A Few Candid Thoughts on Women and Training

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Below is a portion of an interview I did for another blog on the topic of women and training.  I thought I’d share some of it here, since I know a fair portion of my audience are women (as well as those who train women).

On a scale 1-10, with 1 being the equivalent of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and 10 being Rocky IV, this interview is a 10.  Easy.

Enjoy.

On how the media portrays training to women.  Is there any way to change what is being marketed as “exercise” to women?….

TG:  Completely true, and it’s something that I do see changing – albeit at a snail’s pace. Walk down any aisle at your local grocery store, and you’re bound to see numerous “women’s” magazines with a teeny-tiny (airbrushed) actress or model on the cover holding a pink dumbbell underneath some innocuous title like “10 Tips for a Bikini Body” or “Tank Top Triceps!” or something equally as vomit-in-my-mouthish.

In reality, it’s not even the title that’s the most nauseating – it’s the remedial, almost offensive workouts that are attached. I mean, come on:  recommending a workout based solely around a can of soup (which I saw one national magazine publish) – how to curl with it, squat with it, lunge with it, throw it at the editor’s face who decided this was viable fitness information – is a bit of waste of everyone’s time don’t cha think?

But, this is the type of stuff that’s marketed towards women all…….the…….freakin…….time.  As you noted, can you blame women when they curl up in the fetal position whenever you ask them to lift something heavier than their Prada bag?

Note: not every women does this, of course. Many are more than willing to listen. But, it’s pretty comical when you think about it. Many are lugging around bags (and kids!) that are pretty heavy and they don’t bat an eye.

Hand them a 50 lb dumbbell, however, and label it as “exercise,” and all of sudden they’re worried about adding on too much muscle.

Most of what they know about fitness is what the likes of Tracy Anderson regurgitates to them: “no woman should EVER lift a weight heavier than three pounds.”

More to the point, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, I don’t think their formula is going to change anytime soon.  While it’s changing somewhat for the better – they do still have to sell magazines, and what sells magazines are articles with Kim Kardashian on the cover telling the world that performing body weight exercises with high heels on is the key to badonkadonkness.

Thankfully, we have women out there like Nia Shanks, Molly Galbraith, Jen Comas Keck, Neghar Fonooni, and the rest of the Girls Gone Strong crew fighting the good fight and trying to empower women to step away from the elliptical and treadmill.  Likewise, I too try my best to provide information to women that goes against the norm of what they’ve been spoon fed for decades.

I try to debunk as many myths as I can – lifting heavy things WILL NOT make you a She-Man, endless hours of cardio IS NOT the key to fat loss, Yoga WILL NOT make your muscles long and lean, Tracy Anderson IS NOT a credible source of fitness and health information and is about as intelligent as a ham sandwich.  There’s still a very long battle a head, but I do see the tides turning, and it’s a beautiful thing.

On how to convince a woman who is scared to “bulk up” and feels she needs endless amounts of cardio to drop body fat…..

TG:  The best thing I can do as a coach is listen.  I try to ask as many questions as possible and do a little digging.

  • How often do they train?
  •  What has their training looked like?
  •   Are they happy with their results?
  •   If not, how come?
  •  What is their ideal body type?
  •  Why?
  •  What do they feel is holding them back?
  • Team Jacob or team Edward?

So on and so forth.  Once I’m done listening, I then go into a little (not a lot) of what I feel would be the best approach to take given their goals. Almost inevitably, once I start throwing out words like squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, Prowlers, strength training, “we’re going to dominate the world”…….I’ll start to get a little push-back, and many of the same myths and fallacies I described above – things many of these women have been falling prey to for YEARS, with limited (if any) results mind you – rear their ugly heads.

Once that happens, I have one more question for them:  “how’s that working for you?”

Clearly, if their way is the superior way, and it’s the approach they’ve been using for the past 5-10 years…….it MUST be working, right?

Not so much.

To that end, all I ask is that they give me two months.

