The Best Advice for Women Who Lift

You're already a woman who lifts? Good. Now here's what T Nation pros say you should focus on next.

The-best-advice-for-women-who-lift

Dr. Sarah Ellis Duvall – Physical Therapist

Understand the goal of every exercise you're doing.

Ask yourself, "What am I working? Where should I be feeling this?" Not only will working the right muscle groups make you stronger faster, it'll help prevent injury.

Let's say a woman wants to do more pull-ups and build back strength. When she performs the exercise, she feels it in her arms and shoulders instead of her back. She's using the wrong muscles, meaning she won't reach her goal with that exercise and risks injury.

In short, focus on where you're supposed to feel the exercise and make sure you feel it working in the right place. If it's a back exercise, make sure you feel it in your back. If it's a squat, make sure you feel it in your glutes (butt muscles) and not just your quads and hip flexors (front of your legs). If it's a deadlift, make sure you feel it in your hamstrings and glutes (back of legs) and not your low back. This is key to avoiding tightness and injury while reaching your goal of getting stronger. – Dr. Sarah Ellis Duvall

Bret Contreras – Strength Coach

Don't overdo it.

In 20 years of training women, the most common training barrier I've noticed is the notion that more exercise is always better. But there's a sweet spot of overall exercise volume and resistance training volume that optimizes results.

Exercise shouldn't be used as a means to "undo" poor dietary strategies. Moreover, trying to excel at strength training, yoga, Pilates, running, plyometrics, and HIIT at the same time will render you a jack of all trades, master of none, so training must be focused. Finally, added volume in the weight room is only beneficial up until the point where it's no longer possible to adequately recover from it.

The majority of my clients perform approximately 50 working sets per week in the gym with little to no added cardio or additional exercise. One week out of each month is reserved for deloading. This works because during the other three weeks, they're striving for personal records (PR's) and pushing load and effort intensively.

Many women do too much exercise and overdo it on training volume to the point where it distracts them from getting stronger and prevents them from making meaningful physique improvements. – Bret Contreras

Kelli Keyes – Nutrition and Strength Coach

Lifting is not about how much pain you can tolerate. It's about how heavy you can lift without pain.

You've heard the phrase "No pain, No gain." It should be "Yes pain, less gain." There's a belief in the lifting world that you have to hurt in order to lift heavy. Now, I'm not talking about the awesome soreness we feel after a tough workout. I'm talking about the "I can't get out of bed" hurt.

If you're lifting with and through pain, this doesn't have to be and shouldn't be the case. I know this from my own experience. Years back, I was sucking it up and lifting through some lower back pain. It got to the point where I couldn't instruct my gym members and literally couldn't get out of my car one morning. Needless to say, I had to stop training for a long time.

For some silly reason, I had it in my head that I just needed to push through, and I guess I thought the pain would magically disappear. I was very wrong. Today, I'm much wiser (only a little older) and I've learned lifting shouldn't hurt in a bad way. In fact, I can lift much more today than I could back then.

If the focus of your workouts is to move pain free and feel GOOD, you'll find that strength just naturally follows. – Kelli Keyes

Abs

TC Luoma – T Nation Editor

Work your abs like a woman and not a man.

Now before all you women out there stand up on your chairs, point your fingers at the computer screen, and shout J'accuse at me for my alleged blatant sexism, let me qualify that statement.

If you're a female powerlifter, you should indeed work your abs like a man. If you're some sort of athlete who uses weights to enhance your performance on the field, then again, yes, work your abs like a man. Or, if you're a woman who just doesn't give a crap about social conventions or attractiveness to the majority of males and just wants to get as powerful and formidable as possible, then go ahead, bust up those bad boys and work them like a man.

However, most women want to have a waist as narrow as possible and do whatever's necessary to achieve that much-vaunted 7 to 10 waist-to-hip ratio that's so highly coveted by Western society. As such, they're obsessed with working abs and the waistline. Where this gets especially problematic is when they start devoting a disproportionate amount of time to working their mid-section. They often do hundreds or thousands of crunches or side bends.

