The Problem With “Female Specific” Training

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Before I dive into the meat and potatoes of this tightly batched, to-the-point, soiree of a fitness article lets first address the obvious…

It’s bonkers that in this day and age if you Google the term “female training” or “women’s fitness” you’re inundated with images like this:

20821722 - fitness instructor exercising with small weights in green park

Copyright: zoomteam / 123RF Stock Photo

We all know what it implies:

1. Donald Trump is bat-shit crazy.


2. Women should train with light weights (presumably for higher reps) for that “toned” and “sleek” look many are after.

And we all know what my reaction is:

Somewhere between wanting to toss an ax into my face and this:

To say I feel it oozes a toxic tone and connotation – that woman shouldn’t (or can’t?) train with appreciable weights – would be an understatement. Not only does it set women’s fitness back decades (I’m talking pre-Thigh Master era), but it also would make Susan B. Anthony shit a copy of “Hey, You, Woman, Get Back In the Kitchen and Make Me a Sandwich” out of pure rage and embarrassment.

For the Record: the above book doesn’t exist.

I’ve written several pieces on this site (HERE , HERE, and HERE, for example) extolling some of my thoughts on the topic of training women. I’d be remiss not to at least entertain the idea that there are many women out there who, by and large, could care less about deadlifting 1.5x bodyweight, performing a strict, un-assisted chin-up, or doing anything with a barbell on their back.

As much of a fan as I am of encouraging women to pursue performance-based goals, many are happy (and do very well) following programs that suggest they use “light” weights or no weights at all.1

Hey, anything that nudges anyone into a consistent behavior that gets them active where the alternative is binge-watching Netflix is cool with me.

However, being the strength coach that I am, I’m biased, and feel such programs (you know, the ones that promise 10-20 lbs. lost in one week, but only if you follow a cabbage soup detox sprinkled with belly-button lint from a Centaur) lead to inferior results.

In all the articles I’ve written and points I’ve made detailing my beefs with female specific training and the problems I have with it, there’s one “thing” I’ve always neglected to point out.

The Biggest Problem With Female Specific Training is Using the Term “Female Specific Training” In the First Place

I kinda feel stupid for not addressing this obvious point sooner.

I remember listening to a story Mike Boyle said once where he chuckles every time he comes across a “ACL Prevention Program,” particularly when it comes to female athletes.

It’s 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, how Q-angles enter the conversation, and even how estrogen receptors during the menstrual cycle can affect things.

20561464 - image of young woman football player hitting ball

Copyright: nexusplexus / 123RF Stock Photo

But at the end of the day, as Boyle noted, there’s no such a thing as an “ACL prevention program.” Any well-designed program that focuses on getting athletes stronger (particularly the posterior chain), teaches them how to decelerate and land properly, as well as works on change of direction and movement quality in general 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.

So while I do agree there sometimes exists a slight dichotomy between men and women, what their goals are, how they’d like to look, and how that affects our approach to training them, any program that teaches the basic movements – squat, hip hinge, push, pull, lunge, carry – caters those movements to fit the individual needs, ability level, and anatomy of the person, and then follows suit with the principles of progressive overload….is a (good) program.

Do we really need to call it “female specific?”

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  1. Or have them frolick in a 110 degree room performing interpretive dance to Beyonce lyrics. Your welcome for the class suggestion Equinox. I want commission.

Comments for This Entry

  • Kyle

    As a trainer I find it so hard to break women out of the routine using light weights high reps. Its difficult to encourage them to go heavier because suddenly they will turn into Arnold! But as you rightly pointed out, its pictures like the one you used and 'female specific training' which causes these feelings towards certain training. Really good blog, I enjoyed it :)

    August 4, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Tony Gentilcore

      Thanks Kyle - glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully you can give the other articles I linked to in this blog a read, as I discuss a few strategies to combat women who are scared (or misinformed) about strength training. Or, better yet, direct them to Ben Bruno's Instagram where he has women like Kate Upton pushing 500+ lbs on the sled.

      August 5, 2016 at 10:48 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      One tactic I've used in the past that worked really well is this: 1. Ask them if what they've been doing all along before they crossed paths with you has worked? More often than not they'll say no. 2. Then follow that with "give me 60 days. For 60 days do what I tell you to do. Give me your best effort, and we'll re-assess." After 60 days, when they're doing stuff they couldn't have imagined doing before, they'll be hooked.

      August 10, 2016 at 9:58 am | Reply to this comment

  • Steve

    Great points! It can't be repeated enough. Despite more and more articles like this one (one that comes to mind is Stacy's weight lifting story from Nerd Fitness), there are still a gazillion women insisting on training with small weights and high reps because they are afraid of getting "bulky". They fear that the moment they start training with bigger weights they'll look like female bodybuilding contestants. Which is really crazy and - frankly - naive: if it was so easy to build so much muscle then the fitness industry would be out of business and everyone would look like Arnold (or however they want). But I guess there's much more money in developing female specific BS products than telling them how it actually is.

    August 5, 2016 at 11:18 am | Reply to this comment

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    August 6, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Sorry, couldn't resist. :) Keep on fighting the good fight Tony. Good work mate.

    August 6, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Reply to this comment

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