Gender Differences in Strength Training

From the Show: Talk Fitness Today
Summary: Do women and men need to train differently when it comes to building strength?
Air Date: 8/31/17
Duration: 23:05
Host: Lisa Davis, MPH
Guest Bio: Lee Boyce, Strength Coach
Lee-BoyceLee Boyce is a strength coach, professional writer and speaker based in Toronto, Ontario.

His work has been featured in many of the largest magazines in the world and he regularly appears on TV and Radio to talk fitness.
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  • Guest Twitter Account: @coachleeboyce
Gender Differences in Strength Training
Many women avoid strength training because they believe it will make them "bulky." 

Do women and men need to train differently when it comes to building strength? 

According to Lee Boyce, a strength coach based in Toronto, Ontario, the "bulky" claim is more a myth than anything. "The truth of the matter is even though there are some differences training-wise between weightlifting men and weightlifting women, at its very core there’s nothing to be afraid of.  There’s no reason why the two can’t train pretty much the same in the general standpoint."

In fact, it's a more fair assessment to look at training from a beginner vs. advanced perspective.

Listen as Lee joins host Lisa Davis to discuss strength training and offer some tips for both men and women, across the board.

**See below for full transcript of this interview.

Gender Differences in Strength Training with Lee Boyce

Lisa Davis (Host): Hi, I’m Lisa Davis. You’ve probably heard me on, Talk Healthy Today. Well, now we’ve got Talk Fitness, Today. We want to get fit. We want to get pumped. We want to get strong. We want to feel good. We want our bodies to work well. We want to look good. There’s so many great things about fitness, and we’re going to be covering them all, as a matter of fact. We have a fantastic show today. We’ve got Lee Boyce. He’s a strength coach, professional writer, and speaker based in Toronto, Ontario. His work has been featured in many of the largest magazines in the world, and he regularly appears on TV and radio to talk fitness. So psyched he’s here. Hello, Lee. Welcome to, “Talk Fitness, Today.”

Lee Boyce (Guest): Hi, thank you.

Lisa: It’s great to have you on. All right, so let’s talk about gender differences in strength training because I’ve heard from women – and I bet you’ve heard this too – “Oh, I don’t want to lift weights because I’m going to get really bulky.” Well, let me tell you, I am five-ten, and I am pretty lean, and I lift weights, and I’m not bulky, so that’s it. I guess that’s the end of the show, right? No, I’m just joking [LAUGHTER].

Anyway, let’s talk about this. What have you heard from women, and what do we need to keep in mind when we’re talking about gender differences in strength training?

Lee: There’s a lot of stuff that -- social stigma reinforces these ideas of thinking without really looking into it a little bit further. It’s good to actually get in touch with some kind of experts or expert sources where you can learn the truth about it. The truth is that yes, what I do hear is that there’s a lot of women who do often say to me as a trainer, and so on, “I don’t want to get too big. I don’t want to get bulky. I don’t want to lift heavier weights or anything like that.” It’s usually an area that causes a little bit of fear and trepidation for people so that they gravitate toward cardio, and they gravitate toward really, really light weights if they touch weight at all. It is something that definitely needs to be addressed. The truth of the matter is even though there are some differences training-wise between weightlifting men and weightlifting women, at its very core there’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s no reason why the two can’t train pretty much the same in the general standpoint.

Lisa: Well, that is good to know. One of the things that I love to do is Pilates, and I do an intermediate Pilates, so you can actually put more resistance. When we’re talking about strength training, it’s not necessarily weights; it can be – I’m asking you – like Pilates, or body weight exercises, or even Yoga that can be very intense, or those resistant bands? Do you count that as well, as strength training?

Lee: Well, you see, strength training in the sense of it being training with resistance and making muscles work against resistance? Yes, all of those things that you listed there--

Lisa: Yes.

Lee: Definitely do fall under that category. When it comes to training strength in the absolute sense, meaning we’re actually making increases in our top end-strength, and our real contractile force, and so on, it’s going to get kind of difficult to get away from just traditional barbell and dumbbell – just traditional weight training methods just because of the fact that when we want to get the intensity – meaning the weight lifted up to a certain point -- we’re going to have to use stuff that’s heavy enough. A lot of times resistance bands or Pilates might not cut it. Body weight might not cut it either. It does limit your options in terms of just how far you can take it and really train that and hone in on your top end-strength. But, resistance training – it’s funny that you say that because it does take on several different forms, and all of a sudden lifting 20 pounds in the form of a dumbbell can take on a different mental approach – it can apply itself differently in the mind of a woman versus lifting 20 pounds equivalent in resistance with a band. All right, so --

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Lee: It is very, very interesting.