Furthermore, to get them to their wasp-waisted goal quicker, they unwisely start using more and more resistance, all the while forgetting that the abs and other muscles in the mid-section are like all other muscles in that they grow in response to volume and resistance.

Many women, and a whole lot of men, too, have made the mind-numbing assumption that extra reps or extra resistance will somehow slenderize the waist and sculpt away fat to reveal a beautiful six pack of taut, perky rectus abdominus muscles. Why they think that muscles in the mid-section are somehow different than other skeletal muscles in the body is a mystery.

Similarly, many of these ultimately blocky-looking souls will hang on to enormous weights at their sides – as if they were carrying buckets of steel rivets to the 33rd floor of the apartment building their crew is working on – and do side bends, all in a misguided effort to whittle away at their obliques.

If you train the abs or mid-section with undue volume or resistance, like a man, you'll develop a man-like waist. It'll get bigger in all directions. Oh, you may ultimately get a six-pack (underneath the fat you failed to whittle away), but each of the paired muscles of the rectus abdominus will be the size of the beer cans in an actual six pack instead of the sleek, barely raised bands of muscle you're presumably looking for.

Remember the goal and train accordingly. You don't want to look like Frank "Cannonball" Richards, who could take an actual fired cannonball to his sturdy gut and live to tell about it. So train your abs like a woman. Minimum to moderate resistance. Reps in the 15 to 20 range, not the 500 to 1000 range, for ten minutes instead of 60.

The rest of your body? That's the stuff you should work like a man. – TC Luoma

Abby Keyes – Nutrition and Strength Coach

Lift to improve your body, not to look like someone else.

Lifting enhances your body. It sculpts, defines, and adds sexy curves. Setting the wrong expectations, however, can be limiting. When you lift, you're developing muscle and changing body composition based on your genetics. Lifting doesn't change the body type you're born with. You can only develop it based on how you're made.

I've had this conversation with many female clients. I'm a small framed person with narrow hips. I have hard-earned muscle, but looking like She-Hulk isn't in my genetic makeup. A curvy woman once told me, "I want to look like you." She had a figure like Jennifer Lopez, while I more closely resemble a 12-year old boy. I can't squat myself into those curves, and she can't train herself out of them.

You can't change genetics, but you can enhance what you're born with through consistent training. Lifting creates a fit, strong, resilient version of the body you were given. Couple your training with a diet rich in protein, fresh produce, healthy fats, and quality starchy carbs to support your changing body, and you'll have many of the important pieces in place to become a more capable version of you. – Abby Keyes

Bronwen Blunt – Powerlifter, Nutrition and Strength Coach

Go into the gym each session with a new goal in mind, even if it's something very small.

If you're going into the gym every day doing the same exercises for the same sets and reps with the same weight, it really isn't ideal. If you aren't progressing in the gym, you can't expect miracles to happen with your physique either. Even if it means adding an extra 1-2 pounds each week it can make a huge difference over a period of time.

I like to plan 4-week training blocks (during contest prep and in the off season). This way I'm always going into the gym with a plan and really trying to challenge myself each training session.

Also pay attention to your menstrual cycle because it can really affect training. Listen to your body and keep your nutrition on point. This is another reason I plan four-week training blocks. I tend to become very tired and my joints get sore at this time, so I generally train with higher reps and lighter weight during "that time of the month." Use Biotest Z-12™ to get extra sleep at night. The extra sleep will help you recover so you're ready mentally and physically when you hit the gym. – Bronwen Blunt

Jade Teta – Integrative Physician, Naturopath, Coach

Know the B's and the H's.

Assuming they're interested in body change, the most important things to remember are the B's and H's. The most effective workouts have these four key parameters:

  1. Breathless
  2. Burning
  3. Heavy
  4. Heat

Most lifters get stuck in one type of workout. They might just do cardio, or just high rep work, or strength and powerlifting work. But the most efficient method for body change is to make sure weight lifting workouts hit all four of these components at once. To do this, lift weights in a fast-paced, rest-only-when-needed fashion.

