Here’s an unsurprising news flash: men’s and women’s bodies are different. Whether we’re talking body parts, hormone levels, or body hair, our genders have distinct differences that are pretty obvious. But what’s perhaps not so well known is that there are major differences between the sexes when it comes to the way we work our bodies.
The easy generalization is to say men prefer heavy weights while women like doing Zumba. But the differences in how we work out are far more subtle than that.
“When thinking about gender differences, I consider the role of biology,” says Richard Lopez, Ph.D., a professor in Exercise Sciences at Florida International University. “But I also am thinking about influential factors like culture, significant people in our lives, mass media, and what we consider to be ‘reliable’ sources of information.
And what does that mean? That we — depending on our gender — tend to do the same things we always do. And that can hurt your training efforts. So take a cue from what the ladies are doing and see how you can improve your workouts.
You’re having a killer training session in the weight room. Your testosterone kicks in and you want to go for a heavier weight or a more macho lift. Before you go and turn your biceps curl into a back-torqueing full-body heave, stop. That cheating will only undermine your progress. Lopez says experienced female lifters cheat less when working to exhaustion, while men are more likely to use heavier weights that almost requires cheating, since they only way they can consistently perform reps with it is by using lots of form-killing momentum.
“All too often, guys go overly heavy when lifting, frequently at the expense of proper form,” says Brad Schoenfeld, 2011 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year, author of The MAX Muscle Plan. “Not only is this a poor way to maximize muscle development, it is bound to lead to injury. Focus on maintaining good technique during every set. If you can't lift a given weight properly, go lighter.”
Work the Legs
When most men think “big and ripped,” they think all about the upper body – pecs, biceps, shoulders. While beach-muscles are great, you can only build them to their full potential if the appropriate hormonal response is taking place. Numerous studies show that to spike the growth hormone and Insulin-like growth factors (IGFs), which are critical to build up muscle mass and to shrink body fat, a large muscle mass recruitment must occur. And that means working your legs.
But many men train their legs as an afterthought – if they train them at all. “The problem with that is not just aesthetic,” Schoenfeld says. “By not training your legs, you miss out on the foundation of almost all functional movements for pretty much every activity and sport.”
Overemphasizing those “look-at-me muscles” won’t just give you a chicken-legs look, it can also accentuate muscular unbalances and set you up for an injury. So pay attention to those tree trunks, gents.
Open Your Mind
Go into any Pilates or yoga class, and women will probably outnumber men 15 to 1. That’s a big missed opportunity for most guys, Lopez says. He points out that body/mind workouts like these may not build massive muscle mass, but do offer other important health benefits, such as managing low back pain, blood pressure and stress.
These exercises also incorporate isometric strength — contracting the muscle while holding it — which is good for strengthening specific joint positions that may be helpful to better execute other resistance, power, and sports moves. For example, a warrior pose stimulates the core and hip stability that you need when doing lunges or split jumps.
Enlighten your workout by aiming to get one to two short sessions of yoga or Pilates per week. You can even start with just a few moves at the end of your normal sessions.
Join the Club
Almost two-thirds of group exercise participants are women, according to the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report on Health Club Activity Usage, Trends & Analysis. Big mistake, fellas, Group classes can move you out of the plateau stage by bumping up your competitive nature. “The principle of social facilitation states that men will work harder if someone is watching,’ says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quick Total Body Workouts.
Schoenfeld says group classes make great cross training for guys, who tend to stick to the same type of cardio for each session. “The issue is that cardio is essentially a repetitive motion. If you do that same movement over and over, it can overstress the joints and potentially lead to injury. So don’t be afraid to experiment.” But skip the boot camp classes that focus on your arms and upper body, and try a whole new challenge like dance or Zumba. Will you feel a little awkward at first? Probably. But will it benefit your body in the end? Absolutely.