The female body. Why is there so much confusion when it comes to building the ideal female body? Perhaps it is because many fitness professionals are just as confused as their clients. Should you use female specific programs, or just grab a program out of Men’s Health? And where does resistance training come into the picture? Is cardio better then lifting weights when trying to drop a pant size?
As an educated fitness professional, you are in the perfect position to clear up the confusion. It is no surprise that most women are not content with their bodies. They hear celebrities claim that lifting light weights is how they stay thin. Women see advertisements showing thin yogis saying that Pilates and yoga will give them the “long” and “lean” muscles that are so desirable. Then they read magazines stating that cardio is the only way to burn those extra pounds hanging around the mid-section. But what does research say about this dilemma? The solution goes by many names: resistance training, lifting weights, strength training. Whatever you choose to call it, one thing is for sure: it works.
Let’s look at the 10 most common strength training questions asked by female clients, so you'll be ready to answer them when they inevitably arise.
Question #1 – How much weight should I use?
Oh, the dilemma between light and heavy weights. Some celebrity trainers swear by using only very light weights for a ridiculous number of repetitions. What does research say about this? There are hundreds of studies showing greater strength improvements in men when using heavier loads, but the literature on females is much more scarce. However, there are several studies examining the difference between using light and heavy weights with women. The results are clear: heavier weights increase muscular strength and decrease body fat more then light weights, even in women (Tsourlou, 2003). To explain this to a client, just tell her that the more work she does, the more calories she will burn.
There is a very easy way to help your clients understand this: Have doubtful clients perform a set of step-ups on a box holding a 2 lb. weight in each hand, and then perform another set using 20 lb. weights in each hand. The heavier weight will obviously be harder, meaning it requires more work. More work, more calories burned, equals better results. Does circuit training do the same thing? Yes, if done properly. But studies have shown that performing three sets of each exercise is more beneficial than performing just one set (Schlumberger, 2001).
The real problem with circuits is that many people only perform one set of each exercise.
Question #2 – Won’t I get bulky?
Absolutely not, unless you train specifically for that. Girls were not created to get bulky. Hormones start flowing when puberty begins, and that is the turning point where boys start getting manly and girls become more womanly. Guys develop their muscular physiques because they produce more testosterone and growth hormone, which plays a large role in increasing muscle mass and strength. Females get their curvier physiques because they produce estrogen and limited amounts of testosterone and growth hormone. In fact, women produce less then 10% of the amount of testosterone that men produce (Haff, 2008). Estrogen plays an important, and slightly annoying, role of storing fat.
These hormonal differences are the biggest reason that men are able to hypertrophy to a greater extent then women. Hypertrophy (gaining muscle size) happens when contractile elements enlarge and the extracellular matrix expands in order to support more growth (Schoenfeld, 2010). This happens in both genders, but studies comparing strength gains between men and women on the same resistance training program have shown that men increase strength more then women, especially in the upper body (Kell, 2011). This is mainly due to their higher levels of fat-free mass.
In summary: no, women are not going to get bulky from lifting. An increase in muscle size will occur after 6-8 weeks of resistance training, but this will not lead to bulkiness.
Question #3 – Should I include yoga and Pilates in my training?
Both are fine forms of exercise. However, take a look at the typical female client. Most often, we see female clients who are on a tight schedule and are looking to lose a few pounds. If they have a few hours a day to spend in the gym, then I’d say yoga and Pilates are a great addition to strength training. But if your clients are strapped for time, then those forms of exercises are not optimal. Any type of exercise where you spend more time lying down then standing is not going to cause major weight loss. Have you ever met someone who lost significant amounts of weight doing either yoga or Pilates? Thin people tend to do these forms of exercises, so they stay thin and get slightly stronger, but there are some drawbacks from these types of exercises, the biggest being the lack of axial loading, meaning performing exercise with weight on your back.
As women age, osteoporosis and decreased bone mineral density (BMD) is inevitable, so women must work hard to maintain their BMD. The only way to do so is to perform weight-bearing activities. Walking and jogging are considered weight-bearing activities, but they only increase BMD in certain areas. In order to substantially increase BMD, females must perform things like squatting, lunging and deadlifting with a significant amount of weight.