Give it their all for 60 days and see what happens.  Almost always, after three weeks……..they’re hooked.

Once they start to see (and feel) the confidence they gain, it’s always a done deal. Once they realize that putting an extra ten pounds on the bar won’t turn them into The Rock (and they can fit into their “skinny” jeans), and they start noticing small, incremental changes to their body, the sky’s the limit.

On setting goals

TG: With any client – whether I’m working with a male or female – it’s usually my job to tell them what they need to do, and not what they want to do.  Big difference.

With any client, it’s about getting them outside their comfort zone.  Generally speaking, with women, their Kryptonite is the free-weight area.

Can you blame them?  Who wants to train around a bunch of dudes who smell like they fell into a pool of Axe body spray, stare at themselves in the mirror incessantly, and do stupid stuff like this:

Hell, I don’t want to be around that.

That notwithstanding, having clear and defined (not to mention realistic and attainable) goals is an important component many trainees fail to grasp.  As a trainer or coach, I think it’s crucial to sit down with your client and come up with a goal or set of goals – whether it’s to perform an unassisted, body weight chin-up, shoot for “x” number of lbs on the deadlift, or to lose ten lbs of fat by the end of the month.  Having something to work for gives people a sense of purpose and holds them more accountable in the end.

With the women that I train, they’re going to get coached on all the basic movements – squats, deadlifts, push-ups, etc. Much like you, it’s not uncommon for many of the women I train to boast that someone complimented them on their deadlift form, and I totally dig that!

Even cooler is when they come back with stories about how they were waiting to “jump in” on a certain exercise at the commercial gym, and they warmed-up with the weight that the guy finishing up used on his last set.

In the end, though, it’s about coaching the basics.  There’s no need to make things more complicated than they have to be. Nor is it doing them any favors to “baby” them.  I never quite understood this whole mentality that women can’t train like the boys, and lift some appreciable weight.  Anyone else agree?

 

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  • Alicia

    Great message, Tony, thanks for continuing to spread the common sense!  Let’s hear it for ladies warming up with some dude’s final heavy set (made me smile).  I cannot count how many times I have had the conversation about how hard a woman must work and how dedicated they must be in order to put on any appreciable muscle.  It’s just not that easy, sisters, so don’t be afraid to try!

  • Donnie

    Good post but I ask you, how would you handle the situation where the female client, from her own experiences and not just from misinformation in media,  feels she did bulk up from strength training too much?

    • Kyle Schuant

      That’s a difficult one, I’ve had that a few times. Firstly I ask, “really? did the muscles become a lot bigger, or just a bit harder and more visible as you dropped bodyfat?” 

      Secondly I say something I’ve never seen anyone else say in these conversations:

      “If you did bulk up a bit, would that really be such a bad thing?” 

      I see it as part of women’s backlash against feminism. As women have grown to occupy more social and financial space, they apologise by occupying less physical space. “Okay I earn more than you, hubby, but look, I’m so tiny…” 

      You are allowed to exist and occupy physical space. Go ahead and enjoy it. 

  • Deborah

    At the first meeting with my trainer he asked what I’d been doing for the last 20 years and since I owned my own treadmill I told him I had probably logged thousands of miles walking.  He asked, “How’s that working for you?”  I just stared at him. Let’s see, 20 years, thousands of miles, losing and gaining the same 5 pounds and maintaining 45 extra pounds of fat.  Eye opener.  One year later, my deadlift PR was 185 (not bad for a 50 year old).  I had lost 43 pounds of fat and dozens of inches, added muscle, and went from a size 14 to a 6.    20 years vs. 1.  No brainer.

    •  Deborah, that’s an AWESOME story;  Congrats on your hard work!  My initial thought is that I really want to use what that trainer said with some folks that ask about strength training for females, but I was wondering exactly how well you think the “How’s that working for you?” Will go over to the masses.  Rachel Cosgrove has talked about the communication barrier, and I’m figuring out how to cross it.  Thanks!

