
That’s another common one, and I can’t really blame them. Have you ever seen a women’s bodybuilding competition, especially one where the drug testing bodies are asleep at the wheel? Those women are frightening and incredibly ripped (for my money, the dudes look just as freakish), but more importantly, they just don’t look right. In fact, this is one area in which the underlying gender-specific physiology is limiting (thank god!): women, being testicle-free, do not produce enough natural testosterone to get those bulging pecs (just where do the breasts go, anyway?) and engorged thighs without supplementing with steroids (synthetic testosterone, essentially). Men generally do produce enough natural testosterone (the ultimate muscle-building hormone) to get big, and most of us still have trouble building a significant amount of muscle. Just imagine how difficult it is to bulk up for a woman.
If anyone’s still worried about looking like a female bodybuilder, just take a look at this selection of videos.
Women’s Olympic-style weightlifting at the 2007 Arnold Weightlifting Championships (below): No Arnold look-alikes here, just strong women performing Olympic lifts.
Snatches at the 2007 American Open in Birmingham: I don’t even know if I’d look twice if I saw these women walking down the street. Well, I would, but for a different reason. They simply look like attractive women in good shape.
These are women whose entire athletic lives are devoted to lifting big and lifting heavy – the very same movements that I’ve prescribed as truly Primal and strength-intensive – and yet they aren’t big and bulky. You’d think if it were likely, or even possible, for a natural woman to build major size without resorting to steroids, you would see it happen with Olympic-style female weightlifters, but you don’t. Time and time again, you don’t.
Now, check out these women.
Armenian bodybuilder Lisa Moordigian shows some sample workout clips: Notice the exercises she does – curls, machine curls, tricep pulldowns, and even more curls. She’s doing nothing but isolation exercises.
Brenda Smith’s killer leg workout (check out her crazy calves!): The closest she gets to a real movement is the lunge, but even her squats are assisted. She’s obviously not interested in learning actual athletic movements or developing real strength; she only cares about stoking that PUMP coursing through her veins.
Look at the bodybuilders’ bodies, their workouts, and their focus. Notice anything? They’re solely focusing on individual muscles to the detriment of the whole. There’s no catlike athleticism, nothing that indicates actual functional strength. Leg extension machines don’t exist in nature.
Seriously, though: men and women should work out the same way. That is, provided they have the same goals of developing functional strength, promoting lean body mass over adipose tissue, and improving health, both men and women are best suited to lifting heavy, hard, and with great intensity. Hormonal differences and diet will alter how this lifting program affects you and how much hypertrophy occurs, but the end result is the same: an increased strength to body weight ratio, which is vital for true Primal health and fitness. You’ll increase musculature, but it’s not going to be superficial, bloated muscle. It’s going to be muscle that makes sense, fat-burning muscle that fits your body and fits your genes. After all, you’re just providing the right environment for your genes through proper diet, adequate sleep, normalized stress levels, and – now – the right kind of movements.
There are a few other physiological differences that might crop up when it comes to working out. The “Q” angle, which describes the angle measuring from hip to knee, is larger in women. As a result, the quadriceps can pull on the patella and eventually cause knee issues. Cutting sports, like soccer and basketball in particular, can place additional stress on the knees and increase the chance of injury. This just makes maintaining proper form even more important (as if it wasn’t already). Here’s a great YouTube series of tips on improving your squat form. I should also mention that pregnancy, especially during the 3rd trimester, can soften the pelvic cartilage and relax the hips to prepare for childbirth. It’s absolutely essential for safe birthing, but doing deep squats with such tender cartilage and overly-relaxed hips will increase pressure on the knees and should be avoided.
Last week, I suggested that eating an extra dozen eggs on top of your regular daily dietary intake might be the catalyst for hypertrophy, especially for hardgainers. For women who perhaps aren’t so interested in adding a lot of muscle, skip the extra eggs. Keep eating Primal, get adequate protein, hit those deep squats and heavy deadlifts, and you’ll begin shedding fat and putting on lean mass that (because of the physiological differences between the genders) won’t be “bulky” or “big.”
In the end, though, it’s your choice. You could do the basic strength exercises and end up looking like this (thanks for the photo, Crossfit Rockwall), or you could spend hours in the gym and spend hundreds on steroids and stuff yourself with protein shakes to look like this. I think I know who Grok’d rather have on the hunt. What about you?
amber in norfolk Flickr Photo (CC)
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