The Vitamin #3: Muscle Building–Is There a Difference Between Men and Women?

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7 May 2020 | by Aadam


It’s time for another instalment of the Vitamin. This week I’m answering a question on differences in muscle building between men and women and sharing my thoughts on people confusing restriction for responsibility.

Let’s dive in.

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1) How does the process of building muscle differ between a male and a female? And what tips would you give to a female who wishes to gain a significant amount of muscle?

A very timely question because a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis sought to answer exactly that. (Roberts, BM et al. 2020)

The researchers reviewed a total of 50 studies lasting five weeks or more measuring hypertrophy and strength in young to middle-aged men and women using the same resistance training protocol.

  • 10 of the studies analysed hypertrophy measures
  • 17 analysed upper body strength measures, and
  • 23 analysed lower body strength measures

They found both males and females responded to resistance training similarly. Meaning, gender did not affect muscle or strength gains.

However, females saw greater gains in upper body strength.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that males gravitate towards upper body exercises–like the bench press–while females gravitate towards lower body exercises. So when a female starts training the upper body, she has more room for improvement.

One final point worth mentioning is absolute gains versus relative gains.

Because men start with more muscle mass, they’ll gain more absolute muscle and strength than women. But on an individual level, both men and women would make the same amount of progress relative to their own starting point.

This is why it’s important to compare your progress to your own and not someone else’s.

As for the second half of your question: the only thing women have to consider when trying to build muscle is their menstrual cycle which can negatively affect strength.

To manage this, here’s the recommendation I gave in my female fat loss guide (member-only):

During the follicular phase (days 1-14) you’ll be at your strongest due to the elevated estrogen levels. You’ll be more pain-tolerant and have better power output. In this half of your cycle, you should be focusing on lifting heavy. If you are going to go for PRs, this would be the time to do it.

After ovulation, as progesterone increases and estrogen decreases, you’ll find strength decreases. During this half of your cycle (the luteal phase, days 15-28) you should maintain training volume but instead of trying to lift heavy, focus more on ‘hypertrophy’ based training (moderate/light loads with moderate to higher rep ranges). Implementing a deload during this half of the cycle can also be a great idea.

Other than that, if you’re a female looking to maximise muscle gains, there isn’t anything special you need to do. Eat at a moderate calorie surplus with adequate protein and focus on progressive overload over time. And be patient because this stuff takes time.


Don’t confuse responsibility for restriction.

“I always thought that after I lost the weight I could go back to eating whatever I wanted,” a coaching client writes.

“I’m realizing now this isn’t the case and ‘eating whatever I want’ is the reason I gained weight in the first place. I have to face this reality, but I also don’t want to feel restricted for my whole life. Do you have suggestions for how to approach maintenance in a way that doesn’t feel restrictive?”

I frequently get asked some variation of this question so I wanted to share my thoughts on this publically.

The truth is, if you want to maintain the progress you’ve made during a diet, you have to keep doing the same things that led you to make progress.

You can’t build good habits for a few months, get to your goal, and then throw all of that stuff away. That’s not how it works.

You have to start implementing and practising those good habits now because they’re the same habits that will help you maintain.

  • Learning to track food today means you can eat ‘intuitively’ tomorrow.
  • Structuring your days so you’re eating a certain number of meals at a certain time today means you can do it without thinking about it tomorrow.
  • Learning how to meal prep and cook today means you will continue meal prepping and cooking tomorrow.
  • Learning that you have to make some sacrifices today (like going out and enjoying a meal without going to excess) means you can do the same thing tomorrow.
  • Regularly exercising today means it becomes second nature tomorrow.

None of these is ‘restrictive’–it’s ​what healthy people do.

Of course, there are dumb ways to approach dieting like resorting to fad diets or unnecessarily restricting foods. So if that’s how you’re approaching a diet, then, uh, don’t?

But even if you are approaching your diet in the right way, you still need to change the bad habits that aren’t conducive to the person you want to become.

You need to have rules and boundaries for yourself or you’ll always end up right back where you started no matter how much progress you make.

You can’t eat whatever you like, whenever you like. You can’t always go out on the weekends and eat and drink to excess.

You can’t be a fit, healthy person with the habits of someone who isn’t any of those things.

It’s not restrictive. It’s taking responsibility for your actions because that’s what you’ve decided you want to do.


The Two Baskets Theory

One of the mistakes people make when it comes to nutrition is seeing things as black or white. You’re either eating ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ and crushing your diet or you’ve totally fallen off so what’s the point?

Try using the Two Basket Theory to help you stop swinging from extreme to extreme and establishing a healthy middle-ground.

Read the article

That’s all for today. Next week Physiqonomics turns five years old, and I’m going to be sharing the biggest lesson I’ve learned from building this damn thing.

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