The world of fitness for women is changing. In a part of the population who was brought up on aerobics, running, and “slimming”, fitness has been a thing of gimmicks, trends, and false teachings. It wasn’t until the past decade or so that women were even allowed to lift heavier weights without blowing up like bodybuilders and being deemed as “manly”. Thanks though to the recent explosion of Crossfit, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting in popular culture, women are starting to explore the possibilities of their bodies and picking up weights that were once a no-no. It’s a good thing too because us men were starting to miss the shapes that once attracted us to the female body. The cardio queens of the world were ridding women of their curves and creating a clan of stick figures with their Ugg boots and Pumpkin Spice Lattes. It’s time for women to take back their curves and look like women.
My Path to Knowledge
Being in the field for a decade I have worked with many women and spread the knowledge of strength training to them all. However, it wasn’t until the past couple of years that a surge of interest in powerlifting for my female clients brought me into a new position in my career. I had worked with athletes on many different levels in my past but creating a female powerlifter was a different task all together. Training for maximal strength is something I have studied for years and I have been able to learn from some of the best, so the training was never a worry for me. What I wasn’t prepared for was the other aspects of working with the female power athlete. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way and continue to learn more and more about the process but there are a few things that have stuck out to me consistently and have helped me mold my training.
When starting strength training, everyone has an adjustment period to the heavier weights, the form, and the feeling of soreness. This is across the board, men and women. However, when it comes to training for competitive powerlifting, there is a new level of intensity. Some training days will be at 90-110% effort, some positions will push your joints and bodies to their limits, and some days will leave you dead to the world. These are the areas where I have experienced issues in teaching. Many men have that mentality of “more!” where many of the women I have worked with start with a mentality that limits their abilities. They initially believe they can lift a lot less than they really can and many times there is a cut off because they get uncomfortable under the weight. This is where teaching and proving that they can handle more weight, are stronger than they once thought, and there will be some discomfort is vital to success. Once you can get over this hump progress will come in bunches but it’s a transition period from “a challenging 8 reps” to “fight for 20-30 seconds on this maximal effort squat to get a new PR”. The best thing you can do as a coach is show confidence in your athlete and continue to be positive, especially early on to help build mental strength. Initial strength gains are all about confidence rather than muscular improvement.
Another mental aspect of the game. This is one I never even thought of until a recent meet I was at. I was listening to a conversation with some female lifters and what they were talking about blew my mind. The conversation entailed everything from the singlet and how it looked to the faces they made during lifting. One girl even went to the extent of claiming she quit a lift because she felt she was making an “ugly face”. I realize this isn’t across the board but this is an aspect of the sport that needs to be considered when training female athletes new to the sport. They are worrying about everything from what people think to if they look ok to not making their coach mad. We as coaches would all hope that they are worrying about keeping their knees out, staying tight, and getting air, but it’s not always the case. This is where a good coach comes in and instills confidence into his/her athlete, reminds of technical aspects, and helps keep the athlete’s mind free of the crap.
Leaving the brain and coming back to the body, training females is a different beast. Many times for men improving mobility will help boost lifters to new PR’s, however it’s quite the opposite when it comes to women. Many women have a higher laxity in their joints causing their range of motion to be greater, their mobility to be high, and their stability to be lacking. It’s easy to get these lifters to a good depth on their squat and a great arch in their bench. The problem comes when they can’t control their body in these end ranges. They have no strength and no stability in their joints causing form to break down and possible injury to occur. When assessing new female athletes remember to keep this in mind and there is even a test you can run that will give you an idea of their laxity. The Beighton score is a nine-point scale that looks at both upper and lower extremity mobility. You can learn more about the test here. If a high score is shown then the approach with this athlete would be different. Stretching and mobility work would be little to none and an emphasis on stability would be crucial. If joints are hypermobile and stability is low, not only will it be hard for a lifter to stay tight throughout the set-up and movement, but the athlete’s joints will not be able to hold larger amounts of weight and the risk for joint injuries will be much higher.
It’s a Woman’s World
When working with any client, individuality and specificity are key. However, these are just some of the observations I have made over and over again with my female athletes. The training is the easy part. It’s the mental aspect of the game that makes a good lifter become great. Build confidence, reassurance, and strength all as one. The world of fitness for females has changed and has changed for the better. It is our job as coaches to take this change to the next level and help those who have just been introduced to it all.