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How muscle development differs for women

Dr. Barbara Semakula, sports medicine specialist at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Dr. Barbara Semakula, sports medicine specialist at Anne Arundel Medical Center. (Courtesy of Anne Arundel Medical Center, Baltimore Sun)

Women won't likely develop bulky muscles when they work out like many men do, and most probably don't want to, says Dr. Barbara Semakula, sports medicine specialist at Anne Arundel Medical Center. But like men, women benefit from strength training and stretching, even during pregnancy, though there are a few things that make women's muscles different from their male counterparts' bodies, she said.

What's different about men and women's muscles?

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Commonly, men are stronger than women due to overall increased muscle mass. With strength training, men usually gain more muscle hypertrophy, i.e. bigger muscles, than women because of the effect of testosterone.

Strength gains are the result of muscle recruitment and muscle hypertrophy, and women have the same capacity for achieving strength gains as men. However, due to a lack of testosterone, women have less muscle density.

Do men and women exercise muscles differently?

Generally, women tend to not want to be as bulky as men so they tend to not participate in weight-lifting due to this fear. Strength training via lifting weights is beneficial though, and women should participate in it without fear of becoming bulky.

There seems to be conflicting advice about when to stretch, before or after exercise. What does the evidence say?

There is not much research showing benefits of stretching, how much to stretch or even how often to do it. But there are plenty of patient case studies that show stretching daily improves flexibility, decreases risk of injury and increases muscle stretch to help improve performance.

What muscles are most important to stretch to avoid sports injury, and are they different for men and women?

The important muscles to stretch depend on the type of activity you will be performing. For example, basketball, football and volleyball players use both their arms and legs, so they should stretch the shoulder, especially the rotator cuff muscles, and the legs, especially the quads and hamstrings. Runners and sprinters should definitely stretch the hamstrings, quads, and calf muscles.

The main difference for men and women in stretching is in the activities where ACL injuries are more prevalent. For a woman, that is soccer and basketball. So those female athletes will want to do certain activities to warm up and stretch their knee muscles to help prevent injuries.

Are there times when women should or shouldn't stretch or should do the stretches differently, like when they are pregnant or have had certain surgeries?

Exercise during a normal pregnancy is encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle, and moderate intensity of exercise on a regular basis has no risks to the fetus and has maternal benefits.

Pregnant women should be mindful of the positions that they are stretching in. For example, after the first trimester, you want to avoid lying flat on your back during exercise.

As the pregnancy progresses and the uterus enlarges, the belly is getting bigger, and there can be a relative blocking of blood return to the heart resulting in decreased cardiac output and hypotension — which may be perceived as lightheadedness. Prolonged Valsalva maneuvers such as holding your breathe during a prolonged stretch can produce a similar situation, so exercise caution with breath-holding during stretching, yoga and weight training.

Also, avoid prolonged motionless standing, which can produce a similar feeling of lightheadedness, which can be hypotension.

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Are there differences in the way men and women recover from intense sports or exercise?

There are a few muscle physiology studies that state there could be a difference in muscle fatigue and recovery between men and women, but to date there have been no large scale outcomes studies showing a major difference between the way men and woman recover from intense exercise or sports.

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