Lisa: Now, it might – for example, if a woman like me who’s been doing something that is resistance training and wants to go to weights, it might not be as far as a leap because you just gave that great example. And so maybe that will help with the resistance. What about women who really aren’t active at all, and they want to start a weight training program using free weights? What’s the best way to go about that?

Lee: I would say that the best way to go about it is to start in the most general sense rather than going too specific or going too advanced with your programming. A lot of times -- there’s a lot of experts who will give out information, or write books, or whatever, on topics of weight training. All of the information is very credible and very good, but it might cater to an audience that is outside of your particular realm of capability at this time.

The real order of the day for a lot of beginners has to be on developing foundation based strength, or really, foundational – just beginning level strength, which means that you might want to focus on very simplistic lists to do that like working with perfecting your squat pattern and your hinge pattern – which would be like the deadlift – and your overhead press. Just getting the basic, fundamental, primal movement patterns, and getting those ingrained and just set in stone so that you can then start making progressions from there. Starting light is also a good idea, too. You don’t want to overdo it before you just get the form right.

Lisa: When I ask this for women, it sounds like it’s the same answer for men?

Lee: It is. It’s 100% the same. That’s what I said at the outset, is the fact that, at its core, we can really train exactly the same way, women and men. There’s nothing to be afraid of at all. The same protocol with all of my clients – I use exactly the same protocol, and I start making modifications based on the individual.

Lisa: Now, what about machines versus free weights?

Lee: Again, it’s tailored toward two things. First of all, the intermediacy of the client, and second of all, what the client’s particular goals are. Those are the two things that I examine before I prescribe machines versus – a highly-isolated machine versus something like a compound movement that I listed a little bit earlier on. If your goals are a little bit more cosmetic, and you have aesthetic based goals where you want to maybe develop a certain area of your body a little bit more than another area of the body, it might benefit for you to use an isolation machine, like, for example, a prone hamstring curl machine, or a pec deck fly machine or something like that where it really zeroes in on the muscle in question. In the general sense, though, those isolated machines might have a little bit of a disadvantage to them, too. For example, the fact that using vital stabilizing muscles might be out of the picture for that because they’re coming along for the ride since you’re on a track now.

Lisa: I see.

Lee: Versus using free weights where you’re in the situation where you do have to use your stabilizers – you’re doing compound exercises that involve multiple joints, and all of that as a byproduct will mean – it will mean that the byproduct will be you’re burning a little bit more calories. You’re increasing your metabolic demand, and you might be shedding more body fat or potentiating more shed body fat. All of those things, for a lot of people, that might be the general goal is to get in better conditioning, better shape in the sense of dropping body fat, losing weight, and so on. In that case, it might be a better idea for you to go for the compound movements and dropping out of the machines, or not having too many of them implemented into your program.

It’s also just a very good training tool in general just from the learning standpoint to know the compound lifts pretty well and be able to stabilize a lot of your own movements that are involving multiple joints before you go into the isolation style training. There’s a pro and con for both methods. I don’t deny or not advocate one. It’s very situation-based.

Lisa: All right, that makes sense. What I’m thinking is if you’re doing just the machines then you’re probably going to end up – let’s say you want really big biceps. What’s going to happen to your triceps? They’re going to be out of balance, and I think that’s what you’re getting at, right -- with the compound exercises? If you could break that down a little bit more for people, who aren’t sure what that exactly means?

Lee: Yeah, so, first of all, let’s say -- your point of getting out of balance. There’s a lot more thinking you have to do with the isolation machines if you do want to find and promote that balance just based on the size of the muscles, and so on -- if you want to do a two-to-one ratio between a back machine exercise versus a chest machine exercise, and so on. You do have to think about a little bit more when you’re isolating like that.

On the subject of compound movements, once again, it’s multiple joints that are active at the same time. An exercise like a squat is a good example of a compound movement because you have movement at the knee, movement at the hip. You have the bar on your back or on your shoulders. This is an exercise that involves many, many muscles at the same time, and therefore it falls under that category of compound. Compared to the biceps example you said before – like a bicep curl or a preacher curl – that’s one joint that’s active, and it’s just moving in a hinge pattern. You’re only going to hit one muscle or one or two muscles at most. So yes, there’s a big difference between a compound and the single-joint isolation exercises, and it’s something that’s worth knowing about.

