Physical Activity

Muscle Myths: Does Muscle Recovery Differ for Women?

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‘Strong is the new skinny’ has been a popular motto for women in the recent years and for all the right reasons. From the everyday athlete to Games competitor, the shift away from generic cardio machines, light dumbbells and misinformed diets, to weight training and a greater emphasis on athletic performance, has seen a new breed of female athlete emerge. However, in order to replace strong with skinny, one must therefore place a greater emphasis on their recovery. Generally, this is the same for both men and women, but its important to understand a few key physiological and hormonal differences. I’ll also discuss some underlying principles towards your diet and rest regime, you’ll be able to tap into that potential even more.

Men vs Women – Understanding the Differences

For years many women have trained differently to men, due to the tendency to assume that the female body will respond the same as the male body over the type of training that males generally do, i.e. weight training and intense exercise. I’m sure we have all experienced the “I don’t want to get bulky” concern at some point, whether you are a woman saying it or a man hearing it. Cue cardio machines.

Well, I can assure you know that is time to officially time to rid yourselves of the worry. The reality is, women can’t grow as big as men due to hormonal differences in their body. For starters, women do not have the same testosterone capacity as men. In fact, women’s testosterone levels are a fraction of men’s levels. Normal testosterone levels in men are 200-1200 ng/dl while 15-70 ng/dl are normal in women (1).

While men tend to be stronger and have more skeletal muscle mass, studies have shown that female muscles are generally more fatigue resistant, due to having more slow twitch muscle fibers and hormones such as estrogen (2) (3). Despite such physiological differences in the body, the physiology in the gym should not change. The reality is, both men and women need to apply the same principles for training and recovery: weight lifting, a proper diet and adequate rest. What you have to keep in mind is understanding the hormones in your body and how your body therefore responds differently to training and how this may impact your recovery. So ladies, lets get you primed on how to recover better in between your workouts.

Recovery Tips for Women

Eat for Performance

In the past, eating a lot has been has typically been associated with getting bigger. But, what about enhancing performance? For the evolving female athlete, a sufficient diet is an absolute must! As already mentioned, women respond better to endurance and conditioning work due to having more slow twitch muscle fibers and having hormones such as estrogen so when you start loading up on large volumes of heavy weightlifting for example, the reduced capacity of your fast twitch muscle fibers will inevitably add greater stress to your body. The way to combat this stress after exercise is to supply your body with the nutrients it needs. Ultimately the right diet is what you need, but supplements are a great option to fill in any gaps in your nutrition.

Eating too many calories will inevitably lead to fat gain. But if you don’t eat enough calories you will not gain lean muscle (4). Set yourself a calorie intake based on a macronutrient split that works best for you, consisting of protein, carbohydrates (especially from fruits and vegetables) and healthy fats. Overall, its more important to take a look at the ratio and quality of food rather than counting calories.

Post-workout, focus on carbohydrates and protein to maximize your body’s anabolic state and speed up muscle repair (5). You can find easy post-workout recipes here. Aim for quality food sources from both food groups, such as starchy carbohydrates and lean meats with plenty of iron in them (lean red meat, chicken, turkey, fish). Iron is crucial for cell growth, supporting immune function and carrying oxygen to the body. For women especially, blood loss during menstrual periods depletes your body’s iron stores (6). Slacking on your iron intake will impact your recovery as well as your bodies overall cognitive development. Solution? Eat!

Smart Supplementation

The way training is the same for both men and women, so is supplementation, and is becoming a staple part of the recovery process. Supplements are fast absorbed and play a pivotal role in getting in key nutrients in quickly over and above food.

Post-workout, a protein shake is the most common and useful way to kick start the recovery process. Most women are looking for an easily digestible and macro friendly option.

Besides adequate protein and a healthy waistline, you need to supplement towards those inflamed muscles after an intense workout. Failure to take care of muscle damage can only lead to further swelling, heat and stiffness (6). Some of the best supplements to help calm inflammation and promote calcium absorption which is necessary for bone growth, is omega-3 and vitamin D. Fatty acids also help keep bones strong and lubricated, and without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin and brittle. For women, both supplements are crucial due to having a lower bone density than men and therefore a higher risk of osteoporosis as they get older. Supplements such as O3 and D3 will only lower these risks further while contributing to overall your recovery, health and wellbeing.

Rest is Best

You might have your training, diet and supplementation completely dialed in, but for many, a lack of rest and high stress levels can be some of the simplest forms of blocking your recovery gains. Both are ultimately in your control and therefore it’s important to lead a lifestyle that contributes to your physical and mental wellbeing. A demanding lifestyle alone can affect stress levels. Be proud of your image and your ability; work hard in the gym, enjoy a stress free lifestyle and watch how amazing you and your body will feel as a result.

Any female athlete will endorse the importance of recovery, so it’s important to get it right in order to hit those workouts hard and see the changes you want. With the correct balance in your diet and supplementation, as well as sufficient rest and low stress levels, I can guarantee you’ll be ditching skinny with strong within no time.