  • Emily

    Thank you for the post Tony. All of my ladies LOVE lifting heavy things….in fact, the heavier, the better. They pull the sled around, carry sandbags, deadlift, squat, press, do kettlebell swings, push ups, chin ups, inverted rows…I could go on and on. I have only ONE young woman who cannot get past her fear of getting big if she presses more than 10 pounds but I am not concerned. I will convince her soon. 🙂 The women I train value hard work and effort and believe, nay, KNOW that strong is sexy, that strong is where it is at. I did,in fact, have one of my ladies warm up with one of my male client’s work set for deadlifts. 🙂 It was a pretty awesome site. We have a rockin’ time trying to out lift each other. 😉 Believe me, there are plenty of us trying to show our ladies that lifting weight will create a stronger and tighter you. Thanks again for your post. It is always a pleasure to read your writing. 🙂

  • db

    you rule! we may get more shapely muscles than we had before, but unless us chicks start eating  lou ferrigno sized meals, it ain’t going to amount to much mass. what i’ve realized on my own is that i have not bulked up, even though my jeans fit a little more snug…the muscle i’ve gained is pushing against the fat i have not gotten rid of. DUH. time to slither out from under it and show off the moosles!

  • Natalie

    Absolutely love your take on this. I am a 6ft tall woman, and I have always been labeled as a “big girl” and to “be careful because if I work out too much I will look like a man”. Quite often if I go to commercial gym weight rooms I am treated differently because I like lifting heavy weights. I am not afraid to put on some muscle weight, and I encourage other women to not be afraid to increase their strength, endurance, and fitness levels by getting away from the treadmill-stairmaster-eliptical workout that seems to be the standard routine for a lot of women. I used to be one of them, and I noticed only very little results. Once I started training at a CrossFit facility that does exactly the kind of workouts that you do with your clients, I finally started getting the results that I wanted. Love this article. Thank you.

  • Lisa

    Great post! As a chick who likes to lift heavy I think this message needs to get out more. A site that I follow that has great info on progression, reps, how-tos and nutrition considerations for both beginner and advanced women who like to lift is stronggirlswin.com. It’s a non-fluff site whose main focus is providing real, usable information.

  • erin castioni

    I know how important it was for me to read information like this when i started my journey.  It’s been a freaking sweet ride to see how strength training has changed me in many aspects of my life and i’m only more encouraged to see where it goes.  I can’t help but get a little bit sad when i see those magazine covers like you discussed and think “i know so many women actually believe that, i did…”  Not to mention: Pinterest. Don’t get me started.

    Here’s yet another example of how all of this is real.  Check out how LIFTING HEAVY and proper nutrition caused me to bulk down and look good doing it: http://thesweetpotatoroad.blogspot.com/2012/03/journey-of-girl-gone-strong-my-story.html

  • Jini

    I seem to attract female prospects that say “I realize that lifting heavier weights won’t make most women bulk up but I’m different-I get MUSCLE and that’s not what I want; I want a dancer’s body.”

    Enter Cardio-barre, Tracy Anderson method, Yoga, Pilates, etc. and good-bye prospect (it’s amazing how many women I meet that have more testosterone than the average 23 year-old man…I’m so jealous!)

    The information is out there; most women DO know the truth, but maybe they just don’t want to work that hard for the body they say they want?  Not sure what the real hang up is.  For me, the women who DO become clients, even those in their 50’s and 60’s wind up thanking me when their friends and families compliment them all the time about their lean and strong bodies.  These women then take pride in their strength and are amazed that they can feel this good about themselves!  They inspire me-especially at that age!

  • Lawrence Bowers

    So how can I make sure I don’t pass out like that guy when I deadlift?

    • Tom Blaney

      As Tony explained perform the lift correctly.
      That video shows someone pulling too much weight allowing his technique to break (see the rounded back.  This is common with males and will lead to either an immediate injury, or one down the road.
      Lift smart and heavy, not just heavy!

