When it comes to pumping iron, women have as much to gain as men.

A new study compared the results of women and men aged 50 to 90 who started resistance training exercise programs, finding that though men were more likely to gain absolute muscle size, their gains were on par with women’s relative to body size.

“Historically, people tended to believe that men adapted to a greater degree from resistance training compared to women,” said senior study author Amanda (Mandy) Hagstrom, exercise science lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

“The differences we found primarily relate to how we look at the data — that is, absolutely or relatively. ‘Absolute’ looks at the overall gains, while ‘relative’ is a percentage based on their body size,” she said in a university news release.

The researchers compared muscle mass and strength gains in more than 650 older men and 750 older women across 30 resistance training studies. Most participants had no previous resistance training experience.

“We found no sex differences in changes in relative muscle size or upper body strength in older adults,” Hagstrom said. “It’s important for trainers to understand that women benefit just as much as men in terms of relative improvement compared to their baseline.”

They found that when looking at absolute gains, older men gained bigger muscles and had greater improvements to upper and lower body strength. Women saw the biggest increases when it came to relative lower body strength.

“Our study sheds light on the possibility that we should be programming differently for older men and women to maximize their training benefits,” Hagstrom said.

The researchers further analyzed which resistance training techniques gave men and women the best results.

“Older men might benefit from higher intensity programs to improve their absolute upper and lower body strength,” Hagstrom said. “But older women might benefit from higher overall exercise volumes — that is, more weekly repetitions — to increase their relative and absolute lower body strength.”

Training for a longer duration could also help increase relative and absolute muscle size for older men or absolute upper body strength for older women, researchers said.

They noted resistance training offers a number of health benefits, including increasing stamina, balance, flexibility and bone density. It also can improve sleep and sense of well-being, as well as decrease injury.

“Strength training is very important and beneficial to our health — especially for older people,” Hagstrom said. “It can help prevent and treat many age-related chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.”

The findings were published recently in the journal Sports Medicine.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers more on the benefits of strength training.

SOURCE: University of New South Wales, news release, Jan. 6, 2021