The Myth of Female Specific Training

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A few weeks ago at the Cressey Performance Fall Seminar I presented on the topic of female specific training with a presentation titled Training Jane From Joe:  Do Women Need to Train Differently Than Men?

Stealing an awesome quote from my friend John Romaniello (and something I whole heartedly agree with):

“We all have the same parts (muscles, not genitals), and while women certainly don’t need to train differently than men, there are numerous reasons that women can – and, often, should – train differently than men.”

True: most women aren’t concerned with bro-science goals like blasting their biceps, pulverizing their pecs, or building a derriere that has it’s own zip code (although, thanks to guys like Bret Contreras, more and more women are jumping on the glute train like never before), and in that regard it’s easy to see the slight differences in training approaches that may arise.

But having said that, I still feel that 90% of the time – general goals aside – there’s no reason to differentiate between how a woman trains and how a man trains.

And while I did dissect a handful of scenarios in which I approach female specific training with a bit more vigor and attention to detail – namely ACL prevention considerations** training someone through a pregnancy – the overriding theme of my talk was how many (not all) women are programmed at an early age to think they’re these delicate flowers who can’t (and sadly, shouldn’t) lift weights.

Sadder still is how many young women are inundated with images from the mainstream media which tells them how they should look to fall into quote-on-quote “societal norms.”

Here’s a glowing example:

One week they’re told that this picture of Kim Kardashian (pregnant) is what fat is:

As a result many will resort to extreme amounts of cardiovascular exercise (you know, because that’s what women are supposed to do) and then follow a diet where a snack mounts to nothing more than a celery stick, water with a splash of lemon, and something that’s gluten-free and tastes like sawdust.

Then, maybe the following week or a few weeks later the same magazine will run a cover which looks like this:

Well, WTF!?!?!?  Which is it?

Is it any wonder why so many women – of all ages – are so confused and have body image issues?

And then there’s this doozy of a story which made me want to offer my face up as a punching bag.

A current client of mine, a woman who happens to be a personal trainer herself, was interested in possibly working with young, female athletes this past summer and reached out to the local high school in her area to see if she’d be able to hang out at the school’s gym during the times when the athletes were there.

She contacted all the coaches of the female sports teams to let them know they she was going to be around and that she was hoping to round up the troops and have the opportunity to work with their athletes.

One of the coaches, who’s the PHYSICAL EDUCATION TEACHER to boot, wrote back with the following note”

“Not many of the girls are interested in lifting weights because there’s no “women friendly equipment” available.”

The “women friendly equipment” she was referring to was, you guessed it:  treadmills and elliptical trainers.

She might as well have added dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and an apron for good measure.  Hell, why not take away their right to vote while you’re at it!

My client was aghast with equal parts disappointment and rage.  The weight-room was well-equipped with ten power racks and plenty of barbells and dumbbells.  Plenty of space for an entire team to come in and learn how to lift weights, and as far as high-schools are concerned, a strength coaches wet dream.

Yet, this coach, assuredly someone whom the female athletes look up to was sending them the message that “you’re girls, you belong on the treadmill.”

This is what’s so frustrating (and infuriating) at times.  Girls are being programmed to think that they’re not like the boys and that they shouldn’t lift weights. Which I find absurd.

And that, in many ways, was the main theme I was trying to convey in my talk a few weeks ago. That the OPPOSITE is what should be highlighted and encouraged and instilled into the psyche of our young females.

While I’m only one coach, and feel I do a good job at stressing things like performance based goals over scale weight and I go out of my way not to fall prey to archaic societal norms, I think the tide is starting to turn.

Groups like the Girls Gone Strong crew are leading the charge and helping to spread the word that it’s okay for girls to get a little dirty and to train along side the boys. People like Bret Contreras and Kellie Davis are writing mainstream books telling women to go LIFT SOME WEIGHTS. Organizations like CrossFit – despite some of my reservations –  are getting women excited to train, and train hard.

It’s still a long battle to forge, and we have a lot of work to do still, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.  And that’s cool in my book.

** = In a lot of ways, much like Mike Boyle, I think the whole ACL prevention talk is BS.  Yeah, yeah, we can talk about how research demonstrates that female athletes are 6-8x more likely to tear their ACL compared to their male counterparts, Q-angles, and even estrogen receptors during the menstrual cycle……but at the end of the day I don’t feel there’s such a thing as an “ACL prevention program.”  I think any well-designed program that focuses on getting athletes stronger (particularly the posterior chain), teaching them how to decelerate and land properly, as well as works on change of direction and movement quality is an ACL prevention program in its own right.