Question #4 – Won’t I get tight and inflexible if I lift?
No, training with a full range of motion during your lifts will actually increase flexibility (Morton, 2011). Many athletes in the mid-1900s used to stay away from lifting because of the belief that their performance would be hindered from being musclebound. That belief is long gone and has been disproved by research. Just compare pictures of Larry Bird (chicken legs) to LeBron James (tree trunk legs). The point is that resistance training can actually increase flexibility, which is great for typical female clients and also female athletes (Haff, 2006).
Question #5 - How hard do I have to work?
Research has shown that intensity is likely the most important factor to stimulate muscle growth (Schoenfeld, 2010). A repetition range of 1-12 reps has elicited greater muscle hypertrophy then a high repetition range. More specifically, some research has suggested that 6-12 repetitions is the optimal range, when performed at greater than 65% of your 1 repetition maximum (1-RM). This doesn’t mean that you need to train your female clients to failure, though. Training to failure, or the inability to perform another repetition, has been linked with psychological burnout and overtraining (Schoenfeld, 2010).
As a personal trainer, how do you do this practically? Unless you are working with female athletes, it may be impractical to test your client’s 1-RMs in every lift. Experience will allow you to estimate and give your clients the proper weight. If a client easily performs 10 squat and presses, give them more weight the next set.
Question #6 – What if I have been lifting for years but haven’t seen results in months?
The simple answer: periodization. Many clients and trainers make the mistake of performing the same amount of reps with the same amount of weight for weeks and weeks. If your clients perform 3 sets of 12 in every exercise each and every week, then this would be considered a non-periodized program. Research has shown that periodized programs can elicit greater strength gains then non-periodized programs (Kell, 2011). Periodization is planned variation to a program. A periodized program can consist of changing volume and intensity daily or weekly. Don’t miss this part. This is your golden nugget as a personal trainer. You can take your clients stagnant routine and transform it into a program that gives results.
To incorporate this into your client’s routine, first decide if you are going to use linear or non-linear periodization. Linear means that you will gradually decrease training volume and increase intensity over a period of 4-5 weeks, while nonlinear means you will change volume and intensity each week (Prestes, 2009). The table below is a simple example of various programs to help guide your exercise programming with female clients.
||3x12 M – 3x8 W – 3x10 F
||3x8 M – 3x6 W – 3x10 F
||3x12 M – 3x8 W – 3x10 F
||3x8 M – 3x6 W – 3x10 F
Question #7 – Don’t the elliptical and treadmill make me stronger?
To fitness professionals, this question sounds ridiculous, but you would be surprised how often it is asked. It’s amazing how many females chose to tediously watch the calorie counter on the elliptical until it clicks to 1,000 calories.
First of all, do you really think you are burning 1,000 calories in less than an hour? Second, do you really think it is increasing strength? And on a side note, there have to be more enjoyable ways to exercise!
There are cardiovascular benefits to these types of exercises, but research has shown that similar gains can be achieved more quickly through high intensity interval training (HIIT), sometimes called Tabata training (Tanisho, 2011). Essentially, HIIT consists of short intervals of all-out effort, followed by short recovery times. The cool part is the workouts are very short, but very effective. Even better, these shorter workouts could have more cardiovascular benefits then long, slow aerobic exercise (Schoenfeld, 2009).
Tell your clients to forget about the “fat burning zone” because research shows that more calories are burned with HIIT then traditional aerobic exercise. It is true that more fat is burned during traditional aerobic exercise, but studies indicate greater overall fat reduction with HIIT programs (Tremblay, 2004).
Question #8 – What about taking group weight training classes, such as Bodypump?
A group weight training class typically lasts 50-60 minutes and separates muscle groups by tracks lasting approximately 5-6 minutes (Stanforth, 2001). Each track incorporates around 100 repetitions for each muscle group. From strength training literature, it is evident that untrained individuals will see strength and cardiovascular improvements following almost any type of exercise. However, most of these improvements occur in the first 4 weeks and then this is where the dreaded plateau makes its appearance. As discussed before, much of the benefits of strength training come from intensity, periodization, and adequate amount of resistance. None of these factors are seen in a typical group training class. However, participants in this type of class will still expend calories, learn basic weight training form, and could be motivated to stay more active. A group weight training class can be used in conjunction with typical strength training, but it should not replace it.
