What Women Need to Know About Weight Loss

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If you really want to get under my skin – and why would you want to do that – simply ask me about a woman’s exercise. It makes my skin crawl and eyes bulge out of their sockets. I get angrier that the one time I clicked on an article online and found out how season 7of 24 ended (what can I say, I was a passionate fan).

There’s no such thing as a women’s exercise. A squat is a squat regardless of the gender of the person performing the exercise. If you were the coach of a basketball team, would the mechanics of the game change between a men’s team and a women’s? Should a male soccer player be trained any different than a female soccer player? I hope your answer is no.

However, there are slight differences between men and women when it comes to getting in shape. These differences don’t imply the world is ending and shouldn’t trigger a war between genders, but they can explain the frustrations that many women feel with the struggle of trying to lose weight. Interestingly, while nature has given women some curveballs when it comes to getting fit, it also appears that women seem to be able to outwork their male counterparts.

The Research Isn’t In…

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of studies done with women and weight loss. Correction: there aren’t many studies done with women on successful weight loss programs outside of aerobics (1). When it comes to strength training, and to a lesser extent, interval studies, men tend to have more studies performed on them.

In order to help women, this is something that needs to change. Until then, much of the information comes from us trainers and our warzone experience on the training floor. Keep in mind that when I say ‘getting a woman in shape,’ I’m referring to the real deal: strong women who are lean, fast, and can still look elegant while pushing a sled or running through a wall. If your idea of in shape is slow aerobics and pink dumbbells, this article might not be for you.

Some Guys Have All the Luck

The small differences between men and women lie in the type of calories we burn. At rest, women tend to get more of their energy from glucose (carbohydrates). This opposes men, who burn more fat at rest. Furthermore, women tend to have a greater fat storage capacity after a meal – meaning that there is potential for the food you just ate to get stored as body fat. This is due much to evolution: women need more body fat to be stored around their hips and thighs in preparation for giving birth and providing nutrition to an infant.

Not all fat is created equal. Your body wants the healthy fats to be stored on your body because they provide more nutrition to a young infant. For example, these include the Omega-3’s found in oily fish. A lack of good fats means the brain sends hunger cues to make you eat in an attempt to get those healthy fats. If your diet is lacking in healthy fats, then you may suffer from an endless cycle of fat being dumped around your thighs and hips.

All of this sounds like women have too many forces working against them to lose weight. Since we know some of things that can possibly work against female clients, let’s take a glass half full approach to the issue. There are things that work in women’s favor and manipulating them means you can finally get the body that you want.

Metabolic Flexibility

Your exercise selection needs to force your body to burn more fat. In one of the few studies done with women and strength training, research subjects went through a 10 move circuit. They completed four rounds of the circuit and the entire workout was done in 60 minutes. As a result, the women had an average increase of burning 300 more calories per day (1). Awesome, right?

Not yet. While they burned more energy, they had no difference in the amount of fat they burned compared to a group that did no exercise (remember what woman burn more of at rest?). One of the issues was that the exercise selection was rather poor; triceps extensions, leg curls, and abdominal crunches were just some of the exercises. These movements don’t do a lot for your metabolism. When fat loss is the goal, you need to focus on movements like squats and lunges that include a lot of muscle mass all at once.

So in a nutshell, no dinky exercises. Mimicking an underweight model jumping around with purple dumbbells isn’t going to get the job done. But there are other ways…

Higher Pain Threshold

Women have a higher pain threshold than men. I don’t have any scientific validation for this, just 10 years of practical experience. Women seem to be able to train at a higher intensity than men. They also seem to be able to recover faster as well. Maybe it’s due to giving birth or perhaps men are just wimps. Not sure, but it allows women to handle a lot of volume (how much work you do in a workout) as well as train with full body workouts. Both a high volume and full body workouts will help turn your body into a fat burning machine.

Short Intervals

Unpublished research claims that women have better muscular endurance than men, which means that if a male needs 60 seconds to recover from a set, women may be able to fully recover in 30 to 45 seconds. In turn, women have more time available to get more work done, but more importantly, they have a chance to help spin the wheel on their hormones to switch over to fat burning mode at rest.  Short rest intervals help promote growth hormone – a hormone that helps the body build muscle and use body fat as an energy source. In a study done with different rest periods, the subjects who rested the shortest had the greatest increase in their resting metabolism (2). So next time you hit the weight room, bring a stopwatch along. Stay focused on your workout and rest no longer than 45 seconds between sets.

The Dynamic Duo

Aerobics alone is one of the worst things you can do for fat loss. Aerobics don’t give the body that hormonal boost we discussed earlier. However, a combined approach of strength training with intervals can be a nice 1-2 punch for fat loss. If you workout four days a week, two of those workouts can be focused on resistance training (remember – short rest periods) while the other 2 days can focus on interval work. In a study done comparing the two, women who strength trained and did some intervals decreased body fat by 10% (3)! Meanwhile, the aerobics only group lost 5%.

So what about those intervals? Women seem to not respond well to short intervals of 15 seconds or less. For the best results to lose fat, women should do intervals that require 60 -120 seconds of work. Once again, women need short rest periods, so a female client will benefit from the following workout:


Weeks Interval Length Recovery Number of Intervals
1-2 60 seconds 45 seconds X6
2-4 60 seconds 35 seconds X7
5-6 70 seconds 30 seconds X8


We’ve learned a lot. We know that women store fat differently and don’t burn as much fat during rest as men. We also learned that men can be wimps and that women can outwork them on the training floor. It’s been said to never underestimate the power of a hard working woman and this appears especially true on the training floor.



1.Melanson, E.L., Sharp, T.A., et al. “Twenty Four Hour Metabolic Responses to Resistance Exercise in Women” (2005) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19;1, 61-66

2. Paoli, A., et al. “High Intensity Interval Resistance Training Influences Resting Energy Expenditure and Respiratory Exchange Ratio in Non-Dieting Individuals.” Journal of Translational Medicine. 10;1(2012): 237

3. Sanal, E. et al. “Effects of Aerobic or Combined Aerobic Resistance Exercise on Body Composition in Overweight and Obese Adults: Gender Differences.” (2013) European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine 49;1, 1-11


Originally written: August 22, 2014

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