In the words of every sleazy comedian, “Men and women, they’re so different. Back me up on this, ladies.” I’ll spare you the crappy jokes about the toilet seat (hyuk hyuk) whose “Best Before” dates, like the milk in the back of my fridge, have long expired.
All kidding aside, women tend to have wider hips, shallower pelvises, narrower shoulders, and shorter legs and arms. The distinctively female pelvic structure gives us a little funk in our trunk when we walk, and a lower centre of gravity, meaning that on average, women have better balance than men.
The biomechanics of the pelvic structure can also make women more prone to knee problems, although women’s knee problems appear to result from both nature and nurture. While the knee injury rate in women’s sports is fairly high, athletes such as basketball and soccer players who are trained to land and pivot properly have a much lower rate of knee injury than those who have not received such training. However, the wider pelvis does require women’s femurs (thighbones) to swoop towards the knee at much more of an angle than men’s, which can cause some structural trouble where the thigh bone connects to the knee bone. Again, with training and attention to proper biomechanics (e.g. proper running and jumping technique), any increased risk can be managed. On the plus side, we can do that cool thing where we cross one leg over the other, then hook the ankle of the top leg behind the shin of the bottom leg.
Women tend to be looser than men, at least in terms of connective tissue. We tend to be more flexible on average, which like most elements of physiology is a mixed blessing. This flexibility results in a greater range of motion, but when joints are lax, they can also be more easily injured. Pregnant and premenstrual women in particular have circulating hormonal environments that relax the connective tissues even further. Female gymnasts can twist themselves into pretzels, but the long term result is a much higher risk of spine injuries such as spondylolysis.
In addition, for those of you who like factoids as much as I do, women have more body fat, greater surface area-to-mass-ratio (which means we float better), less lean muscle mass, a lower basal metabolic rate, and lower red blood cell mass relative to men. Much of this difference is due less to sexual dimorphism and more to the general characteristics of relative amounts of body fat and muscle mass, since women and men do not differ in muscle fiber type or muscle adaptation.
Apparently women seem to have an advantage in dry heat. You want to smarten up your husband? Take him to Death Valley and show him what being a woman really means!!
Oh yeah, and some of us can make babies.
[And to respond to the one reader who worried that by saying this I was imposing some kind of biological Foucauldian-esque disciplinary imperative on the gentler sex, I said we "can", not "should" or "have to" or, in my case, "even want to so thankfully another sibling did it for me and I'm off the hook with my parents about the making grandchildren issue, jeesh".]
Anyway, sometimes minor modifications in form are needed to ensure that an exercise is comfortable for women to execute.
Many women find that the traditional squatting leg position of legs at shoulder width or narrower isn’t the best for them, since it seems to put pressure on the knees; many with wide hips do not feel particularly stable in this position either.
A good variation is to place the feet wider than shoulder width, as wide as you feel comfortable with. This has the added benefit of giving you a more solid base to support the weight on your shoulders.
Turn your toes out a bit. Don’t try to make them point forward if they don’t want to.
Some women also say that the bar is uncomfortable because they don’t have a lot of muscle in their upper back yet. Make sure the bar is sitting low, not up around the neck. As you’re reading this, reach around to the back of your neck and feel for that big bony bump. You want the bar to sit below this, really as low as you can get it.
While squatting, consciously pull shoulders back and push your chest out so that whatever upper back muscle you do have makes a little shelf for the bar. You can roll the bar in a towel if desired but make sure the padding isn’t too thick or it becomes difficult to hold the bar properly.
I was having a lot of problems with traditional deadlifts in which the feet are at shoulder width and the arms outside the shins: kept crunching my kneecaps with the bar, leaning over too far, feeling unstable, and generally not really enjoying the exercise. Then I was introduced to sumo deads, which are perfect for short, wide-hipped women like me. The stance is similar in all respects (hips begin low, hamstrings and glutes still do the work, alternating grip if desired) except for the placement of the feet and hands. Think of how a sumo wrestler gets ready to take on his opponent: he stands with feet wide and barely clad butt hanging out (you can eliminate the bowing part). This is how a sumo deadlift is done, with feet wide apart and hands hanging straight down from the shoulders inside the knees. As in the wide stance squat, toes are turned out slightly. This modification allows for greater engagement of hip and glute muscles as well as an easier trip up to the top of the rep.
For more on sumo deadlifts, including pictures and more detailed descriptions, go here.
These are damn hard for women to do, due to our relatively weaker upper body. Unfortunately they are a great exercise. However, all is not lost. Here’s how to see your way to a pullup in the near future.
Here I am using an underhand grip. I find that I am strongest this way. You can also use an overhand grip. Since I am too short to reach the chinup bar, I am using the crossbar at the top of a squat cage.
The standard bench press bar weighs 45 lbs on its own. When I began bench pressing way back when as a former couch potato, I could never have pressed it properly. I was just not strong enough and it took me a while before I could even balance the dang thing properly with short arms. I began on a machine (ick, ptooey) but if you lack the upper body strength, as many female beginners do, you should begin on dumbbell press to gain the strength as well as some of the balance (although you will still have to get the hang of the bar).
Another thing I did for quite some time which worked well for short arms was to use an E-Z Curl bar. That’s the bar that is shorter and kind of zig-zaggy. I found it much easier to balance and the perfect width for my hands was right up against the plates on either side.
While we’re on the subject of chest exercises, here’s a suggestion for doing dips. The average dip station (which looks something like two parallel bars) sets the bars too wide for narrower shoulders to accommodate. I found that using these made an unpleasant crunching in my shoulder joints. I switched to a narrow set of bars, found on a dip station with V-bars. These are bars which are set at a slight angle to one another, rather than parallel, so that they form a “V”. Using the narrow end of the V solved my problem.