One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.
In the UK, research shows that 75% of females are keen on a more active lifestyle, but feel intimidated by the gym environment and limited by work and family commitments. For that reason, in 2015 Sport England launched a campaign called This Girl Can to empower females to exercise.
In 2017, a similar survey on 1,000 people in America suggested that almost 65% of females, compared to 36% of males, are too anxious or self-conscious to go to the gym.
Most of the studies done on the transgender population in relation to fitness have focused on sport. Nevertheless, there is evidence that recreational exercisers experience discrimination and other negative experiences, too.
That, along with the amount of articles on how to overcome dysphoria at the gym, proves how hard it can be for female-bodied individuals of any gender to engage in a more active lifestyle.
So it’s important to find ways to increase our self-esteem and motivation. And what better way than knowledge?
With resistance training, in particular, we have the potential to accomplish great things. Unfortunately, we often underestimate that potential. When confronted with some buff gym bro, we think, “Why should I bother?”
For cis girls, the question stops there. For trans guys, it could become, “Why should I bother until I’m on testosterone?”
This lack of belief in ourselves can be a hard or impossible obstacle to overcome.
But what can this body do for us? What can we do for ourselves?
A lot, it turns out.
In this article, I’m going to give you three reasons why you should feel more confident in the gym.
Reason #1 – More Work, Better Recovery, Less Acute Fatigue
When intensity is equated, female-bodied lifters may be able to do a few more reps in a set. For instance, if a male-bodied exerciser were to do six reps at a certain intensity, a female-bodied exerciser could do seven or eight reps at the same relative intensity.
Moreover, female-bodied individuals may be able to handle a few more sets per muscle group per week. Where the basic recommendation is 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle or muscle group, depending on training experience and goals, female-bodied individuals may be able to recover and also make more gains from about 12 to 24 sets.
There is too little research on female-bodied athletes to explain this difference with any great certainty. One argument is that female bodies are smaller, so the blood travels a shorter distance from the heart to the muscles in order to deliver oxygen and nutrients during exercise. As a result, the muscles fatigue more slowly thanks to a more efficient blood, oxygen, and nutrient supply.
Furthermore, female bodies have a greater percentage of Type I slow twitch muscle fibres than male bodies. Slow twitch fibres enable you to perform endurance activities, whereas Type II fast twitch muscle fibres give you more power. This means that, with a higher proportion of slow twitch fibres, you are better suited to handle high reps.
Lastly, it seems that, due to higher recovery capabilities, female-bodied lifters may be able to endure and benefit from a higher training frequency per muscle group per week. For instance, they could make better gains with full body workouts than with splits, provided they don’t overshoot the amount of total weekly volume they can sustain.
All of the above may be important because volume is one of the main variables causing hypertrophy. Being smaller, female bodies tend to lift lighter weights. This amounts to a lower total volume than what a male-bodied lifter may be capable of.
For this reason, performing more reps or sets or increasing training frequency above traditional recommendations for average male-bodied lifters could be a way to close that gap.
Reason #2 – Female Bodies Don’t Need Testosterone for Gains
To be fair, testosterone does give male-bodied lifters a heads-up. A beginner male-bodied lifter is stronger than a beginner female-bodied one.
Past the untrained state, though, muscle growth and strength gains over the long term appear to be equal across the gender spectrum. In fact, it looks like female-bodied lifters may be able to gain a bit more in relation to their initial lower strength level.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to get hung up on the absolute load we put on the bar, which may result in frustration and disappointment.
Instead, it should be a source of pride.
For one, not only is a female body smaller in size. It also carries less muscle mass than fat compared to a male body, especially in the arms and torso. Moreover, female bodies are subject to the menstrual cycle, a highly fatiguing life rhythm, on top of all the other stressors that everyone experiences on a regular basis.
Despite all that, the rate at which relative strength and hypertrophy increase appear to be similar regardless of gender. How cool is that?
Reason #3 – Oestrogen: An Unexpected Ally
Oestrogen makes you fat. Oestrogen hampers muscle growth. In short, oestrogen is the lean, strong female-bodied lifter’s biggest enemy. Or is it?
Many believe that oestrogen causes food cravings and encourages a higher energy expenditure, especially in certain phases of the menstrual cycle.
Instead, oestrogen may work in conjunction with or in a similar way to leptin, a hormone that tells us at which point of a meal we are sated. Moreover, if oestrogen levels are normal or high, they seem to blunt appetite.
Nevertheless, success in a fat loss phase depends on many factors aside from hormones, which we have no control over. On the other hand, we have total control over adherence, diet and training quality, stress, and sleep.
Rather than blaming oestrogen for something it might not even be doing, addressing the other factors will improve the chances of a positive outcome.
We also tend to think that oestrogen cripples strength and hypertrophy outcomes. In fact, it actually helps build muscle.
There is also a chance it may protect muscles from damage and improve recovery after training.
Oestrogen only causes problems when it’s out of whack.
If it’s too low, the risk for bone density loss skyrockets. An inadequate amount of oestrogen also speeds up the loss of muscle mass and strength. On the other hand, oestrogen replacement therapy has been shown to decrease these losses and reduce the accumulation of body fat in post-menopausal female bodies.
Not something you may want to consider as a trans guy, but, for a cis woman with low oestrogen levels (if you have amenorrhea, for example), HRT could do wonders.
How Important are These Differences?
Although I believe that making some adjustments to your training, based on what was discussed in this article, might improve your results, keep in mind that individual differences ultimately trump generalisations.
For instance, weekly volume may be much more dependent on your personal recovery capabilities and on your training experience than on your gender. So, if you try doing more reps in a set or more total weekly sets and your performance and recovery take a drastic hit, dial it back a notch.
On the other hand, if you are sticking to a lower frequency, like an upper/lower or body part split, and you aren’t seeing much progress, then this article might inspire you to try out full-body workouts instead.
Empowering cis women and transgender people is one of my goals as a developing fitness professional, so this article is very close to my heart. If you enjoyed it, please share it with all those who might benefit from it.
If you want to read more in-depth research, you should definitely check out all the links provided. These articles, studies, and podcasts are some of the best resources that have informed my own research.
In Future Episodes:
Next week’s special guest is the menstrual cycle. Tune in to find out how it works and how it may affect training, fat loss, and muscle gain!
What is one thing about yourself that makes you feel comfortable in your body?
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