Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Jul

Primal Strength Training for Women: Not So Different After All

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.

Here is another example: Watch a 108 lb woman clean and jerk twice her body weight. And another.

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)

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Awesome article Mark! Been waiting for this :) I’m loving my workouts at the gym, for the first time in my life I really feel like this exercise thing is going to stick. Helps to be eating properly too :)

    Dollface wrote on July 15th, 2009
  2. @Miriam

    you said:”Also I am lazy and low reps suit me, I can get in and out of the gym in less than 20 minutes and actaully feel I have used my muscles.”

    I suggest you try doing interval training. i often do my workouts in 15 minutes or less.

    check these out:

    HIIT – (you can sub dumbbell for kettlebell)

    Camille wrote on July 15th, 2009
  3. Like Miriam, I’ve been lifting pretty seriously for a long time (22 years in my case) and look more like the Crossfit women than the woman in picture 2.

    In my early twenties I did actually want to be a lot bigger, but I found my muscles were pretty stubborn despite the heavy weights I forced them to lift. I wasn’t prepared to take roids, so I just figured I wasn’t cut out for bodybuilding. I’m rather glad of that now. I’m strong but healthy, and that’s the object of the exercise, isn’t it?

    I do find it frustrating that I’m usually the only woman in my gym who frequents the free weights room – all the others seem content to slave away on the step machines and lift tiny dumbells whilst balanced on a bosu ball. I’ve always found strength at muscles to be a cool thing, so when I see these skinny fat cardio bunnies, it makes me wonder whether I belong to the same species, let alone gender!

    Indiscreet wrote on July 16th, 2009
  4. I get a lot of strange looks from the cardio women running on the treadmills at work lunchour! They sweat, while I do my 20 minute weight lifting routine and simply change back into my work clothes dry as a cucumber!

    I save my cardio for evenings 3 X a week, like a bike ride, game of squash or rollerblading.

    I love how they just do the same 30 crunches and same tricep dips after their Monday to Friday 45 min stepper workout, with no results!

    I however, am decreasing in body fat % every week and prepping for my first figure competition! I am by no means “bulky”… I get compliments every day, and it’s all thanks to weight training and Primal Diet!

    P.S. Last photo made me sick to my stomach! WOWZA!

    Trish wrote on July 16th, 2009
    • Trish ~ did you adjust the Primal diet for the last week before your competition? I’m doing a Figure in April and wondered about the carb deplete/load using veggies only. I’m pretty lean already, but a bit on the smaller size of muscle mass.
      Any info would be greatly appreciated!

      Toni wrote on March 3rd, 2010
    • People not showering after a workout make me sick to my stomach.

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  5. Excellent article!

    Add another vote from me for Grokette. Like several others, I have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease. I also have to deal with very blatant gluten intolerance symptoms and have been working on cutting grains from my diet.

    In my search for a better way of eating, I found the Paleo-Diet, and was given a reccomendation to check out the Weston A Price Foundation. From there, I found this site and have since ordered the Primal Blueprint. I’m a bit over halfway through the book now and enjoying it immensely.

    Both my husband and I have been following a grainfree, primal/paleo diet for the last 3 months. I have lost 20 pounds, have more energy than I ever did and am generally feeling much better. Our exercise program consists of strength training 2-3 times a week at our local gym, one of these with a trainer. She has us doing low weights, high reps, but when we are in on our own, we work on low reps, high weights. I have discovered I like heavy lifting. :)

    Elizabeth Colon wrote on July 16th, 2009
  6. Great article. It is so hard to explain to women that I help out that lifting does not make you bulky, it is almost impossible for that to happen but yet it is hard to get over the image of the bodybuilders and that association with weight lifting.

    Thanks again for a great article. I will definitely share it.

    Troy Cooke wrote on July 16th, 2009
  7. “EVERY” woman should lift weights, it’s the best way to stay strong and look great!

    Donna wrote on July 16th, 2009
  8. I walked into my Crossfit affiliate in Jan 2009 at age 43 weighting 114 lbs, size 2, and never having touched weights beyond the cutesy dumbells in my life (and NO identifiable muscles). Seven months later I’m at 110 lbs, size 0, and the last time we did max weight on deadlifts, I lifted 143 lbs. Yes, I have muscles now – abs, triceps, etc. – but I’m not bulky, just look way cuter in a sundress!
    And it definitely adds to that self-esteem thing when you stride into PetSmart and watch the beer-bellied guys mouths drop while the little gray-headed lady slings that 40 lb bag of dogfood over her shoulder and takes it up to the checkout – hee, hee.

