Where Fitness Professionals Go Wrong When Training Women

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Anyone’s who read TonyGentilcore.com for any length of time knows I’m passionate about a number of things:

1. Deadlifts

2. Beef Jerky (or any dead animal flesh really. Except eel. Or octopus. Or snail. Basically it needs to have legs if I’m going to eat it).

3. Star Wars1

4. My Cat

5. Helping to reverse the toxic trend predicated by the mainstream media that women shouldn’t (or worse, can’t) strength train and/or lift appreciable weight.

I’ve tried my best to do my due diligence to fight the good fight and to take on the role as an ambassador who advocates for women to lift heavy things, and to shed light on the absurdity that they should refrain from it.

Posts like THIS (where I pwn Vogue Magazine), THIS (where I speak to the main stream media’s message towards women), THIS (where I highlight a few of my favorite “go to” women’s sources), and THIS (which is hands down the most popular post ever in this history of this site) help to elucidate my thoughts on the topic.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the overall “tone” conveyed by the media in recent years has relented and has gotten a bit less vomit in my mouthish – in no small part to the popularity of CrossFit and sites like Girls Gone Strong.

To speak to that point, recently I let it be known that I left Cressey Sports Performance to pursue other opportunities and that I’m now training people at a small studio space in Boston.

NOTE: I will be updating my services page soon, but if you’re interested in getting more information – where the studio is located, the basic format, what the cost is, as well as the secret handshake involved to get in – shoot me an email (via the contact page).

As such, I’ve had numerous people reach out to discuss working with me, some of which have been those from out of town with future travel plans to Boston.

Today I wanted to share an interaction I’ve had with a woman who lives near the NYC area.

From her first email:

I’m in desperate need of a trainer. Since July I have tried two different local trainers (Nyack, NY) and I am really not happy – lots of light weights, no emphasis on compound movements (and when I insist we squat, deadlift or bench they never even discuss form/technique with me and just let me do whatever I want).

They tell me things like a body part – even glutes – can only be trained once a week, I should be eating only tilapia, broccoli, and six almonds, and I want to just run screaming out of the gym.”

I wrote back saying how sorry I was she had been having such bad experiences working other trainers and that I hoped I could try to break the trend.

After a few more emails back and forth she sent this gem:

I still have several sessions with my current trainer which is driving me nuts because he says things like “people – and especially women – can’t build muscle after the age of 40” and I’m 50, building muscle, and really don’t like to hear I can’t do something especially when he has no evidence to back this up.”

I wrote back:

What’s up with this guy? He’s pretty outdated in his train of thought. Is he living in 1919? Does he expect you to make him a sandwich? No, wait, he still thinks women can’t vote, right?”

Alas, sadly, this is the type of information (and message) that’s being relayed to women from fitness professionals – not all of them – who should know better.

The exchange got me thinking on where many (again, not all) fitness and health professionals go wrong when it comes to women and fitness.

1. Catering the Toxicity In the First Place

You see the messages all the time on magazine covers when you walk through a checkout line at a grocery store, and can’t help but feel saturated by WTF’ness of it all:

“Lose 1o lbs Fast. Without Dieting!”

“Get a Lean and Sexy Figure With These 4 Moves.”

“How To Get Toned for Summer.”

“The New Low-Carb, Guilt Free Diet Food: Sawdust!”

I understand marketing and know full-well that words like “strength, squats, muscle,” and “it’s going to take more than a month of dedicated, consistent, hard work to get the results you want” won’t sell women’s fitness magazines.

But come on: as a fitness professional you should know better than to pander to the BS.

And it’s not only fitness professionals – personal trainers and strength coaches – who are to blame. I’ve heard stories of FEMALE high-school athletic directors and coaches dismissing strength training for their FEMALE athletes because, to quote one of them:

There isn’t any female-friendly equipment for them to use anyways.”

What the what??????

Mind you this was in reference to a very well equipped high-school weight room that had 6-8 full power racks and platforms.

The “female friendly” equipment she was referring to were treadmills, ellipticals, and pink colored frisbees for all I know.

That’s a hell of a crappy message to be conveying to an entire demographic of impressionable teenagers. The guys can use the squat racks; you ladies should be over there on the cardio equipment.

Chop, chop…off you go!

I for one like to educate my young female athletes and adult woman clients on why strength training is a good thing, and how it can empower them to accomplish many things outside of sports.

Although, admittedly, I prefer to get every woman I train to “buy” into more performance based goals rather than focusing on losing 10 lbs or trying to emulate an unrealistic, photoshopped societal expectation on the cover of a magazine.

It’s amazing how much of a confidence boost and overall sense of accomplishment that arises when a woman I work with finally hits a bodyweight deadlift (for reps), destroys her previous best on push-ups, or can do something as baller as this:


Rather than continuing to pick the scab and telling a female athlete or client what they can’t or shouldn’t be doing based off archaic, out-dated, and overall damaging information regurgitated by a complacent media, why not instead help them to explore the amazing opportunities, autonomy, and empowerment strength training provides?