Lisa: Yeah, it definitely is. I would recommend that people work with a trainer. Do they hire a personal trainer, or can they work with a trainer that works for the gym? What do you recommend for someone, especially if they’re nervous or new and concerned about injury prevention? And about staying balanced or getting balanced?

Lee: Yeah, 100% working with a professional – working with a trainer. I would always advocate that before anything else. There’s obviously going to be a few things to look out for in terms of what the capabilities of the trainer are because of the fact that – just like any injury, there’s going to be people who are stronger and people who are weaker from a skill level perspective. There is going to be some professionals who are a little bit better or more experienced or just more adept at their job, and there’s going to be people who aren’t.

Taking the time to sit back, maybe even doing a little bit of research into just what basic training should be like, and so on, it’s going to be a good way for you to gauge who is a stronger trainer and who’s not. What are their professionalism levels like on the gym floor when you see them and when you observe them? How are they cuing you? Are they very hands-on? Are they very descriptive with the things that they have to say to help you understand about your body and about the exercise and the movements? These are things to ask yourself when you’re looking at hiring a trainer, but I will always recommend working with a professional if you do not know what you’re doing in the gym because it’s only going to help you A, stay safe, and B, reach your goals much more attainably and sustainably.

Lisa: I’d love to know from you, what was the turning point for you to take your health and your fitness to the next level? What encouraged you to help others?

Lee: It goes back a long way, to be honest with you. I was always the kid who was into sports, and I played a lot of sports when I was in school. In high school, I played on a bunch of different sports teams as well. When I found out that kinesiology was a high school course I could actually try out in my senior year; I thought, “Hey, this is what I like to do. Plus, it’s an academic course like Phys Ed, but in class. That’s really cool.” I took the course, and I liked it so much I took it another time. After I did really well in it the first time, I liked it again.

With that said, I followed that into University, and I ran track in University, as well. It just went hand in hand with one another, and it was coming to the junction – this point in time where I was like, okay, if I want to start working, what do I want to do? Do I want to work with people in a clinical setting, maybe try to become a Physio or a Chiro and follow that path? I thought to myself, and I said, “You know what? In light of the fact that I’ve dealt with injuries myself and I know what that feels like, I’d rather work with people to be healthy and stay healthy, and not work with injured people. If I can prevent it before it happens, even better.” It was the choice between working with injured people and working with healthy people and trying to keep them out of the injury zone. That’s why I chose the direction that I went in terms of being a trainer and coaching clients and athletes to just get stronger, and be fit, and be healthy.

Lisa: It’s funny because I was thinking of going into physical therapy or occupational therapy, and then I ended up getting my Master’s in Public Health. I think I also wanted to work with prevention. Let’s teach people how to be healthy. Let’s do things that are going to help them before the issue happens, so I think that make so much sense. Now, is there somebody that you really admire in the health and fitness industry that also went, “You know what? I really look up to this person, and I want to do the type of work that they’re doing,” or is it just something within yourself? Or both?

Lee: I look up to a whole lot of people in the industry, to be honest with you. Especially being a writer in the industry, all of the people who I read from first to be anywhere near the same platforms that they are on just to be in that arena is quite the honor. I could list you dozens of people that I’ve learned from by getting my start, in the first five years especially, of me developing as a trainer. People like Mike Robertson or Chad Waterbury, Charles Poliquin, had a lot of good information as well -- Mark Richter. I can literally list a couple dozen people right off the top of the head that were extremely influential, even -- many of whom I haven’t even met before -- in order to really, really up my training game from the things that I read and the things that I took to the gym, and apply not only with my own training but with training my clients, too. It really helped, and likewise, it helped me as a writer, as well in terms of just their actual technical skill of writing in how they got their points across, and how comprehensive their articles and their books were.

Lisa: What are some of your favorite ways to train?

Lee: I’ve gone through a few different methods, but I guess I’d have to say just general hypertrophy -- like the old-school bodybuilding style -- is probably my favorite way to train for a couple of reasons. I am a stickler for strength. I really like training the heavy three-rep-max category, as well. I really like that a lot. The thing is, is that it’s just stressful on your nervous system, and it’s stressful on the body. There’s nothing that anyone can do to get away from that one aspect of it. For that reason, if you’re not 100% on point in other aspects of your life like sleep, and nutrition, and so on, you can really get hurt. You can get injured. All of a sudden, you tweak a muscle or something in your spine doesn’t feel too right and all of a sudden, it’s really putting you off.