And lets just call a spade a spade:  I don’t think it’s so much an ACL issue with women as it is “they’re just weak” issue.

Now, this doesn’t apply to all women of course.  But generally speaking many women are “hand held” when it comes to programming (see above) and it just comes down to getting them stronger.  Plain and simple.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  • Tiffany

    Thank you for posting this! I am always so frustrated with women who fear the weight room and the fitness industry that perpetuates the fear. The way to a rockin’ bod is not the treadmill.

    • TonyGentilcore

      You’re welcome Tiffany, and I’m glad you liked it. It’s sad that the mainstream media has such a strangle hold on all of us, and I can understand why so many young females are confused.

      Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

  • Justin

    I love training female athletes that stop caring about that stereotype and get hyped about lifting, had a girl on the bball team get 10 Pull ups the other day and another hit 35 pushups. Working predominantly with female athletes over the last two years it’s awesome when they want to crush weights rather than being afraid of getting bulky.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Awesome stuff Justin! Keep up the great work! I wholeheartedly feel that if more women focused on performance based goals, they’d see a profound difference in their bodies. Heck, the same can go for guys too.

  • Brian Lelli

    So if girls can train like men…..does that mean Tracy is right that men should train like women?

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2273962/Has-Tracy-Anderson-gone-far-Yellow-hair-plumped-lips-orange-fake-tan-sees-fitness-guru-leave-natural-beauty-behind.html

    dropkick –> face

    • TonyGentilcore

      Double dropkick –> Face.

  • Emily

    Tony,
    Well, you know how I feel on this subject so I won’t go
    any further than this:

    We were away last week on vacation. One of my clients who teaches a belly dance class at a local big box gymup the street from me, can exercise there for free since she teaches
    there (it’s a separate class from the classes offered). She never trains there even though she gets free membership because, well, she knows she is getting better training with me. 🙂 ie. she actually has learned to squat, bench, press and deadlift, has gotten stronger, has
    changed her body composition…why in the world would she go anywhere else?? 😉

    Anyway, she told me she had to go at 9:30 at night to squat because the one squat rack they have was busy being used to curl and flex and, well, she actually wanted to squat. She also complained that there was not enough “girl friendly” equipment. “There is no women’s bar ( I LOVE my women’s bar because I can teach ANY woman how to press – these are ESSENTIAL if you want to train women as are 1lb, 1/2 lb and 1/4lb plates) and no bumpers for deadlifting.” This was the girl friendly equipment she was talking about. *sigh* Now if we can just get every woman to think this way. 🙂

    Emily

    • TonyGentilcore

      I knew you’d back me up on this Emily. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Michelle Becker

    It’s totally absurd that in this day and age women are still so afraid to lift weights and lift heavy and that so called educators are perpetuating the idea that women shouldn’t.

    When I was in high school 30 years ago, gym class was not co-ed. Women had a female teacher, men a male. However, we actually had a weight lifting segment in gym. Each year they would pull out all the equipment, benches, plates, dumbbells set them up in the Lobby of the gym and tell us to have fun. The only thing was there was absolutely NO instruction.

    To this day I think, what would have happened if I actually had instruction? The truth is I actually did enjoy lifting but none of my friends did and it was not considered something that girls really did back then.

    All young women should be exposed and encouraged to lift. there is nothing more liberating than being strong both physically and mentally and that’s what lifting heavy shit is good for.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I couldn’t agree more Michelle. Albeit, PE class is a dying breed as well.

  • Ky

    Tony thank goodness for you as a person, a trainer and a blogger. You really stand up for us gals I feel and it’s nice to have people like you on our side. I love strength training because i love the way it translates to other sports, makes me feel amazing and strong and healthy. It has changed the way I feel about myself. It seems many women are lifting now which is great but I almost think that for many of them it is because they want to look like fitness models. This goal is so unrealistic! Do it for you, not only for the results but so you can feel amazing and strong! And the side effects are having a beautiful strong body and mind.

    • TonyGentilcore

      And the kicker: all those pictures they see of fitness models are “touched up” more than people think. So not only is it unrealistic, but UNATTAINABLE by most standards to look that way.

      It’s crazy.

