During the past 15 years, researchers have become more aware of the benefits of strength training for non-athletes. Indeed, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the common American should participate in strength training for the following benefits: improving body composition, increasing lean body mass, increasing basal metabolic rate, improving bone mineral density, improving glucose tolerance and
blood lipid profiles (1).
Everyone should participate in strength training, but strength training is especially advantageous for female EMS professionals. Not only will it increase your efficiency in your job, but it can also help reduce your chance of injuries by increasing your overall strength and helping you more effectively carry out your responsibilities during an emergency (2). Additionally, strength training can prevent the debilitating effects of osteoporosis.
A study by Nelson et al completed in 2004 assessed the effects of 20 post menopausal women who participated in strength training two days a week for one year compared with the results of 19 post-menopausal women who did not strength train for the year (3). At the end of the year, the women who participated in strength training increased their average bone mineral content by 2 grams and the women who did not strength train during this trial saw an average decrease in bone mineral content of 33 grams.
This brings us to ask the following questions: Should females strength train? Should the strength training programs be significantly different for women than men?
To answer these two common questions, it’s important to discuss some of the basics regarding muscle fiber type. In general, there are two major muscle fiber types; logically enough, they’re usually referred to as Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers. Type 1 muscle fibers (also called slow twitch) are usually smaller and are have greater endurance, while Type 2 muscle fibers (also called fast twitch) are larger and can produce larger amounts of force, but they fatigue rather quickly. Each individual has a mix of both Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fiber types through their musculoskeletal system, and is one factor in a person’s strength and endurance potential.
The male hormone testosterone is a major reason men can usually anabolize muscle mass more efficiently than women. Although women do produce low levels of testosterone, on average, they do not produce enough to cause muscular hypertrophy as seen in males. Nonetheless, many women are convinced that their strength training programs should be significantly different than those of their male counterparts.
Because Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers found in women are structurally and biologically the same as men’s, the training principles for women are the same. Thus, there is no need for gender-specific strength training—the programs I’ve covered up to this point are effective for males and females because they’re based on fundamental physiological principles applicable the human musculature regardless of sex.
Misconceptions about Strength Training
Many women are told that in order to develop a feminine physique they should only lift lighter weights with higher repetitions in order to develop a “defined” or “toned” look. They’re convinced that if they lift weights their overall bodyweight will increase, which causes them to gain weight. These misperceptions can be dispelled. First of all, most women don’t have the testosterone levels to develop the musculature a man develops as a result of strength training, so being fearful of developing a grotesque physique is unrealistic; however, women can increase muscle mass.
Increased muscle mass is important because it can also increase basal metabolic rate, i.e., the rate at which calories are expended at rest. When more calories are used at rest our body composition improves. Improvements in body composition are what actually enhance overall definition. So women shouldn’t worry about their overall bodyweight according to the scale; instead, they should pay more attention to body composition and circumference measurements.
The strength training programs I’ve described in my previous columns are perfectly suitable for both females and males because at the molecular level, although there may be differences in muscle fiber type percentages from one individual to the next, our muscular systems will respond in the same manner to an overload stimulus. Next month’s column will detail the physical fitness improvements of a female-specific fitness improvement program.
1. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins: Philadelphia, Pa.: 2000.
2. Brzycki M. A Practical Approach to Strength Training. Masters Press: Indianapolis, Ind.,1995.
3. Nelson M, Fiatarone M, Morganti C, et al. Effects of high-intensity strength training on multiple risk factors for osteoporotic fractures: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA.1994;(272)24:1909–1915.