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Do current training recommendations cut it for female strength athletes? Read to find out!

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

OVERVIEW: Is there a difference in the recommended rep and set ranges for women attempting to maximize strength in their upper body versus their lower body? Let's dive into this subject. The current recommendation for strength-focused training is 2-6 reps for 2-6 sets. This advice is not gender-specific and generally applies to all body parts. However, a research article I am sharing this week proposes that there may be different recommendations for women aiming to increase strength in their lower body compared to their upper body.

AIM: Due to the underrepresentation of women in resistance training studies, this study aimed to identify existing gaps in knowledge and expand the field's understanding. Their goal was to provide specific training recommendations for women that can optimize their muscle strength.

BACKGROUND: In this study, muscle strength was determined by a 1 rep max, which refers to the maximum amount of weight an individual can lift for one repetition. However, it's worth noting that only 39% of participants in current resistance training research are women, indicating that the current recommendations for building maximum strength are primarily based on a male population. This is a crucial point, as women have different hormones, bone structure, and of course, we menstruate! Which can significantly impact their training ability. For instance, during the follicular phase (high estrogen phase) post-period, women tend to perform better, whereas the luteal phase (high progesterone and estrogen) can lead to PMS symptoms and decreased performance. To further explore the differences between female and male athletes, I recommend reading Dr. Stacy Sims' book ROAR. This study questions if the current 2-6 rep range is effective for women looking to build strength, as it's primarily based on research involving male participants. This study analyzed 31 studies with 621 participants to identify trends that could inform better recommendations for female strength training.

PARTICIPANTS: This study involved women aged 18 years or above (pre-menopause) who were physically and mentally healthy. The participants were categorized as either beginners (18 studies) or experienced (13 studies). The study excluded participants with a BMI greater than 30, as well as those who were ‘chronically underweight’, due to the potentially negative impact on hormonal cycles. Notably, only four studies recorded and considered the participants' menstrual cycles. Of these studies, two included women taking oral contraceptives, while the others did not. Therefore, excluding women based solely on their BMI status without considering their menstrual cycles or testing their hormones is not an accurate portrayal of their hormonal health. Let's now return to the study at hand.

RESULTS: The assessment of lower body strength involved numerous exercises such as the leg press, leg extension, hamstring curl, squat, deadlift, and additional movements. Similarly, upper body strength was evaluated through exercises like bicep curls, shoulder press, bench press, cable rows, lat pull-downs, and various other exercises. These exercises comprised a combination of compound and isolation movements, free weights, and machines, making it challenging to compare them. However, let's see what they concluded. The research found that the largest strength improvements, measured by a one-rep max, occurred within the 1-6 rep range with two training sessions per week for the lower body, aligning with current recommendations. In contrast, upper body strength improvements were more substantial in the 13-20 rep range, with three training sessions per week, which is more in line with endurance training and possibly hypertrophy - this was shocking!


The study made the following conclusions:

  • Experienced trained women can increase their lower body strength at a quicker rate than upper body strength weekly:

    • I see this all the time with clients, women in general tend to be stronger in their lower body and therefore can typically make large jumps from week to week

  • For upper body resistance training in the 13-20 rep range might be more advantageous:

    • I have not seen this myself, but I would be interested to see how training with this much volume would cross over to maximum strength.

  • To optimize strength in the lower body it may be best to train it only twice a week while the upper body would benefit from three sessions weekly:

    • This is the opposite of what I typically have clients do. Mostly because my clients are looking for building size, not strength (hypertrophy) but also because my clients want to build their legs. I have a few opinions on this:

1. Legs undergo more strain during training and may require additional recovery time. Hence, it's reasonable to consider training them twice a week to facilitate optimal recovery and pave the way for maximum strength.

2. The phrase "upper body" includes all muscle groups in the upper region of the body, including the back, biceps, triceps, chest, and shoulders. Hence, suggesting a "3x per week" upper-body workout plan may be too broad, depending on the athlete's desired outcome. Suppose their goal is to increase bench press strength. In that case, a generic upper-body workout regimen may not suffice. Instead, they may require a specialized workout program that focuses on the chest muscles, with a diverse range of repetitions, sets, and training techniques.

  • According to the study, experienced, trained women exhibited a greater increase in lower body strength as compared to upper body strength each week. However, there was no notable distinction between beginners in this regard.

    • Now this one shocked me and I am going to have to disagree based on my personal, hands-on training experience. In my experience, I've found it quite feasible to progress most of my clients from a bodyweight hip thrust to a 100lb hip thrust within the first month of training. However, increasing their bench press by even 10lbs over a month can be quite challenging, irrespective of their level of experience. It's worth noting that some of the studies cited only lasted four weeks, which hardly constitutes a full training phase. Furthermore, there was significant variability in the training styles utilized, leading me to question the validity of the conclusion drawn.

MY THOUGHTS: Although the study aimed to control for variables that could impact the evaluation of women's strength and the consequent recommendations, there appear to be several limitations in the research.

  • The menstrual cycle appears to be an afterthought in the studies referenced. Although hormonal health was considered a concern, there doesn't appear to be any hormone testing. Moreover, menstrual cycles were not even tracked, making it difficult to evaluate the participants' internal processes and how they may have affected their strength-building.

  • What were they eating?! Dietary habits, a crucial aspect of training recovery and performance, were not evaluated. It's unclear whether the beginners were consuming appropriate nutrition compared to experienced women, or if they were even eating enough to support their strength training.

  • I apologize, but it's not appropriate to compare the effectiveness of a bicep curl with that of a bench press. These are two entirely different exercises that target different muscle groups. Therefore, it's not sensible to compare them from a training perspective. This is how strength was compared throughout the study.

MY RECOMMENDATIONS: I believe that women aiming to increase strength in any particular body part should train it at least 2-3 times per week using a "strength" rep range (2-6), as well as focusing on hypertrophy, power, and endurance styles as well. In case you are seeking to increase upper body maximum strength, I would still train in the 2-6 rep range, but also experiment with volume work on your third gym day to optimize your strength gains.

For those interested in reading the article CLICK HERE! Thanks for reading & and welcome to The Holistic Approach! -Sami Runshaw, RD


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