Question #9 – Why should I want to get stronger?
Building muscle takes work. Work takes energy. And what is energy? Calories. In order to build muscle, our bodies must go through a complex process of sending in hormones, regulating satellite cells, assembling amino acids, and finally synthesizing proteins.
And how about sheer confidence gain? Carry a 100 lb. bag of sand half a mile, do 50 push-ups, and sprint back, then see what happens to your confidence level.
Question #10 – What kind of strength training exercises should I do?
The literature on female strength training programming can be misleading, even for fitness professionals. The limited studies with women use training protocols with exercises such as leg extensions, hamstring curls, and hip extensions. These are not optimal exercises. The typical weight loss client needs to get the most “bang for their buck.” That means full body, compound exercises.
If you are a personal trainer, then this is good news for you because any average Jane can sneak into the gym and do a few bicep curls, tricep extensions, and leg extensions. But very few female clients have the confidence to walk into a weight room full of musclebound, grunting men and claim the squat rack. That’s where you, the personal trainer, come into the picture. If you have an arsenal of full body, calorie-scorching exercises, then you will be the most sought-after trainer in the gym.
Structuring a lifting workout for women is fairly simple. Emphasize the compound lifts, and add in the accessory lifts if there is time.
For example, below are some of your bigger, more important lifts:
- Single arm snatch
- Renegade rows
- Sumo squats
- Squat and press
- Romanian Deadlifts
These are your extras (if you have time):
- Bicep curls
- Tricep extensions
- Lat pulldowns
- Lateral raises
- Abe, T, Dehoyos, DV, Pollock, ML, and Garzarella, L. (2000). Time course for strength and muscle thickness changes following upper and lower body resistance training in men and women. European Journal of Applied Physiology 81:174–180.
- Haff, G., Jackson, J., Kawamori, N., Carlock, J., Hartman, M., Kilgore, J., Morris, R., Ramsey, M., Sands, W., Stone, M. (2008). Force-time curve characteristics and hormonal alterations during an eleven-week training period in elite women weightlifters. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(2): 433-446.
- Haff, G. (2006). Roundtable discussion: flexibility training. Strength and Conditioning Journal 28(2): 64-85.
- Kell, R. (2011). The influence of periodized resistance training on strength changes in men and women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25(3): 735–744.
- Kistler, B., Walsh, M., Horn, T., and Cox, R. (2010). The acute effects of static stretching on the sprint performance of collegiate men in the 60- and 100-M dash after a dynamic warm-up. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(9): 2280-2284.
- Linnamo, V., Pakarinen, A., Komi, P., Kraemer, W., and Kiknen, K. (2005). Acute hormonal responses to submaximal and maximal heavy resistance and explosive exercises in men and women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 19(3): 566-571.
- Morton, S., Whitehead, J., Brinkert, R., and Cane, D. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25(X): 1-8.
- Tanisho, K., and Hirakawa, K. (2009). Training effects on endurance capacity in maximal intermittent exercise: comparison between continuous and interval training. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23(8): 2405–2410.
- Tremblay, A., Simoneau J., and Bouchard, O. (1994). Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism 43: 814–818.
- Schoenfeld, B. and Dawes, J. (2009). High-intensity interval training: applications for general fitness training. Strength and Conditioning Journal 31(6): 1-3.
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The mechanism of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10): 2857-2872.
- Schlumberger, A., Stec, J., Schmidtbleicher, D. (2001). Single- vs. multiple-set strength training women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 15(3): 284-289.
- Scott, C., Leighton, B., Ahearn, K., and McManus, J. (2011). Aerobic, anaerobic and excess post exercise oxygen consumption energy expenditure of muscular endurance and strength: 1-set of bench press to muscular fatigue. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25(4): 903–908.
- Tsourli, T., Gerodimos, V., Kellis, E., Stavropoulos, M., Kellis, S. (2003). The effects of a calisthenics and a light strength training program on lower limb muscle strength and body composition in mature women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17(3): 590-598.