Wait a second, why is some guy writing an article on how women should train? Well, I work with a ton of women clients, both online and in-person. I’ve coached young female athletes to those prepping for Bikini or Figure competitions. I also deal with a lot of clients who just want to shed some lbs and be content with how they look.
I’m not trying to single women out with this article, only detail my experience and how I have been successful in helping them reach their goals. Please understand, ALL of these clients should be approached on an individual basis with their program tailored specifically to them and their goals!
What I’ve found is that a lot of women who lift are training inefficiently, even under the guidance of a “personal trainer.” I put personal trainer in quotations because I hate that term and those who call themselves that. You want a coach, not a weekend certified warrior aka a “personal trainer.” It doesn’t help that everywhere you turn a different “expert” is giving contradictory advice. It becomes very hard to know who to trust.
There are a lot of misconceptions that surround women and weightlifting, especially lifting heavy, challenging weight. What I hope to do is arm you with the knowledge to maximize your time in the gym and dispel the myths that surround women and weight lifting.
1.) Stop training like a bodybuilder! – Before I work with a client I get a pretty detailed history of their training experience, injuries, past success/failures, etc. I cannot tell you how many women are put on a bodybuilding split even though their goal is to get in better shape, get stronger or improve their body composition.
Usually it goes like this, “Well, my trainer had me do biceps on Monday, shoulders on Tuesday, so on and so forth.” Ok, great. I am thrilled that you were lifting weights but let’s talk about that split for a second. Why do bodybuilders break their training up like that? It’s simple, their goal is hypertrophy and maximum muscle (and symmetry even though that’s a lost art). They want their biceps to be as big as possible, but do you? Do you really need a whole day dedicated to bicep exercises?
ABSOLUTELY NOT. This couldn’t be a bigger waste of time. You want to get stronger, you want to move more efficiently, have less aches and pains, drop body fat; 15 sets of bicep curls will not help you achieve this. If you’re a figure competitor, this type of split may make more sense, IF you have lagging body parts that need to be brought up. But all of the volume associated with the typical bodybuilding split is simply unnecessary for most women trainees.
What you should do – Depending on how often you can train, you are better suited for full body lifts or breaking it up into upper body and lower body days. This way you can focus on those lifts which deliver the most bang for their buck, like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, pushups. Your workouts will be much more demanding thus leading to greater energy expenditure and quicker results.
Bottom line: Bicep days are great if you want big biceps, not so great if you’re after fat loss, maximizing time in the gym and an improved overall physique.
2.) Heavy weights aren’t making you bulky, your diet is – This belief that any sort of heavy weight lifting makes women bulky is dying but it’s not dying fast enough. First off, I don’t think people appreciate how truly difficult it is to add muscle tissue. It is a metabolically expensive, LONG-TERM, demanding, never ending process.
It can take years for some people to put on any appreciable muscle. I mean, how many guys do you know who lift weights often and still don’t have a lot of muscle? Tons. Natural men trainees are lucky to gain 1lb of lean body mass per month and this eventually slows and taps out. There’s also this thing called testosterone which men (270-1100ng/dl) have in much larger amounts than women (6-86 ng/dl). This is why we gain muscle and can lose fat easier than women (sorry), as testosterone has positive effects on lean body mass, fat mass, and insulin sensitivity.
Now, that doesn’t mean that some people don’t have better genetics than others. I certainly have some female clients who put on tissue faster than others. However, if you think you’re getting bulky, check your diet first. After a few weeks of weight training some may say, “I’m getting bulky with all this heavy weight, I don’t like it.” Why is this? A recent study found that when the participants were told they were doing “fat burning exercises” they went on to consume significantly more food in their next meal . This is pretty common for men and women. “I worked out really hard today, I earned this ice cream.” People tend to use exercise as an excuse to eat more but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
The other issue at play here is that the body keeps close tabs on energy levels. It is used to having x amount per day and your exercise chips away at this. Therefore, the body is going to drive you to ingest more food and make sure energy levels stay where it feels normal as the body loves homeostasis. Similar to when you diet, the body notices the decrease in energy and initiates the release of hormones to drive hunger.
What you should do: Lift heavy. Get stronger. Focus on nutrition. Results will follow. I doubt you can find a girl who can bang out unassisted pull ups, do 10+ pushups, squat 135 and NOT look impressive.
3.) Lower your cardio – Although I absolutely despise doing cardio, I am not one of those coaches jumping on the, “cardio makes you fat” bandwagon. That is so dumb that I shouldn’t have to address it. Anyway, I have had plenty of women who came to me for help with nutrition or training, whose cardio I lowered drastically. I still use cardio for clients but in a moderate fashion. If you are doing 4-7 days of cardio per week in hopes of it giving you the body of your dreams, please stop. That is excessive and will only take away from the work you are doing with weights. For fast fat loss I prefer HIIT (in the fasted state) as I wrote in this article, “Fasts and Sprints For Fast Fat Loss”, but I still use a blend of HIIT and steady state cardio with clients.
However, let’s get one thing straight, cardio does not equal weight loss per se. In fact, no exercise does, that is not the goal of training. Exercise helps create an environment where, if manipulated properly, can lead to fat loss. Fat or weight loss is created through a deficit in energy. Cardio or weights will help you dig the deficit ditch but if you train and continue to eat like shit, don’t expect physique changes.
The cardio haters may warn you of lowered thyroid/sex hormones, excessive cortisol and severe hunger from any sort of aerobic activity. While this can happen, it’s a very extreme example. Yes, if you combine 7 days of cardio with a big caloric deficit and tons of weight training, you can negatively impact these hormones. This is not something that I encounter often but I have seen this.
What you should do: Change the way you view aerobic activity. In my opinion, for optimal changes in body composition, focus on weights first and cardio as an accessory. Don’t be afraid to use some unconventional cardio, for this I prefer prowler pushes/sprint, barbell complexes, and farmers walks. I tend to have clients start with the MED or minimum effective dose of cardio. Put simply, this is the least amount of cardio we can use while still progressing toward the clients goal.
In Part 2 of this series I will discuss why the scale doesn’t define you, how to set up your nutrition plan and more. If this article helped you make sure you share it!
You might also like:
 Hormone Therapy: Normal Male and Female Reference Ranges, http://www.hemingways.org/GIDinfo/hrt_ref.htm
 Navina Fenzl, Katja Bartsch, Joerg Koenigstorfer, Labeling Exercise Fat-burning Increases Post-Exercise Food Consumption in Self-Imposed Exercisers, Appetite, Available online 28 May 2014.