      Thank you for the kind words, and lets all keep fighting the good fight….;o)

  • Laurie

    I would invite you to Mini’s House of Pain in El Dorado Hills, CA where young and old, men and women, learn and practice strength training…I started 3 years ago, have lost 80 lbs and regained my health….I love my muscles, and how I feel…we have a saying that we preach to all the younger girls, “Strong girls rock!” And hopefully, through example, they come to believe it. Oh, and for those who think older women can’t gain good muscle tone, that’s not true…I’m 61.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Laurie – that……is……..awesome! Thanks so much for chiming in and sharing that!

  • B-Grrrrl

    Tony if this baby that I’m cooking is a little girl, she will be taught that strong is GOOOOD from the minute it pops out. I hope I can teach her not to dislike her body for the first 30 years of it’s life like Mommy did and instead celebrate the awesomeness of the female form and all the amazing things it can do (like grow another human!).

    She will be encouraged to lift heavy as I’m going to need someone to spot me when I’m still squatting in 30 years time.

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  • Jennifer Bodine Settlemyer

    My new mantra is “I’ll never be a 6 foot waif model. I’m built like a gymnast–strong, shapely and beautiful!” thanks for sharing the love!!

    • TonyGentilcore

      I like that mantra. Accept your body and make it the best version you’d like it to be.

  • Shane McLean

    Most women I train love mixing it up with heavy weights and the boys. They realize the benefits. They wheel is slowing turning the other way Tony and you are fighting the good fight.

    • TonyGentilcore

      It is turning, albeit slowly.

  • Sylvia

    I did not seriously take an interest in lifting until I was 48. Now everyday I see women who I just know would be happy and healthier if they worked a little bit at getting stronger. Thanks for all you do to spread the word.

    • TonyGentilcore

      That’s great Sylvia – glad to see you’ve learned to appreciate strength training!

  • Coach C

    Tony,

    Great article. I train female athletes and I have had two ACL injuries in 8 years. Both girls were really strong. One did a legit front squat 205 x 5 and the other could hex deadlift well over 300. One I feel was a fluke but one girl had all the symptoms the ACL people talk about. Knocked kneed, internally rotated etc.

    Point is strength is the most important issue with female athletes but even the strongest are at greater risk than guys. I feel hip abductor and external rotation strength had to be trained specifically in females. We also target posterior chain exercises.

    I would like to see how you program for soccer and volleyball players.

    • TonyGentilcore

      ACL tears are going to happen no matter what. But getting our athletes stronger is definitely way to lower the risk.

  • Judith Winner

    This ‘older’ woman absolutely LOVES lifting weights!! 😉 <3

    • TonyGentilcore

      Great to hear Judith (and thanks for chiming in).

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  • TonyGentilcore

    And just to save face (as I saw a status on Facebook yesterday that I “think” was directed towards me): It’s not like I feel women should ONLY lift weights. As cliche as it sounds, I do feel that variety is the spice of life. I think people should do what they want and what the like to do, whether that’s yoga, pilates, Zumba, hang-gliding, hot stone walking, whatever.

    The only thing that gets me fired up – and why I’m such a huge advocate for strength training – is that many women are programmed to think that they SHOULDN’T lift weights, which is bullshit. If they don’t want to do it, that’s one thing. But conversely, many are under the mindset that they can’t lift weights, which is simply not true.

    What’s more: how many friends, colleagues, family members do each of us know that have been dying to lose those last 10 lbs for the past 5-10 years…..and they continue to do the same ol’ thing time and time again? Why continue doing more of the same that clearly doesn’t work?

    Lift weights!

    • andthewalrus

      Tony,

      Thanks for the great discussion. I am a female, nearly 30, and in the Army. I haven’t felt such a cultures shift towards lifting weights until the Crossfit craze came through. I don’t want to get derailed on that subject. But I grew up thinking running was the only acceptable form of exercise (being in the Army hasn’t helped either). Its sad to me thinking I lost all those years but what’s great is, there is still time! I am now faster and stronger, and at less risk for osteoporosis.

      I joined the Army weighing a buck-twenty five. But I could barely do 30 pushups and I had no idea what a deadlift was…..now..I am heavier, but so much stronger. Everything is easier-pullups, ruck marches, etc. I love seeing other women in the weight room, “working-in” reps, and I wish more of my family and friends would get over this “I’ll get bulky stigma”……

      • TonyGentilcore

        Thanks for sharing andthewalrus (interesting choice of name). I too have given CrossFit it’s “due” and understand that it’s played a major role in the shift in women’s general mentality towards lifting weights.

        You’re right – being in the Army certainly doesn’t help as far as the tendency to place a premium on cardio, but it sounds like you’ve been able to get a fair share of weight lifting in too, and that’s awesome (and hopefully will rub off on others).

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