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. my problem is I already have pretty large muscles – I don’t want to gain!
    As mark says – “You’ll increase musculature, but it’s not going to be superficial, bloated muscle”

    I don’t really care! I don’t want any more of it…i’m 131lb lean muscle mass already (plus 30% fat which will obviously be going as fast as I can chase it out) my calf circumference is 47cm! It’s ridiculous….that’s not toned – it’s CHUNKY and I struggle to look or wear anything feminine due to wide shoulders, large thighs (including the muscle)

    This is why I am worried of even touching a weight. I’d rather swim, yoga, dance, squash.

    : -)

    sarah wrote on September 20th, 2010
  2. Thanks for the great post Mark! I am 23, 5 feet 5 inches tall, weigh 115 pounds and wear a size 2. Since I’ve started olympic weightlifting about a year ago, I have leaned out and look more feminine than I ever have in my life! I used to dance, do yoga and pilates and nothing compares to the body you get weightlifting! Plus, being a small woman, it’s very empowering to know you can lift more than the guy that ogles you from the adjacent platform!!

    Chelsea wrote on December 5th, 2010
  3. This is not true for every women. I have a naturally larger lower body and when I start squatting and deadlifting my thighs and butt grow very quickly. I can squat 3/4 of my body weight and I’m sure if I kept up with it I could do my full weight. Everytime I start the lowerbody work my sister can tell right away and comments on how ‘thick and strong’ my thighs are looking.
    I realize that lower body fat is usually the last to go on women but when you start getting bigger and the fat isn’t moving .. it isn’t too pretty.
    I really do think height has something to do with it too.
    I had a trainer ask if he could train me awhile back as I could put on some serious size because of my height. I already knew that!
    I heard once that if you don’t want big muscles do the opposite of what the guys bulking do .. long distance running or long slow cardio. It makes total sense since women and men should train the same to get the same results.

    Heather wrote on December 24th, 2010
  4. Many (most?) women will find it more comfortable to take a wider stance for squatting and go lower than men do. Just because of how our legs connect to our bodies vs the male pelvic structure.

    But the only reason not to hold a heavy weight while doing so would be because you’re still learning form.

    Liz wrote on January 13th, 2011
  5. Please,..Who is the female bodybuilder freak you link (this) to?

    Sheryl Blystone wrote on March 23rd, 2011
    • Why do you so rudely even care?

      Annie wrote on March 30th, 2011
  6. All women are not the same. In general women will not bulk out like men since it’s not genetically possible. I’m 5’3″, 115 lbs, and lift considerably heavy weights for someone my size and I haven’t bulked out at all, in fact, it’s made me leaner. However, I have a female acquaintance who claims she cannot lift heavy weights because she actually does bulk up. She finds it very hard to lose weight because she’s so weary doing any kind of resistance training. I’m suspecting she must have some kind of hormonal imbalance issues. So, my point is, it’s very possible for some women to actually bulk out from lifting – but for the rest of us, it can only do us good.

    Monica wrote on April 18th, 2011
    • It’s very true. It’s really not that uncommon for women to have elevated levels of testosterone. My aunt for example had difficulties getting pregnant because of it.

      I for one tend to ‘bulk up’ as well, but I don’t have issues with it. Either way it’s better to have muscles than to end up like a half-starved runway model.

      Dey wrote on February 4th, 2012
      • I have that problem… I can gain muscle at a rapid pace… almost the same as the rate I can gain fat. And I struggle to lose both, but they always seem to go hand in hand. Very hard to get into a healthy weight range (especially waist circumference…I seem to always be waaaaaay to thick around the middle).

        Krissy wrote on February 17th, 2014
  7. I love strength training. Who wouldn’t want to be stronger? Squats have really given me great muscle definition on the thighs and prevented my bum from going flat.But I have not been able to convince any female friends to try the upper body stuff. They are scared of it but I don’t want spindly little arms. Weight training gives you shape and has actually enhanced the waist-hip ratio for me. I never had curves at all; now I’ve got a nice chunky bum and curve around the hips and my tummy has shrunk. I never thought I would have the beginnings of muscle definition in my stomach. I was the only girl in the weights area at my old gym and I just copied what I saw the men doing.

    Polecatz wrote on April 29th, 2011
  8. Explain Serena Williams!!!

    Jenell wrote on May 14th, 2011
  9. Doesn’t matter what you show them. I like to show my lady friends that are worried about “bulking up” pics/footage of Yoon-Jin Hee because she in particular has a lovely feminine form. Doesn’t help to sway them though. They even think she is “too bulky” but guaranteed if they didn’t know she was a strength athlete they wouldn’t say that.

    The only fundamental difference between men and women…men respond favorably to logical arguments!

    Will wrote on May 21st, 2011
  10. It will take courage to lead an existence. Any life.

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    Dennis Vogt wrote on October 25th, 2011
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    Strength training program weight loss wrote on December 6th, 2011
  13. Hate to break it you, folks, but no one is going to take up heavy lifting. Oh, maybe some will try it, but they’ll go back to lighter routines very quickly. That goes for both men and women. Heavy lifting is difficult, its draining, and unless needed for a specific reason (sports?), squating with max weights is the last thing any girl (or guy, now) is going to do to tone her/his flabby ass. Not when they can walk for an hour, do some light lunges, then get a massage.

    Times change.


    bob wrote on January 19th, 2012
  14. I have a question. I have been doing Crossfit 4 X week for 9 weeks now. My pants are tighter in the thighs but I am not fatter. They are a minor amount tighter in the waist but my bulge over the top of the waist band is gone. So my question is, obviously my thighs have gotten bigger from muscle but I have not started to necessarily burn the fat on them yet. When will I see this happen? I am getting frustrated with my pants being tighter. Also, I am following the GAPS diet and I have been on Phase 1 of the intro for 5 weeks.

    Alicia wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  15. Add to all of the other benefits that weightlifting is very good for women’s bones.

    Olivia wrote on March 27th, 2012

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