Most people think rest and work are opposites when they're actually synergists. The more you rest, the harder you're able to work, and the more you work, the more rest becomes essential. Rest equals quality work, and quality work leads to needed rest.

The best way for women to get the most out of lifting is to think: "Push until you can't, rest until you can." In other words, push until you can't push anymore, and rest only until you can start again.

They should use moderately heavy weights and move between exercises with no defined rest periods. Rest should be taken only when needed, within sets or between sets, and then the workout is resumed wherever they left off before the rest. This allows for the breathless, burning, heavy, and heat effect.

One little known hormonal difference between women and men is that men get greater testosterone production while women get a greater human growth hormone response. In order to benefit from this response, intensity for women is key. Breathlessness, burning, and strain through the muscles all amplify the HGH response.

HGH is the ultimate multi-tasking hormone for women, helping them burn fat while simultaneously building muscle. This will create a lean, athletic, and feminine physique. Here's an example:

Pick 4 full-body lifting exercises such as:

  1. Squat
  2. Bench Press
  3. Bentover Row
  4. Push Press

Do 12 reps of each exercise in circuit fashion resting only when needed within sets or between sets: push until you can't; rest until you can.

Time yourself for 20 minutes, generating as much volume as possible within your fitness level and physical abilities. Use moderately heavy weight for each exercise, a 15-20 RM. This is the most effective lifting workout for body change. – Jade Teta

Squat

Charles Staley – Strength Coach

Apply quantitative measures of progress to your workouts.

As a general rule, women are very good when it comes to making sure that they get the appropriate "feel" from the exercises they do (and I wish my male clients were better at doing this) but they often under-appreciate or even ignore the numbers, which are critical when you stop to consider that the foundational principle of lifting is progressive overload.

In the short term, executing a workout that leaves you feeling like your muscles have been worked hard is a good strategy. But training (and the results you expect from it) is a process – there must be a measurable increase in challenge from workout to workout.

No one gets stronger (or more muscular) by accident. It must be proactively forced, especially when it comes to women, who don't have the same hormonal advantages as men. So if you lifted 145 pounds for 4 sets of 8 last session, next time around you need to make sure that you lift some combination of more weight, more reps, and/or more sets. – Charles Staley

Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

Stop being so scale-obsessed.

The scale is the driving force behind women choosing the wrong diets, training plans, too much cardio, and basically doing everything backwards in regards to recreating their body into what they ultimately visualize for themselves.

When I get feedback from male clients, the first thing they talk about is how loose their pants are fitting, or how they now see a bicep vein. With women, the first piece of feedback I get is, "Weight hasn't changed. Feeling discouraged." Never mind that in that amount of time they may have gone down two dress sizes.

Women who lift need to understand all the pieces of feedback that confirm fat loss or muscle gain is happening, and that the scale is a tool that can't tell them if they lost or gained fat or muscle.

Because men are more visually wired than women, they usually don't care about the scale as much, so long as they can look in the mirror and see changes. Too many women turn a blind eye to improvements in body composition because they're more interested in the arbitrary number on the scale.

You can use the scale, but break out a tape measure. Write down all the pants or dress sizes you want. Get your body fat tested properly. Take all of these things into account to track progress, rather than putting all of your "making progress" eggs into one basket. – Paul Carter

Michael Warren – Strength Coach

Get your rear in gear and fire up the glutes!

This one bit of advice actually helps women hit their two most common goals. When women ask for my advice these are the two questions they have:

  1. How do I get my butt looking better?
  2. How do I lift more weight?

The problem is, while they know squats and deadlifts are great glute exercises, they predominately feel it in their quads rather than the glutes. This is an even bigger concern if a client already has quads that she thinks are bulky.

Research actually shows that during a squat, the typical activation in the quads is 70% and only 20% in the glutes. So rather than looking to the squat and deadlift, a better solution is to incorporate an exercise like hip thrusts, which research shows activates the glutes far more (about double) than the squat.

