Among the variables that a coach or a trainer has to consider when doing one-on-one sessions or group sessions, age and gender are the most apparent. However, with the latter, a scaling of weight is usually the only measure/caution taken by many professionals. What about the anatomical differences in hip angle or the differences in adaptation to interval training? Furthermore, what kind of psychological or emotional differences exist between men and women who are walking into a gym for the first time? In his many years of training, leading industry trainer Bret Contreras has compiled a very insightful list of tips and considerations when coaching women who are NEW to the strength training game. Before we dive into some highlights, a note from the coach:
Please understand that I intend no disrespect or offense, I’m not trying to be controversial, I’m aware that I could be wrong in some cases, and obviously I’ve made broad generalizations and there are many exceptions to this list. My primary intent is to inform other trainers and coaches about my observations – it’s likely that your observations will differ from mine.
In most cases, men and women differ greatly — especially when starting a training program of any kind — in terms of flexibility and starting upper body strength. Contreras lists several important observations to keep in mind:
- Women have good “reactive/elastic strength” or stretch-shortening cycle efficiency, but they have poor “starting strength.”Women have to be taught that the eccentric portion of the movement is important, and most will let their form go down the tubes when lowering their last rep of a set (for example during deadlifts or chins).
- Women are more prone than men to exhibit valgus collapse during squatting – while individual differences such as Q-angles contribute to this, “sitting like a lady” probably contributes to it as well.
- A woman’s glutes can become stronger than a male’s – indicated by a greater relative hip thrust strength seen in women (a 2xBW hip thrust appears to be much more common in trained women than trained men, as is a 3xBW hip thrust).
- Proper push-up form is much more difficult to attain for women than it is for men.
- Women have good “reactive/elastic strength” or stretch-shortening cycle efficiency, but they have poor “starting strength” – for example if they start a deadlift or shoulder press from the top of the movement with an eccentric lowering first, the performance is markedly better than if they perform the concentric portion first (more so than that of men).
- Some women struggle to activate their glutes with straightened legs (ex: planks and back extensions), but easily can when the knees are bent (ex: squats and hip thrusts) – I don’t quite know why this occurs.
- Women utilize a variety of lumbar-pelvic strategies when lifting and often resort to overarching (excessive hyperextension) the spine during planks, push-ups, pull-ups, and deadlifts.
- Bodyweight exercises for the upper body are much harder for women compared to men.Most women prefer the EZ bar over the traditional barbell for hip thrusts as their pelvises can get beat up by traditional barbells (depends on the EZ bar though).
- Some women have “coregasms” when training, and the hanging leg raise is the primary culprit (these orgasms usually aren’t welcomed as they’re inconvenient).
- Bodyweight exercises for the upper body are much harder for women compared to men.
Programming Design Considerations
Whether you are working with female clients one-on-one in a personal training setting or you are working with a mixed group of men and women in a class, make sure you are taking everyone’s needs — gender-specific or otherwise — into consideration.
- Women have much better stamina than men in terms of training density at higher intensities – they don’t require as much intra-set rest time as men.
- Most women initially possess “quad dominance,” which should actually be referred to as “posterior chain weakness.”
- Women are not initially very competent at executing 1RM’s, and this skill takes more time to develop in women compared to men.
- The vast majority of women believe in spot reduction – even if they’ve heard the truth about spot reduction on numerous occasions…Women tend to go too light with resistance training, whereas men tend to go too heavy to the point where their form breaks down too much or they rely on excessive momentum (there’s a popular saying in our industry that women should add 10% to the bar while men should take 10% off the bar).
- Women’s upper bodies are much weaker than those of men – lower body strength is around 70-75% of men, whereas upper body strength is around 40-60%.
- When the spine is taken out of the equation, women’s relative compound lower body strength is more comparable to that of men (example leg press, hip thrust); however, in lifts that require significant spinal stability, relative compound lower body strength lags even greater when compared to men (example squats, deadlifts).
- Many women love isolation lifts and feeling the burn with them — probably too much — as most of them love these movements for the wrong reasons (see next point).
- The vast majority of women believe in spot reduction – even if they’ve heard the truth about spot reduction on numerous occasions (many mistakenly believe that tricep, adductor, and low ab exercises burn fat in those regions)….
- Women absolutely love it when they perform their first legitimate push-up and chin-up, and many love doing “masculine” things in the gym such as pushing sleds….
- Women tend to appreciate excellent form more so than men and aren’t as prone to “ego lifting.”
- Women require smaller jumps in progressive overload – smaller plates are therefore critical.However, many women lack the fortitude and dedication to ever see incredible results from lifting due to “being a lifter” rather than “being a student of weight lifting.”
- Many women will never appear “too muscular” no matter how much resistance training they perform….
- The vast majority of women will never have “too much booty” as in gluteus maximus musculature no matter how much resistance training they perform….
- Women require smaller jumps in progressive overload – smaller plates are therefore critical (example 1.25-2.5lbs), as are smaller barbells (and smaller jumps in db’s, kb’s, and bands).