    Sheila wrote on July 16th, 2009
    • Great story! I’ve read about Crossfit. Right now, MovNat has my utmost curiosity, however, as it seems the most Primal.

      Elizabeth Colon wrote on July 16th, 2009
    • Sheila you’re a beast! Don’t you love the way men stare? I always get, “Do you want help to your car with this?”

      My reply: “No thanks…I TOTALLY GOT IT!” (flexes right bicep)

      Jennie Yundt wrote on July 17th, 2009
  9. Really enjoyed this post. I really like the muscular 8-9 lbs I’ve gained since joining crossfit!

    It is so frustrating that the ideal standard of female beauty in our society is small, skinny, physically non-threatening women who take up as little space as possible. Women who buy into this idea of “not wanting to bulk up” are many times being warned about bulking up or told they are too big by family, friends, partners, media etc… We are up against a lot of messages about gender and what it means to be “feminine.” I’m glad to hear others resisting these harmful messages.

    As for the earlier question about birth control, I would highly recommend IUD’s. The copper IUD is non-hormonal, lasts up to 10 years, no pills to remember, minimal side effects, and one of the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy-something like 99%. Just my .02 cents!

    at wrote on July 17th, 2009
    • I agree with the IUD suggestion. There’s also condoms, non-coital sex (after all, an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm), and another method whose name I can’t recall but involves checking the consistency of your vaginal fluids to detect when you’re ovulating (least effective since it requires practice, however that’s definitely a PB method right there)

      mm wrote on July 27th, 2010
  10. Actually, Bodybuilder Woman looks very good to me. Grok would have carved a little statue of her, if it was possible for such a physique to exist naturally. I hope she doesn’t have serious side effects.

    Paulie wrote on July 17th, 2009
  11. I don’t like the idea of using the copper IUD.

    Sue wrote on July 17th, 2009
  12. Hi, the gym at our apartment is the one closest that I have access to, but it doesn’t have barbells. I am thinking to ask the board to maybe add them, but meanwhile, how can I properly do any squats or presses with dumbbells ??!

    Ghazal wrote on July 18th, 2009
  13. Ghazal, you can do them the same way, just be aware that the DBs will be harder to stabilize than a BB.

    If for example, you can squat and press a 100-lb BB, you may only be able to use two 35-lb DBs.

    Be conservative! It’s better to start low and work your way up than to start heavy and accidentally crash into the mirror!

    dragonmamma wrote on July 18th, 2009
  14. I think the reluctance for women to weight lift, whether in the big box gyms or otherwise, includes the lack of attention and equipment of the right size. I can’t flip a tire, nor can I use the bench for preacher curl; its all too huge for me. I can’t use the giant kettlebell, so you you hand me a 15lb free weight that is going to fly out of my hands if I swing it. If you want women to lift, don’t make it impossible.

    Jen wrote on July 20th, 2009
  15. Here is an amazingly written article from the Again Faster crew.
    Ladies, give it a read and know that there are a host of men who whole-heartedly agree.

    Dutch Leftern wrote on July 20th, 2009
  16. Hi, I have done WeightWatchers and while I don’t agree with their nutritional advice, they were always supportive of weight lifting and told us it would boost our ability to burn fat.

    But I do agree that there are social pressures against women lifting hard. I do my Oly lifting at a big box gym where the vast majority of men seem to be appalled that a woman is lifting heavy weights and give me nasty looks all the time (probably because my lifts are often heavier than what they are doing). The only guys who are supportive are my husband and the gym trainers, who think I’m awesome. I don’t think I would continue without their support.

    I miss having a CrossFit affiliate.

    la nina wrote on July 22nd, 2009
  17. Thanks Mark, I’ve been trying to argue this point with my girlfriend who has been told by everyone (surprisingly) to do high reps and low weight.

    John Peden wrote on July 27th, 2009
  18. When was the last time you were at a Weight Watchers meeting? Your analysis of what they teach regarding fitness is WAY off.

    Ellen wrote on June 12th, 2010
  19. Mark, I am a Natural Woman BodyBuilder and I look lean and healthy. Being a bodybuilder does not mean you look like the girl in your photo, that is an extreme example. The bodybuilding diet almost mirrors the “Primal Diet”, and understanding how carbohydrates affect my body has been my biggest advantage in losing fat and gaining lean muscle. I enjoy your articles and have used what I have learned in my training and diet.

    Jamie wrote on June 30th, 2010

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