“Men train for aesthetics, where as women train for application. This statement is bold, but is saturated with truth,” says Jay Cardiello, certified strength and conditioning coach and the creator of JCORE.
Before you think this takes your chest press exercise too far, think twice. When was the last time you really worked out your hips? Men, may need to think about it, while women could give you a breakdown of reps and sets. But ladies when was the last time you performed a barbell chest press? (Yes, I’m not talking about a cable chest press. I’m talking about sitting on the men’s bench).
If you’re not a trainer, you may not notice this gender disparity when training, but the truth is that while men overemphasize the mirror muscles—chest, anterior part of the shoulders, and biceps—women neglect exercises needed for strength—chest press, barbell deadlift, among others—while overemphasizing the hip muscles.
Nevertheless, Cardiello considers women may be smarter than men when training. “Women train on a Prehab level, in order to create symmetry, balance and posterior strength, which avoids Rehab(ilitation) or injury,” he says. “Men choose anterior-overloaded protocols that create nothing more than an asymmetrical, imbalanced shell. This overdeveloped imbalance does nothing more than create a shorter road to Rehab(ilitation) or injury.”
Venus and Mars Fitness
Neither women nor men should feel guilty about their workouts of choice if they understand where these exercise preferences come from. This way you can adjust your workout and not get trapped on anatomic and other body composition issues that are intrinsic to your gender.
Without getting into complex exercise physiology, let’s say that men have more body mass and less body fat than women. But the way this tissue is distributed across the body also differs. Men have more upper muscle mass than women and tend to accumulate more belly fat—until women reach menopause in which this fat pattern disposition levels up—while women have less upper muscle mass and tend to accumulate fat around the hips.
This muscle mass to body fat ratio may explain why guys love the bench press, while women—in their restless effort to “shrink” the hips—love anything that means “squeeze the glutes."
However, the truth that men are stronger than women fades when compared to relative values in which some studies show that women may exhibit 53% of the strength of males in the bench press, and a stunning 106% of the strength of males in the leg muscles—when scores are adjusted by weight and body fat.
Another anatomic difference that may explain the exercise preferences between the sexes is that women tend to be more flexible than men. (Now men understand why they struggle to keep the leg straight while doing a single deadlift.) So women may be more comfortable doing exercises in which they flex and bend, which are more functional movements than a bicep curl.
Although, the anatomy and hormonal differences among the genders may dictate your exercise choices, this does not mean you have to stick with it. If you are a man and keep overworking the shoulders and the biceps, you are setting up for aesthetic—you will look good in your tight T-shirt, but nothing else, maybe—and application failure—i.e., daily life movements and sports.
The opposite is true. If you are a women and focus on exercises that combine balance and flexibility along with overemphasizing the leg exercises, you will underperform on the daily life activities because of lack of strength, particularly in the upper musculature. Likewise, a broader upper frame will make the waist look smaller and will help you stand straight, which minimizes your belly pouch too.
Fill Your Needs
If you are a woman, shake up your workout while adding some “aesthetic”—stronger upper body and some power—strength and speed—to your workout. For men, dive into the “application”—meaning to focus on multi-joint movements that emphasize the leg, core, and overall satiability along with hip strength exercises, which will not only make you look better from behind but also accomplish daily physical tasks and/or sports activities with less effort and reduce injury risk.
Hip Bridge: When lifting up the bar, use your glutes and the hamstrings not your lower back. Raise the hips as high as you can while keeping your back straight and torso stable. When up, contract the muscles of the glutes for a couple of seconds before lowering the hips. Keep the contraction at all times and don’t release the hips when going down. They barely touch the floor. If you want to increase the intensity, place your feet on a physioball to add more instability (see images below for placement). Do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. (NOTE: To increase the range of motion, thus making the exercise harder, place your upper back on a bench and let the rest of your body fall, then place the bar on your lap, foot on the floor, and do the same movement.)
Unilateral Dumbbell Deadlift to Back Row: Hold the dumbbell close to your body and lower it while keeping the core tight and back straight. The movement initiates at the hips not at the back so push back and feel the stretch in the hamstrings. When your back is parallel to the floor, perform a dumbbell row. Return to standing position and try not to rest the leg that was extended on the floor to keep the tension on the working leg. Switch legs. This is not an exercise of showing off your strength, rather your “body functionality”—joint stability, flexibility, overall balance, core, upper and lower body strength. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Barbell Chest Press: Work on pure upper strength and hit the free weights. When benching, make sure that your head, hips, and foot are all locked. Lower the bar while keeping a 90-degree elbow angle until the shoulders are parallel to your elbows. Any further of this point and you may increase the risk of injury at the shoulder. Do 2-4 sets, 10 reps. Women don’t need to “burn the fat around the chest,” but you need to strengthen these muscles so go heavy on this exercise as you make progress.
Deadlift to High Pull: This exercise works on transferring the strength from the legs to the upper body in a powerful move. It should be performed as only one move and not two. The position of the bar in front differs from the squat in that this taxes the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles more, while the high pull will not only work the anterior part of the chest, but also the upper trapezius and other superior muscles of the back, which are overlooked by women. Do 2-4 reps, 10-12 reps.
Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.