Researchers from UNSW analysed 24 different resistance training studies involving almost 1000 women to find out which factors had the biggest impact on overall strength and muscle mass growth. They discovered that specific details such as the exercise they choose, the variety of exercises in each workout, the heaviness of the weights, whether they're supervised, and whether they lift to fatigue, don't appear to make a major difference on results.
The paper, published in Sports Medicine, found that the biggest gains were down to the frequency of workouts, followed by the amount of repetitions and sets completed.
“Consistency is key,” lead author of the study Dr Mandy Hagstrom said in a statement. “It doesn't necessarily matter what you do when you're in the gym, just that you’re there and exercise with effort."
“Our meta-analysis didn’t yield any specific guidelines for the number of exercises or repetitions to do, so the key message for women is to try to and accrue adequate overall exercise volume and train as frequently as possible.”
Dr Hagstrom says she pursued the study after realising the lack of female-focused research around resistance training, critical given the physiological differences between the genders.
"I thought, I don't see how we can generalise these findings to women if we just don’t know," Dr Hagstrom says. "While it’s a nice notion that we can do the same training program as men and adapt in the same manner, we have a totally different physiological environment."
Flow Athletic trainer Camilla Bazley says that despite these differences, resistance training is an incredibly effective workout for both men and women.
"Typically speaking, men will tend to gain more muscle and slightly faster than women due to the difference in hormonal profiles, IE, the level of testosterone produced in males v females," she told Women's Health. "This does not however make it less effective in overall body composition change. Resistance training in both males and females will increase impact on body fat reduction and strength increase."
So what does "consistent" resistance training look like?
"This is very different from person to person based on their own training history, health, and goals, but generally speaking if person is wanting to see progressive results in a six to 12 week period, then aiming for three to four training sessions per week is optimal," Bazley explains.
She also says that it's not just consistency in training that will help you build strength and maintain muscles, but nutrition and lifestyle too.
"Women should be placing a huge emphasis on calorie and macronutrient intake to ensure that they are in a surplus to grow muscle," she explains. "If a female is in calorie deficit of energy consumption, it is very hard to see any if minimal results."
Once you're showing up consistently in the squat rack, Bazley recommends incorporating progressive overload in your training.
"Increasing weight for example by five to 10 per cent each week is a great way to see overall results in a 8-12 weeks training phase."