I dare you.

2. Thinking Women Need To Train Differently In the First Place

Men have boy down there parts.

Women have girl down there parts.

It’s a big difference, but it doesn’t mean that because you have one instead of the other you need to train differently.

Actually, scratch that.

I don’t mean that entirely.

Need and should are two different things.

I don’t feel women need to train differently than men. I mean, the human body is the human body. The female body reacts to progressive overload in much the same way the male body does.  And, quite frankly, as a fitness professional, I don’t want to set the expectation that women should train “x” way while men should train in stark contrast to that.

I very much treat the women I train like the guys, and I think most – whether they realize I do this or not – appreciate it.

However, I do feel women should train differently.

What the what???

To put it another way: women should train differently compared to men, at times.

As an example, hormones do play a major role here. When a woman his having her period I can’t hold her to the same (performance) standard compared to other times outside that window. She’s going to feel like garbage (<– for lack of a better term) during this time, and I’ll almost always reduce her training volume to coincide.

Moreover, a lot of research (and anecdotal experience) backs up the notion that women don’t get sore as easily, are less quick to fatigue, can handle more training volume compared to men (maybe due to less overall muscle mass?), and that they can train closer to their 1RM more periodically comparatively speaking as well.

As we like to say in Boston, “how you like dem apples?2

NOTE: for more information and insight you can check out THIS webinar I recorded last year on the topic.

3. Trying To “Win”

“But I don’t want to get big-and-bulky.”

Whenever I heard a woman say this to me in the past whenever I broached the words squat or deadlift I used to always try to “win” the argument.

Well, first I’d roll my eyes and then jump into a live volcano. And then I’d try to win the argument by countering with something like this:


Mind you, I still LOVE the above commentary, but I have since rescinded this approach to a large degree.


In large part because it doesn’t work and does nothing to build a meaningful, initial rapport with a prospective (female) client.

Don’t get me wrong: I still play devil’s advocate at times and relay to some that, contrary to popular belief, you won’t grow an Adam’s Apple overnight because you happen to lift something heavier than 50 lbs.

Likewise, I let it be known that saying you’re going to get big and bulky from strength training is like me saying I’m going to win the gold medal in the Olympics because I went out and did some sprints yesterday.

But I digress.

Instead of going on and on about women’s limited testosterone levels and how they’ll never attain the results of elite female bodybuilders, yada yada yada…I steal a page from local Boston-based trainer Lauren Perrault, dig deeper, and ask more questions.

“Why do you feel strength training will make you big and bulky?”

“Is this something that happened in the past?

“What exercise(s) in particular do you feel cause this?”

Maybe their train of thought projects that of a trainer they worked with previously. Maybe they never took the time to learn nor where they shown proper technique. Or, I don’t know, maybe they have a hard time letting go of certain myths and think the Abominable Snowman exists.

Either way…

Sometimes it’s more helpful to take some time to peel back the onion and to ascertain someone’s root cause for thinking they way they do, rather than chastise them out of the gate for the sole purpose of proving them wrong.

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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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. Speaking of which, HOLY FUCK BALLS the (new) official trailer is SICK.

  2. Actually, people in Boston DO NOT say this. So, stop it. Please.

Comments for This Entry

  • John J Brooks

    I've always wondered how much of women's ability to handle a bit more volume has to do with adaptive response to the way they've (historically) been trained vs. physiology? Same thing with women's (general) ability to lift much higher reps at fairly high relative loads.. and from your perspective.. does it matter?

    October 21, 2015 at 7:15 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      That's actually an interesting question. Part of me feels you could make a case for both. I do feel physiology does come into play. Women generally carry less LBM. Less LBM = less metabolic waste which increases fatigue.

      October 22, 2015 at 6:05 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rachel

    Wow that story from the email is terrible. It's hard to believe there are trainers out there like that. I'd think wanting to empower your clients would be a given. Sadface. On the other hand, thank you for continuing to be an advocate for strong women everywhere!

    October 22, 2015 at 9:16 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, in the trainer's defense he was more of an aesthetic/bodybuilding coach and his approach reflected that (his comments on not being able to build muscle after a certain age is false....VASTS amounts of research with elderly clients state otherwise). However, what was most disconcerting was that, even after being asked by his PAYING client that she wanted to learn the "big 3," he basically ignored her. That sucks.

      October 23, 2015 at 9:02 am | Reply to this comment

  • Wendy Moore

    The other night at the gym I looked around and saw all four squat racks occupied by us ladies. Squatting. (No bicep curls or other lameness. ;-) It felt pretty awesome. Thanks for being an advocate, Tony!!

