Workout frequency the most important factor in strength gains for women

It’s not necessarily the type of exercise that has the biggest impact on women’s strength gains, but how often they do it, a UNSW Sydney-led study has found.


The most effective way for women to gain strength is to simply workout regularly, a new study led by researchers at UNSW Sydney has found.


Surprisingly, specific details – such as the exercise they choose, the variety of exercises in each workout, the heaviness of the weights, whether they are supervised, and whether they lift until their bodies give out – don’t appear to have a major impact on overall strength or muscle mass growth. 


The paper, published this week in Sports Medicine, is the first in the world to place a female-only lens on resistance training research. It consolidates the results of 24 different resistance training studies involving almost 1000 women. 


The average resistance training program included 3 sets of 10 repetitions, 3 times per week for 15 weeks. The women participating in the programs were aged 18-50 and had varying fitness levels. 


Across all studies analysed in the team’s systematic review with meta-analysis, the biggest strength improvements could be attributed to the frequency of exercise (days per week), followed by the number of repetitions and sets completed.


“Consistency is key,” says Dr Mandy Hagstrom, lead author of the study and lecturer in exercise science at UNSW Medicine.


The women developed an average of 1.5kg of muscle mass and increased their muscular strength by 25% throughout the programs – confirming that resistance training offers significant benefits to women.


While strength increases were closely linked to frequency and volume of workout, the best muscle mass increases could not be directly linked to any individual training factor.


Dr Hagstrom hopes these findings will help clinicians and trainers manage client expectations, particularly now that an increasing number of women are starting strength training.


Her advice for women eager to build their muscle mass is to simply create a habit.


“Go to the gym and go consistently. 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.”


14 December 2019.