The hypertrophy training, where you’re in that eight-rep range to maybe twelve reps, or eight reps to fifteen reps -- or you’re doing supersets or compound sets, and different ways to extend your sets or manipulate your repetitions to make them really burn, these are methods that – you’re using less weight, and so the load that you’re dealing with – even though you’re doing more repetitions with it, the load that you’re dealing with is something your body can handle a little bit better. It also has a doubling effect in the fact that you’re really kicking into your conditioning, as well. Doing a set of two, then three, then five, then ten squats as a giant set of twenty with these little breaks in between. You’re going to be breathing heavy for the rest of the day after you do stuff like that [LAUGHTER] compared to doing heavy sets of two or three repetitions.

At the end of the day you’re going to get a little bit more in terms of just general health, I’d say, training for more of a hypertrophy method of training or training for a little bit more of a body-building style – and I use the term loosely, but using a bodybuilding style of training because it will attack your conditioning a lot more effectively.

Lisa: That’s great. Now, what would you say is the most important thing you do every day for optimum health?

Lee: I would say probably focus on a little bit of mobility work. I’m definitely not the walking, talking example of being the healthiest person in terms of diet, or the healthiest person in terms of making sure that I get every workout in every day scheduled. I’m not a great example of that at all, to be honest with you. Whether it’s a setback, or whether it’s negligence, or just being busy, or whether it’s just having cravings, or whatever it is. So no, I’m not the best example of that.

One thing that I do try to do is a little bit of mobility work daily, even if that means just doing some body weight deep squatting and doing some thoracic mobility stuff, maybe even a little bit of foam rolling to take a look at your tissue quality, and so on. These are things that will just help keep your mobility and keep your joints doing what they’re supposed to do. I’m a pretty big guy, so with a lot of muscle mass on your body, it’s easy to start getting tight and start losing range-of-motion, especially if you’re really promoting exactly that when you’re in the gym training heavy or lifting for bodybuilding. Stuff to build more muscle.

At the end of the day, it’s that mobility work and making sure that your shoulders and your hips have that full range, and that your muscles have that elasticity. It’s really, really important, especially as people get older and older.

Lisa: Now, do you take daily supplements and vitamins, and do you have any that are your go-to?

Lee: I’m not a supplement guy, to be honest with you. I’m not. I have a lot of friends who are really, really big into it. Part of the reason is just lack of discipline in that department. I’m not going to lie. But another thing about it is the fact that there’s a lot of conflicting views on supplements and the use of many of them. I think that a couple are probably pretty good, like using fish oils, for example, and your omega’s, and so on.

Generally, I just try – when I’m good – to try to eat good, balanced meals, get your macronutrients in on point, have adequate amounts of protein, limit the amounts of starchy carbohydrates, and so on, and just really – get your green vegetables in, and so on. These are all good ideas, just starting from a basic level like that because I think that a lot of people complicate things prematurely. Just like how we were talking about with weight training, and how people might skip ahead two steps and get a program that’s more advanced than their actual level of capabilities, people go that way with food, as well. Often times, whereas they could just make a simple tweak to their diet, or focus on eating in a timely fashion, eating whole foods, and eating proper food groups, and so on, and how that’s going to enhance their training, all of a sudden, people are gravitating towards a lot of supplements and a lot of externals. It might not be the best way to bridge the gap.

Lisa: Yeah, I hear you. I think it’s so important to focus on the whole foods, and if people like to supplement and take vitamins, I think that’s great, as well. But I think you have to make the food the real deal, right? And it’s got to be whole food. It’s got to be real food, not fake food. What’s in your gym bag? Anything interesting in there? [LAUGHTER].

Lee: I’m actually looking at it right now. In my gym bag, let’s see. I have a couple of bands. I have a couple of ab wheels, as well. It’s pretty cool. I have the – you know the classic ab wheel where you hold on to the double handle, and it’s one wheel? I have one where it’s two individual wheels, and they’re on pivots – they’re on bearings, so you can actually move your hands outwards or towards each other, and so on. It’s pretty good.

Lisa: Oh, that’s cool.

Lee: I have that. I’ve got a pair of boxing gloves for a lot of conditioning stuff that I’ve been doing over the course of the spring and over the winter. I’ve been doing a little bit of boxing. I have TRX in my gym bag, as well.

Lisa: I love TRX.