    October 22, 2015 at 11:08 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Deano

    Great article Tony. I raised an eyebrow when you mentioned trainers still treating women like China dolls. The women I train thrive through compound movements. As you say though, don't prove you are right, always ask why they believe what they believe. Thanks

    October 23, 2015 at 2:07 am | Reply to this comment

  • TrainerSync | Stuff We Liked This Week

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    October 23, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Levi Gray

    Oh my god some trainers are ridiculous. My job requires the ability to lift -- and carry -- fifty pound dogs around. I have yet to bulk up after 14 years at it. I'm a veterinary assistant. Anytime someone tells me to start with light weights when I consider strength training, I start laughing. Come on, man, the average cat weighs ten pounds! I cart them around all day even on a really arthritic day with no trouble! Isn't the point of strength training to, you know, get stronger? This is why I hate gyms. Also why aren't you in Chicago where I can hire you?

    October 23, 2015 at 4:46 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, not all gyms or trainers have that mentality. Chicago? I was in Chicago last weekend for a workshop I was putting on with Dean Somerset! If you're looking for some quality coaches and an AWESOME gym culture I'd point you in the direction of Rebell Strength and Conditioning. That's the gym that hosted the workshop - Mike and Ryan are amazing. Here's the website: http://www.rebellstrength.com/

      October 25, 2015 at 8:01 am | Reply to this comment

      • Levi Gray

        I was just reading their website -- I might try them out. I'm kind of concerned about being overweight and arthritic,  but I think they can work with that. -------- Original message --------

        October 26, 2015 at 12:51 pm | Reply to this comment

  • alicejompls

    I'm super fortunate that I've never met anyone with the temerity to suggest that I shouldn't lift heavy, decide to give me unsolicited "advice" on my form, or treat me like I'm a moron about lifting. The guys at my gym (and there's a heavy powerlifting, strongman and body buildling focus, so it's a very male-heavy clientele) are all super respectful and encouraging. But I hear all the time about the culture of intimidation built up to keep women away from weights. Seriously, all the time. And it is fucking absurd that I should feel LUCKY to be treated like a competent human being in the gym. The same gym where I spend more time than anywhere else outside my office and my house.

    October 23, 2015 at 5:20 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well stated Alice. The powerlifting/strongman community has ALWAYS been one of the most accepting and generous communities I know. So glad to hear you've been fortunate enough to have them in your corner.

      October 25, 2015 at 8:03 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jon D. Gilmore

    Great article and best wishes for a successful new business venture / adventure.

    October 25, 2015 at 9:30 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Still fighting the good fight Tony. Congrats on making the articles of the week. The pink Frisbee line made me laugh out loud. That was worth the price of admission. :)

    October 25, 2015 at 10:23 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jen

    I am tracking with you on every point! I am actually writing a blog post that goes live tomorrow about a this very topic! I teach group fitness classes and gets me more annoyed than seeing women do exercises with 2.5# weights. I'm a huge advocate for women being awesome and lifting heavy things. Thank you so much for writing this article and being an advocate as well. I'll be linking to this post tomorrow! :)

    October 25, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Reply to this comment

  • TUESDAY’S GOOD READS – ISSUE #15 – OCTOBER 27th, 2015 - Healthy Living, Heavy Lifting

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    October 26, 2015 at 2:37 am | Reply to this comment

  • Benjohnstone

    It is true that sometimes great trainers even go wrong while recommending diet plans and exercises to women. This further gives problem to them, as the body and capacity of a woman and a man is different. So, consulting a Personal Training Los Angeles is the best option. http://www.athleticbodydesigns.com/

    October 29, 2015 at 6:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Callie

    It's refreshing to see the new approach you're taking with the "bulky" issue. I've always been concerned with adding too much muscle and it's because of a specific experiences I had in the past. While wearing a midriff top in public I was complimented once by a stranger on my "six pack". I couldn't understand why he was talking to me about beer!!! I didn't know what a "six-pack" was in fitness lingo; he had to patiently explain it to me. At the time I didn't work out other than going to clubs and dancing on the weekends. And I wasn't particularly lean (I am 5'6" and was about 150 at the time, a size 10). Another example: I went on a wilderness expedition (lots of hiking with 50 lb packs, and hours of rowing boats each day). When I came back after 25 days, I got stares and comments about being muscular and "yoked". After 25 days!!! I've always added muscle very easily. And when approaching training, my thoughts have always been "Remember how quickly you add muscle when you aren't really trying?? What will happen when you actually try??" It would have been great to have a trainer who was open to discussing my beliefs rather than dismissing me and my very real experience out of hand. It's also worth mentioning that not every one's definition of "too muscular" is the same. I, for one, never thought I'd end up looking like a body-builder. I simply never wanted to be called "yoked" again. Appreciate the topic.

    November 25, 2015 at 1:40 am | Reply to this comment

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