First of all, who cares if they can or they can’t!! Comparing sexes is completely irrelevant when it comes to looking at the success of one’s physique, as men and women are not one in the same, at least not from a physical sense.
And even more so, the hormonal differences between men and women are quite substantial. So much so that testosterone in men is at worse case 8x higher in men than it is in women and in some cases 32x.
But does this limit the potential for muscle growth in a woman?
Most people are going to jump straight on the yes bandwagon, so instead of just giving my opinion like the large majority of fitness enthusiasts do, I’m going to delve into the research and formulate an actual answer.
First and foremost it is important to recognise that the same dominant lifting principles for maximising muscle growth do not change between men in women. Focusing on the strength/hypertrophy pyramid from Eric Helms is still the go to research when it comes to the types of training required to maximise hypertrophy. Check out this article for more information “Training Hierarchy”
But what we really want to know is, can women grow as much muscle as men?
If you look at this question with your blinkers on, the obvious answer is no.
BUT…While women may not be able to grow the same amount of gross muscle tissue in kilograms, in relative terms as a percentage, how do they stack up?
First and foremost, it is important to note that the contractile muscle tissue in men and in women is similar in force production, meaning they can gain strength at an equal rate to men (1). However, men do appear to have larger muscle fibre size in comparison to women, which appears to directly correlate to a higher force production on a muscle fibre to strength ratio, but in relative terms, a woman’s ability to gain strength appears to be equivalent to that of a men on a relativity scale (2,3).
Meaning, if they both had the same amount of tissue, the force and strength production would be identical.
So we know that women can get as strong as men can in relative terms of fibre type to strength improvements, and we also know that Eric Helms strength pyramid implies that volume and intensity are 2 of the top determinants of muscle growth, but does this mean that women can, in fact, grow as much muscle as men?
Perhaps in one of the more comprehensive studies of the 90’s, 24 women completed a 20-week weight-training program, focusing primarily on leg movements. As mentioned in the previous studies linked in this article, strength improved at a rate that is to be expected of both men and women, however, what was most exciting to see was the statistically significant hypertrophy the female participants achieved as well (4).
Women grew muscle and they grew muscle well!
Similarly, Cureton et al (1988) also found relative strength increases between men and women to be similar, with no statistically significant changes in men and women in regards to muscle hypertrophy, which supports the findings of Staron et al (1990).
Women grew muscle at the same relative rate as men did!!
The one thing that does need to be noted with this research, however, is two-fold. Firstly the research is dated and secondly, the majority of research looking into gender hypertrophy variation is only done in the short term.
Regardless of this, some plausible conclusions can be drawn.
Women can get as strong as men can relative to their muscle amount
Women can augment muscle fibre type with resistance training
Women can increase myofibrillar hypertrophy similar to that of men in acute training phases
So while women may not be able to grow the same amount of muscle in absolute weight, relative to their physique size and muscle weight, women can absolutely grow muscle like a man can.
The question that remains is, can they grow in this fashion consistently or is the acute muscle growth a little deceiving? More studies are needed on this.
But like I said in the beginning, comparing the two is realistically pointless.
The take home message here is to not sell yourself short by putting limitations on your ability to grow.
Throw away the booty kickback exercise 101 booklet, get into the gym and lift some heavy weights. All too often we try and segregate sexes by placing arbitrary barriers between them when in reality we are very similar in physiology.
Train to be fitter, faster and stronger and you are guaranteed to enhance the look of your physique as well.
Holloway, J. and Baechle, T. (1990). Strength Training for Female Athletes. Sports Medicine, 9(4), pp.216-228.
Miller, A., MacDougall, J., Tarnopolsky, M. and Sale, D. (1993). Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 66(3), pp.254-262.
Kanehisa, H., Ikegawa, S. and Fukunaga, T. (1994). Comparison of muscle cross-sectional area and strength between untrained women and men. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 68(2), pp.148-154.
Staron, R., Malicky, E., Leonardi, M., Falkel, J., Hagerman, F. and Dudley, G. (1990). Muscle hypertrophy and fast fiber type conversions in heavy resistance-trained women. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 60(1), pp.71-79.
CURETON, K., COLLINS, M., HILL, D. and MCELHANNON, F. (1988). Muscle hypertrophy in men and women. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 20(4), pp.338-344.