By now, you’ve probably figured out that men’s and women’s bodies don’t work quite the same way.
Get your mind out of the gutter. We’re talking about the weight room, here. Men and women have huge differences in their body compositions, joint alignments and connective tissues, all of which affect their muscle strengths, weaknesses, and susceptibility to injury, says exercise physiologist and trainer Marta Montenegro, MS, CSCS.
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Here’s the deal, ladies: If you aren’t giving these areas some extra TLC, chances are they are majorly weak. “When the muscles aren’t at the ‘same level’ in terms of strength and flexibility, it both reduces the efficiency of every movement and increases risk of injury to muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments,” Montenegro says. “If something on this chain is off, something [else] will pay the price.”
Read on to find out which areas you need to focus on strengthening — and get tips on how to tone them up, fast.
Strength Training for Women: 3 Neglected Muscle Groups
1. Your Chest
One of the most common weight room stereotypes: That pecs are a “guy thing.” Women naturally have a smaller ratio of muscle-to-fat in their chests compared with men. Unfortunately, this means that many women get frustrated with chest-strengthening exercises and either forgo them entirely or do them with improper form, according to Montenegro.
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Think about it: How many times have you collapsed mid push-up and thought, “I’m strong! Why can’t I do this?” It’s because most women actually have to train in order to do what, for men, may seem easy.
Strengthen It: The Eccentric Bench Press and Push-Up
To master this move, prepare to slow down and put the emphasis on the eccentric (downward) motion rather than the press upwards. (You can even have someone else raise the barbell for you.) This actually works your chest more intensely than a standard bench press, since your muscles get stronger moving eccentrically than concentrically. Plus, it trains your underlying core muscles (more on that later), and your triceps, which are naturally small and tend to tucker out even before your larger chest muscles do.
How to: Lay flat on a bench, holding a barbell just above your chest, elbows positioned near the sides of your body. Your palms should be facing up, hands chest-width apart. Press the barbell directly upwards until arms are fully extended (or have a spotter help you lift it), and then slowly lower it back down to your chest for a count of four to five seconds. Perform three to four sets of eight to 10 reps each week.
For a bodyweight-only option, push-ups are another complex movement that will hit the chest muscles (in addition to the shoulders, arms and core). Complete the standard variation, or try incline (hands elevated) and decline (feet elevated), Montenegro suggests. That will help you train multiple areas within your pectoralis muscles. Once a week, complete three to four sets of as many reps as you can manage with proper form.
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2. Your Hamstrings
Many women are all about leg extensions, squats, lunges — and, of course, spinning — when they work out. And while those routines can all help strengthen your lower body, they emphasize the quadriceps more than they do the hammies, Montenegro says. “Women’s quadriceps actually tend to be about twice as strong as their hamstrings,” she says. Add in high heels and things can get more uneven. Wearing pumps transfers your body weight forward, so your quadriceps work harder with every step.
This imbalance can make women vulnerable to knee injuries — especially because their knees are already under a lot of pressure. What’s more: women’s pelvises are naturally wider than men’s, meaning that the femur, which attaches to the pelvis and knee, doesn’t go straight up-and-down. Instead, it slants so that body forms an “X” shape, she explains. Add that to the fact that monthly spikes in your estrogen levels can make joints more flexible, and there’s no option left but to strengthen your hammies in order to protect your knees.
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Strengthen It: The Dumbbell Single-Leg Deadlift
“One of the best exercise to work the hamstrings is the dumbbell single-leg deadlift,” Montenegro says. As you progress, you can perform barbell deadlifts to further train your hamstrings while also strengthening your lower back and glutes.
How to: Stand with feet together, knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in the right hand. Keeping your back flat, begin to lean forward, hinging at the hip. Squeeze your left glute and hamstring and extend your right leg straight out behind you for balance. Your right arm will be perpendicular to your right leg. Return to starting position, switch sides. Shoot for three to four sets of eight reps on each side every week.
3. Your Core
Women’s bodies are built to be able to squeeze out a baby, meaning that the ligaments and tendons in your hips are more elastic and loose than those of the average guy, Montenegro says. Plus, ladies have a larger lumbar (low back) curve. So, in order to maintain correct posture, you need a killer core.
Unfortunately, most women don’t have the strong midsection they need. While there may be plenty of “core-sculpting” of the (look at me!) abdominal muscles (often through crunch and crunch variations), these movements don’t give their deep, stabilizing muscles the attention they need, she says. Those internal muscles are what is going to keep you upright and help you power through everything from running to kickboxing.
Strengthen It: The Plank (left) and the Bird-Dog (right)
Your core is so important, we’ve got two moves for you to try. Plank it up with side and front variations of the core-strengthening exercise. Or try the bird-dog, which is awesome for your back, Montenegro says.
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Plank How-to: For the plank, support yourself on your forearms, keeping your shoulders over your elbows, knees up, butt down and back flat. Want to hit all areas of your midsection? Add in the side plank, where you’ll support yourself on one forearm, body angled to the side and knees lifted. With your chest open, raise your other forearm straight above your body. Once per week, complete each plank variation three times, holding the position for 30 seconds and working up to 60.
Bird-Dog How-to: To do the bird-dog, start on all fours, back flat. Raise your right arm straight out in front of you, while simultaneously lifting your left leg straight behind you. Repeat on the opposite side. Complete three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side at least once per week.
Originally published December 2014. Updated March 2017.