Hip Thrust

Numerous clients of mine have recorded new PRs in all their major lifts after adding weighted hip thrusts. They end up with better lockout strength when deadlifting, more stability when benching, and more strength getting out the hole in the squat.

Because of hip thrusts, all of my clients have been lifting more weight in the big three. Their one rep max, three rep max, and five rep maxes have gone up. And it's not just the big three. They've gotten stronger in every exercise.

There are also many other great glute isolation exercises such as single leg hip thrusts, pull-throughs, single leg back extensions, and reverse hypers.

The glutes are the most important muscle for total athleticism. They're responsible for hip extension, hip external rotation, hip abduction and posterior pelvic tilt. Strong glutes are necessary for sprinting, jumping, climbing, throwing, striking, turning, lateral cuts, squatting, lunging, bending – basically all athletic movements.

In addition, by incorporating glute-dominant exercises, my female clients have noticed significant changes in the rear, so much so that friends and colleagues were complimenting them on it. I even get client referrals based on this.

So by doing exercises like hip thrusts, not only are you going to get stronger you'll also develop a body that gets noticed! – Michael Warren

Eric Bach – Strength Coach

Push the envelope.

Squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses are still the best movements for building a lean, powerful body. But doing the lifts alone isn't enough – you need to push the envelope, striving to build strength, and overload the body.

Remember, your body doesn't want to change. It must be forced. According to Davis' Law of soft tissue adaptation, you need to stress soft tissues past their current capacity if you want them to change. That means adding weight to your lifts and increasing training volume are essential if you want to change your physique. At the basic level, nothing else matters in the gym.

Push your body beyond its abilities or you won't grow, and use any of the hundreds of great training programs on this site to do so.

Too many lifters fall in love with the hottest gadget, newest method, or sexiest exercise. At the end of the day, track and improve your training over time. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is imperative for long-term progress. – Eric Bach

Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor

Don't follow any workout program blindly.

Your body is your laboratory, and no expert (no matter how educated or experienced he or she is) can tell exactly what's going on inside your body. Coaches aren't psychic.

This advice holds true whether you're following an online program, a WOD, a highly detailed plan from your competition coach, or even working one-on-one with a specialty trainer.

If something feels off, and you keep going all-out just to follow the instructions, you risk injury. Do this often enough and you end up with a chronically weakened immune system. And nothing sets you back more than having to work around those – especially when you keep getting sick or injured for weeks at a time.

This can be a huge problem for people-pleasers. People-pleasers want to make trainers and coaches proud. They tend to worry about being perceived as lazy, so they'll aim to push harder, hit more reps, move faster, nail the technique perfectly, and try for heavier and heavier weight, even when they're totally depleted and feel like something isn't right. People-pleasers will strive to be dedicated and stoic when their bodies are falling apart.

If that's you, learn to speak up. If you're working one-on-one with a hardass, realize that YOU are the boss. You know when you're giving it your all. You're doing this for personal satisfaction. You're likely not an Olympian. And your job probably doesn't depend on this. So take a little pressure off yourself. Being fit and physically competent under a barbell shouldn't be debilitating. Training ought to make your life better as a whole, not worse.

If you're paying someone to train you, then you can just as easily fire that person. And that coach will respect you more when you tactfully remind him or her of that. Don't be their bitch. Don't be their trophy. The coach is working for YOU. So, have those hard conversations without being passive aggressive, and ask for what you need.

There are a lot of excellent trainers who actually want to help you improvise on workouts when you need to. Find them. They're the kind who trust you to put in the effort, no matter the workout.

If you're already a dedicated and experienced lifter, you likely don't need a militaristic coach to crack the whip. And absolutely NOBODY needs a patronizing one. – Dani Shugart

John Romano – Competition Coach, Performance-Enhancement Specialist

Don't lift like a dude.

This is where the ire of all the feminists rise. Who am I to say how a woman should lift? Do I tell guys how to lift? Actually, I do, but for other reasons. When I think of any of us lifting, man or woman, I can't help but consider the image that we're giving off.

