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Do Women Need Different Weight-Lifting Routines Than Men? [November's Great Fitness Experiment!]

Posted Nov 01 2010 6:53pm
The question you should be asking is not why these men are running nearly naked in the snow but rather why are they wearing swimming caps...

Nothing is as mythical in fitness lore as the Protein Shake. Whole websites are devoted to getting the most out your smoothie, entire books of workout-shake recipes have been published, and it's become so omnipresent in our exercise culture that it has even become its own pick-up line. Hey baby, what say we re-rack these weights and hit the juice bar. I'll even let you pick two add-ins! So naturally I hate it. Between my general distrust of protein powder (Why is it that every health guru tells you to only eat whole unprocessed foods and then recommends protein powder? Do they not watch Sesame Street? Do they not see that one of these things is not like the other?), my disinclination to drink my calories and my sensitive gag reflex that precludes me swallowing anything from the "mooshy" food group, there isn't a lot of love lost between protein shakes and I.

And yet for day 1 of November's Great Fitness Experiment, I shocked all the Gym Buddies by showing up this morning with a half gallon of post-workout chocolaty goodness and enough paper cups to go around. See, this post-workout refueling is Unbreakable Rule #2. (For those of you who think I can't count - I've got mad Sesame Street skillz, yo - Unbreakable Rule #1 is coming.) Who picks these things?!

Me. Right.

After the disastrous end of last month's long(ish) distance running Experiment* - and having been sufficiently chastened by the not one but TWO doctors who took the time to e-mail me to tell me that I could have killed myself OD'ing on caffeine and then running hard (take home lesson: Despite its prevalence, caffeine is a drug and not to be trifled with) - I was ready to take on something completely different. So November's Great Fitness Experiment is The Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove .

At first glance it seems like your ordinary weight-lifting tome filled with pictures of the difference between the Romanian dead-lift, the regular dead-lift and the drunk-roommate dead-lift (hint: if you have a roommate from the Soviet Bloc you've got a two-fer) but Cosgrove is no ordinary lifter. She is, as she reminds you about 300 times, a lifter in proud possession of lady bits. As a lifter with lady bits myself, this spoke to me. I have long maintained that men's bodies and women's bodies with their different hormones respond differently to exercise and therefore should not be given a one-size fits all prescription. This does not mean she is giving you permission to pump two-pounders so you don't bulk up but rather that we need to focus more on compound movements and timing issues than a man would. This concept is rather controversial as many fitness experts recommend women train exactly like men, just perhaps with lighter weights.

Cosgrove came to her epiphany after finishing her first Ironman competition (and no it didn't involve a hand mirror and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in the biffy at mile 50). She realized that despite training 30+ hours per week biking, running and swimming, she had not only gained body fat and injuries but lost muscle tone and definition and was all around squishier. In her article "The Final Nail in the Cardio Coffin " (a must-read: go, now!) she details all the reasoning behind this but the end result is that in 8 short weeks of lifting heavy and dropping all the cardio, she lost 15 pounds, leaned out so much that she had a visible 6-pack again and was all-around healthier. This, combined with former elite-triathlete Mark Sisson's post about the heart damage inflicted by long-distance running , led me to an epiphany of my own. After gaining 2% body fat last month, it is time to bring out the heavy iron again!

The Workout
Cosgrove's 16-week plan is broken up into four four-week segments. The Gym Buddies and I are jumping in at week 9 as we feel we've been lifting long enough that the first 8 weeks won't be challenging. She prioritizes workouts with putting three lifting workouts a week as priority number one, followed by two "metabolic circuits" a week (a form of high-intensity interval training using bodyweight exercises) and, lastly, one cardio workout a week. If you want it.

The Rules
There is so much great stuff in Cosgrove's book - her section on "chunky thigh syndrome" is worth the whole price of the book right there (and no I don't get any kickbacks for recommending her book, moreover I didn't even get it for free - I bought this one myself!) - so it feels overly reductionist to distill it to this, but here you go:

Unbreakable Rule #1: You do not miss a weight-lifting workout. You lift three days a week but if you have to miss a day, take out the cardio or the circuits but do not miss your weights.

Unbreakable Rule #2: You must drink a post-workout shake (gah!) within 15 minutes of finishing your weight-lifting workout. Yes, that means you will be drinking it warm out of your water bottle in the gym. (I lobbied for a chicken breast and an apple but Rachel points out in her book that the fat, carbs and protein need to be easily digestible so a smoothie is ideal.)

Those two rules are the gist of it but to really amp up your results here are a few other suggestions:

Rule #1: Lift heavy. Really heavy. As heavy as good form will allow. No wussy Barbie weights. (Side note: she even shows you how to work your weight routines around your menstrual cycle to get the most bang for your buck. Did you know you have the potential to burn the most fat during that week than during any other time of the month?! It sounds counterintuitive, what with the bloating and all, but she's got research to back it up. I will let you know how it works for me - period talk, ahoy!)

Rule #2: Eat 5-6 small meals a day, each containing a fat and a protein.

Rule #3: Eat clean 90% of the time, which means you get a couple of "cheat meals" a week but the rest of the time stay away from sugar and processed foods.

Rule #4: No running! The treadmill is dead to you. Also no elliptical, step mill, arc trainer etc. Her metabolic circuits will definitely get your heart rate up but they use bodyweight exercises like jumping lunges and other plyometrics.

I plan on sticking as close to her plan as described in her book as I can as I'm hoping to get close to her results! Some of the other Gym Buddies are not happy about Rule #4 so they'll be doing the weights but also keeping their cardio. It's almost like a real experiment! I'm super excited to see how this pans out.

Any of you tried this program? Anyone else in with me? What do you think - do women need different workouts than men or is a human body a human body regardless of gender?

*Haven't read my race report yet? Oh you should! Even if you don't like reading about running I promise this one is worth your time.
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