Lee: Yeah, some suspension training. I’ve got a pair of Olympic lifting shoes, as well, so that I have a pair of shoes to change into if I wanted to squat or do the Olympic lift. A good little purchase there. Other than that, I have a Lacrosse ball, just for some self-myofascial release and some tissue release. I have a little bit of a larger Lacrosse ball for areas of the bigger surface area, and my foam roller is there, as well, which usually doesn’t fit because of all of the other stuff.

Lisa: Okay, how huge is this bag? I’m thinking you don’t even need to lift weights; you can just do curls with this bag [LAUGHTER]. It sounds – can you fit it in your car?

Lee: The bag is deceiving because it’s like a medium-size or a small-size bag, but it seems bottomless with all the stuff that I can throw in there.

Lisa: It makes me think of, “The Cat and the Hat Knows a Lot About That,” on PBS Kids. And yes, my daughter is 12, but we used to watch it when she was young, and the cat can pull a million things out of his hat, right? I’m picturing you pulling all of these things – what was the thing you mentioned again, with the wheel, and where do you get that? What is that? Tell us that again. You said it has the two-sided thing?

Lee: It’s just a pair of -- I think they're called Core Wheels if I’m not mistaken. They’re called Core Wheels, and they honestly look like a pair of rollerblade wheels in a way, that are attached by a -- two wheels on either side attached by handles. They look like dumbbells except the ends are wheels instead of the ends being weights, right? You just have a pair of them, and they attach with bearings, and you can just roll with them, like being able to roll a pair of dumbbells – like a pair of ten-pound or five-pound dumbbells -- except they’re less than a half a pound each.

They’re perfect for just multidirectional ab-rollout movements. They create a great challenge that a lot of times the ab wheel itself – the standard ab wheel could be a little bit more demanding, or could be a little bit harder to work with. When you do have two wheels, you can keep one hand planted straight under your body and roll out with the other hand. And so then, all of a sudden, you have a little bit of a way to bridge the gap to make something a little bit easier for you when you do a rollout. I really like that tool. It’s a really good buy, and they're not too expensive. Core Wheels, I’m not too sure of a website or anything like that. I didn’t think I’d be plugging them right now, but they weren’t expensive [LAUGHTER]. They were probably like 20 or 30 dollars, as well, so that’s pretty good.

Lisa: It sounds cool. Lee, you’re awesome, and you have such great information. I’m so thrilled that you came on today because I think the more we can learn, we can work out, we can be stronger, we can look better and feel better. It’s so important – do you have any last thoughts about gender differences between men and women when it comes to strength training?

Lee: I would tell women to not be afraid of hypertrophy training either. That would be the number one thing that I’d have to say is that women shouldn’t be afraid of training for added muscle or training to build muscle. Again, it’s not an unsafe way to train. It’s probably one of the safest methods of weight training if you ask me, and it’s still going to – number two is that mass gains and building mass as a woman is not – physiologically, studies have shown that it’s not quite as fast a process for women to build muscle and develop themselves as a man does. For that reason, it’s even more important that a woman focuses on actually building a little bit of muscle because it’s going to help correct their frames. It’s going to help improve posture, and it’s going to help just sustain healthy joints, as well, and avoid injury in the process. It’s a really, really good thing to look into and consider doing.

Lisa: Well, Lee, this has been fantastic. Tell us all of the ways we can learn more about you and all of the great work you’re doing?

Lee: I have a website,, and I also can be found on Facebook. The Facebook handle is CoachLeeBoyce, and Twitter also has the same handle, it’s CoachLeeBoyce. I’m usually on those three forms of social media, and so all of the articles that I write, which I publish very, very often, they are always funneled to all three of those different places. Usually, the first one that it gets loaded up on to is Facebook, and then Twitter, and then it will come up onto my website, as well.

On my website is also an active blog where I usually cover a different counterintuitive topic about things that I see in the industry that might not be directly training related but affecting its culture as a whole and the socio-cultural perspectives of fitness. It’s a really good way of looking at things from a different perspective and outside the box, and so on, and it’s a pretty editorial commentary.

Lisa: Well, Lee, I definitely want to have you back. There’s so much to talk about. I want to thank everybody, so much, for listening. If you’re looking for expert health and fitness tips, you can trust, plus inspirational stories in mental and physical transformation, “What’s Good” is your new favorite spot online. On the road to becoming your best self, swing by, again, for some helpful pointers. You can also check us out at “Talk Fitness Today” at TalkFitness2Day on Twitter. We’re also on Instagram. This has been so much fun. I look forward to getting stronger every day here on “Talk Fitness Today.” Stay well.


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