  • Sue

    I really hope the perception on strength training keeps changing in that direction! I’ve always wanted to hire a trainer, but the ones I encounter always want me to use the machines and 5-lb dumb bells. No thanks. Luckily, I’ve been involved in group classes where lifting heavier weights is praised!

  • RS

    Tony,

    The more I look around, whether at my gym or on the Internet, the more I’m beginning to believe the guys are really the ones who need to be told to train hard AND correctly.

    I see more women kicking ass, doing deadlifts, squats and rows, than I do men at my gym. And they are actually doing them correctly. If my gym is any indication, men apparently don’t need any other exercises besides curls and bench presses. Who knew?!

  • Betsy 6

    Love this article! I’m 72 and lift 20 lbs in each hand, swing kettle bells and push the sled with 50 lbs on board. Working with my trainer is the best part of my week. I am strong for my age and proud of it!

  • I love your blog Tony, especially articles like this. I do believe that there’s a very pervasive culture that steers women away from strength training that is perpetuated by the media. I think that maybe it’s because women and men falsely believe that they must be inherently weak for no other reason that because of their genitals. At my women-only gym, they are starting to do the same. It is thanks to people like yourself that this stupid idea that women can’t do xyz (chin-ups, push ups, lift heavy stuff) is being challenged and attitudes change. I’m pretty positive that in time, strength training for women will be just as well established as for men. So in conclusion thank you and keep up the good work!

  • This is the first time I have been offended by one of your posts. There was no need to insult the good ol’ ham sandwich!

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahahaahhaahahahahah. I have to admit, when I saw the first sentence “this is the first time I’ve been offended by one of your post,” I rolled my eyes and thought to myself “oh boy, here we go again.”

      But when I read the rest of it, I burst out laughing!! Well played!

  • Ambition

    Nicely done! Prowlers…push them ladies!!!

  • The_wineman

    Love, love, love! I love to train like a “man”. I still have a ways to go, but I come so far. I love it when the guys and gals look at me like I am a beast when I work out. Made my day!

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  • Ashleigh

    Fantastic post. I think there are still some trainers out there though that need to be more educated on how women should strength train. I recently joined a new gym as I moved country and I had 3 introductory sessions with a PT . When I told him about the kinds of stuff Id been doing (squats, deadlifts etc) he told me I should use cable machines/lighter weights instead and proceeded to make me complete 3 sets of 20 with every exercise we did. Oh and he also told me my previous trainer who had gotten me into lifting heavy was wrong and I would get “massive” if I continued to stay in the 5-8 rep range. Its no wonder women are still unsure of who to believe with trainers spreading BS like that to their clients.

  • Vanessa

    Hi TONY This is what PrettySTRONG Powerlifting is all about. GREAT ARTICLE. Do you mind if i share it on my website some time? http://www.prettystrongpowerlifting.com We are friends with Girls Gone Strong! 

    Keep spreading the word! 
    ~ Vanessa Gale @ Pretty STRONG Powerlifting 

    • TonyGentilcore

      Vanessa – nice to have you around, and thanks for the kind words! Feel free to share on your website. The more the merrier….

  • One4catie

    Tracy Anderson’s trampoline workout wouldn’t give me rock-hard abs?  Bouncing with a twist. How could it go wrong?  And that can of soup workout is ineffective, too?!  Pretty soon you’ll tell me the Kardashian Fat Burner pill is hokum.  It’s like you think watching ESPN on the couch is bad for you. 

    (As a 36 year-old single parent going to back to college for Athletic Training with a goal toward working in the NFL one day when I grow up, I’m pretty sure my balls are bigger than half the men I know.  And my weight of choice is definitely bigger than what most women I know use.  They always look at me in the Training room like I’m some kind of freak of nature then look at my arms and say “You aren’t that big!”  D’oy.  Thanks for the validation on this issue!)