We lift in gyms, mostly public gyms, among the masses of kinda-normal people who find themselves in the gym for a variety of reasons, none of which concern the serious lifter. However, their opinion seems to count and that's why we have places such as Planet Fitness, where serous lifting is seriously discouraged in favor of eating pizza, Tootsie Rolls, and bagels in a "judgment-free zone."

Guys are probably 92% of the reason why serious lifters shed a bad light, but some women – not many, but enough – can magnify that bad light by emulating, a little too closely, the lifting habits of men. Usually the bad lifting habits.

Now, who cares? Why should any girl who's hell bent on a 405 squat give a damn about what people think of her? In a perfect world no one would. But we don't live in a perfect world. We – bodybuilders – live in a world where we're constantly misunderstood, maligned, made fun of and looked at as freaks.

In the midst of all that, do we really need a 5'2" 185 pound girl stuffed into 100 pound sized spandex, cinched up with wraps, straps, tape and a big thick lifting belt that renders flexion of her knees, elbows, and hips to less than one degree and makes her walk with a side to side gate like Gumby, covered in chalk and sweat and acne, grunting like a diesel train, ripping protein farts that make your eyes water and in general making a mess of her surroundings – just like a dude? Such a spectacle. And so unnecessary.

When I think of a famous example of a woman who lifts that exemplifies the truest form and awe of a strong woman – extremely unlike a dude, I think immediately of Dana Lynn Bailey. I remember her in the cage at the Olympia and the Arnold, well before her fame made her a household name, lifting insane weights, not only for her size, not only for a girl, but even for a lot of guys. But, she did it very unlike a guy. Dana lifts like a girl, a really strong girl, and she became one of the most famous female lifters doing it. I can't think of a better example for a girl who lifts to emulate.

My advise for women who lift, especially those relatively new to the game, is to find a woman who's physique, image, and personality you admire and lift like her. Don't lift like a dude. – John Romano

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach

Don't train like a fitness or figure competitor.

We tend to emulate those we want to look and be like. So women will see a figure or fitness competitor and assume she knows the secret to getting in shape.

In reality, the majority of these girls look the way they do not because of the way they train, but because their will to look good exceeds their need to enjoy life. They're great at following diets that are closer to starvation than nutrition. They often resort to drugs (for fat loss or muscle growth) and endanger their long-term health.

I know many who will do 90-120 minutes of cardio first thing in the morning on top of 90-120 minutes of lifting later that day. And while I admire the dedication, few women can actually pull that off in daily life. I coach a lot of female CrossFit competitors and enthusiasts, and the average CrossFit girl actually looks a lot leaner, and in better shape, than the average figure wannabe.

Look at CrossFit girls and other female athletes in sports like track and field and you'll see women in better shape on any average day than the figure wannabes, and that's without crazy dietary restrictions. In fact, they're often in way better shape than actual figure competitors when they're not preparing for a contest. After all, do you want to look good for only three months out of the year?

I'm not saying that all females should start CrossFitting. Yes, it's better than the typical figure competitor training, but it does have its own set of problems. Take my wife for example. She LOVES CrossFit and since she began doing it she simply doesn't want to do any other type of training. The problem is, in the past three years she hasn't been able to train for more than three weeks in a row. Injuries always force her to take some time off. Not good for consistent improvements.

The solution? Train for performance. Use an approach that takes a page from CrossFit. Here's how that would look:

  1. Use dense workout sessions (short rest intervals, such as complexes or circuits).
  2. Focus mainly on big compound lifts: squats, front squats, deadlifts, military press, push press, and the like. Don't be afraid to push the numbers up as long as you maintain good form.
  3. Learn the Olympic lifts.
  4. Work on being able to do unassisted dips and pull-ups.
  5. Do loaded carries like farmer's walks.
  6. Push or pull a Prowler or sled if you can.
  7. Use whole body sessions or a lower/upper split. Forget body part splits. – Christian Thibaudeau

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