It is a common occurrence for a man and woman to wish to workout together, particularly when they have a joint goal such as losing weight. The challenge for the fitness professional is to design an exercise program that will assist both workout partners in meeting their goals and at the same time consider the different physiological and psychological needs of the two sexes.
The goal of any weight loss program is, generally, a lasting change in body composition with decreases in body fat and increases in lean muscle mass. The best way to achieve this is to increase muscle mass and raise Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), with my preferred means of achieving this being a well-designed resistance training program. Rather than an in-depth discussion of the merits of resistance versus cardiovascular training, high- versus moderate- or low-intensity exercise, we will consider some often overlooked issues associated with two people of the opposite sex training together.
Determine Both Clients' Readiness for Resistance Training
A female may need more base conditioning if she has little experience of weight lifting. Men have often performed some resistance training at some point, so they generally have a higher training age than females of the same biological age. Women also need longer development times before exposure to extremely heavy weights due to a lower threshold capacity in their connective and supportive tissues. This may be related to higher levels of relaxin and fluctuation of hormonal states in a woman's body. If a woman follows a program designed for her more experienced male partner without the appropriate instruction on technique and modifications, she may increase her risk of injury.
Rate of Change of Body Shape
My experience has shown that females undergoing a high-intensity resistance training program often see increases in muscle mass faster than decreases in body fat. This leads to an overall increase in body weight, which can be potentially devastating for a female client, if she is not prepared beforehand. Psychologically worse is the situation where her male training partner changes body shape faster than she does, as his hormone profile is better suited to increasing muscle mass. Females generally do not hypertrophy to the same degree as males because they have lower levels of testosterone (males' 10-30 pg/ml versus females' 0.3 to 2.2 pg/ml) and increased levels of estrogen.
On the other hand, there are females who do hypertrophy more easily and may not wish to have the "look" associated with this increased muscle mass. In this case, consider the following program modifications:
1. Reduce exercise intensity to less than 70% and performing additional reps per set.
2. Alternatively increase exercise intensity to allow less than six reps per set while keeping the volume to no more than three sets to avoid hypertrophy of the Type IIB muscle fibers. Note: Only use this method on advanced level lifters.
3. Reduce the volume of sets per exercise.
4. Reduce the number of exercises affecting the body part of concern.
5. Start and/or end the training session with aerobic exercise to encourage aerobic adaptation, which will retard anaerobic adaptation.
6. Change exercises more frequently.
7. Use rest periods of greater than one minute between sets.
8. Use compound exercises.
9. Reduce total time under tension per set by altering tempo. Be careful not to go faster than a 202 tempo with novice lifters or you may encourage injury.
Females have more natural fluctuations in their hormonal cycles than men and are also more prone to hormonal imbalances due to elevated estrogen, menstrual irregularites and lack of androgenic hormones from a history of calorie restrictions. Exercise magnifies these irregularities since "regular" exercise, whether cardiovascular or resistance training, is perceived as an additional stress on the body and adds to the total physiological load. A common reaction to stress is to save or even store more body fat. The result eight to 12 weeks into an exercise program can be an improvement in cardiovascular function and/or increased muscle mass, depending on the type of exercise performed, but no concomitant decrease in body fat, which is really not the result the client was looking for! Again, this is more likely to occur in females over males due to the different hormonal profiles.
Females should also decrease volume and intensity of exercise when they are pre-menstrual. Research shows that the incidence of injury is higher during the premenstrual cycle. Males need to be aware of this and should be advised not to push their female training partners too hard during this time.
Total Physiological Load
Chronic sympathetic over-stimulation creates a catabolic environment in the body. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the sympathetic load on clients both before prescribing exercise and once the program is implemented. Here are some indicators of an autonomic nervous system imbalance with a sympathetic overload:
à Poor digestion
à Decreased salivation
à Increased respiratory and/or heart rate
à Poor sleep quality
à Night sweats
à Orgasm or genital inhibition
à Waking un-rested
à Increased muscle tension
à Increased inflammatory conditions
à Increased susceptibility to infection
People wanting to lose weight, and more so men, think they need the "no pain, no gain" approach to lose weight. In someone who already has a high physiological stress load and several signs of sympathetic overload, such exercise creates a catabolic response to such a degree that they cannot recover anabolically between workouts, leading to a perpetual catabolic state. This is similar to someone who chronically over-exercises by normal standards, except in this case, the client with a high physiological load is performing much lower volumes/intensities of exercise and getting the same result. From a weight loss perspective, the client may see weight loss, but this is via catabolism of muscle, which is detrimental in the long term, as it leads to decreased muscle mass rather than the desired opposite. A chronic catabolic state produced by excessive exercise also lowers levels of testosterone and the thyroid hormone, T3, both which are important for optimal hormonal balance for fat loss and increased muscle, especially in females.
If one or other partner has three or more of the signs of sympathetic overload, then he or she should:
ü Reduce the frequency of catabolic activities.
ü Vary the types of exercise stress:
o Mix up resistance with cardiovascular training.
o Completely change the exercise and go for a walk with your partner
ü Change the acute exercise variables of the existing exercise program to elicit an anabolic response (e.g. perform squats with just body weight at a natural breathing tempo).
ü Keep it simple:
o Reduce the number of exercises.
o Reduce the complexity of exercises.
ü Work "in" rather than working out. Work in exercises generate more energy and life-force than they take to perform. They create an anabolic response in someone who has a high physiological stress load. Some examples are tai chi, Qi Gong, walking meditations and breathing squats.
ü Look carefully for relevant emotional, mental and spiritual stressors that may encourage a catabolic hormonal profile.
Make sure that every third week of training is a period of active rest aids in avoiding elevated cortisol levels, which are counterproductive to fat loss. Cut the total number of sets in half so the volume is halved, although intensity can increase by 10-20%. Clients should leave the gym feeling stimulated and energized, and they may have an increased sex drive due to increases in dopamine and testosterone.
Working with clients of the opposite sex who wish to train together raises some interesting challenges for the fitness professional. Clients should be counseled on possible differences in the way each will respond to the exercise program. Monitoring of the physiological and psychological indicators of each client before the exercise program is implemented, and once the workout partners are involved in their training regime, is essential for retention and a successful outcome for all involved.
Paul Chek, Holistic Health Practitioner, is the founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Vista, California. A sought-after consultant to sporting organizations, his services have benefited numerous professional sports teams and athletes. Paul has produced over 60 DVDs and 17 correspondence courses and is the author of several books, audio programs and articles. For more information on seminars, certification courses and more, visit www.chekinstitute.com.