PT on the Net Research

Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite: The Science and Myths of Training Women

Did Jane of the jungle have to worry about losing fat, increasing muscle tone or having the aesthetics to catch Tarzan’s eye? Not likely! Jane of the jungle was an active woman. Upon rising each morning, Tarzan and Jane would make their way through the jungle, swinging vine to vine and hopping rocks to cross streams on the way to the mango grove for breakfast. After breakfast, it was time to hike over the mountain to visit the local tribesmen. Although it was a long hike, Jane would eat figs and berries along the way. While Tarzan discussed how to stop elephant poachers, Jane assisted the tribes’ women in harvesting roots and gathering firewood. After lunch, they swam down the river to the local watering hole for a ride on the hippos. With the help of the zebras, they rode across the plains to check on the lion cubs. To finish the day, Tarzan and Jane returned home by vine and trail for a sunset dinner.

Today’s Jane is bombarded with quick fix advertisements - everything from fad diets to lyposuction and plastic surgery. Those with a little more determination make valid attempts to stay healthy and slim with aerobics classes and machine-based exercise programs. Evidence of poor conditioning and a lack of understanding of the importance of conditioning females among coaches and trainers can be found in the statistics: females suffer more orthopedic injury than males in almost every sport in which both sexes compete. A chronic lack of strength in the lower abdominals and pelvic floor muscles is evident in the 47.5 percent of females at an average age of only 38.5 years who suffer from incontinence. Both these problems can often be helped with the correct exercise program.

Can Weight Lifting Help Incontinence?

Interestingly enough, Nygaard et al found that only four percent of women who lifted weights suffered incontinence, compared with 38 percent of runners (see Table 1). Clinically, I have found the frequency of incontinence to be much higher among females using machine weights and attending aerobics classes than among those who utilize predominantly free weights. Fortunately, there is a very high success rate treating incontinence due to pelvic floor weakness with exercises targeting the transverse abdominus (TVA) and lower abdominals (those below the umbilicus). The abdominal muscles below the umbilicus all share the same source of innervation and are conditioned using specific exercises requiring high levels of fine motor control. Lower abdominals may act as prime movers but serve primarily as stabilizer muscles. Weak lower abdominal muscles are commonly found in those with low back pain.

Single Arm Row:

Running 38%
High-impact Aerobics 34%
Tennis 27%
Low-impact Aerobics 22%
Walking 21%
Golf 18%
Cycling 16%
Racquetball 13%
Swimming 12%
Weight Lifting 4%
Table 1
Incontinence reported by 47%
@ avg. age 38.5 (Nygaard

The reason exercising the transversus abdominis assists in reduction of incontinence is because the transversus abdominis, multifidus (back stabilizer muscles) and pelvic floor are on the same neurological reflex loop. To better understand this concept, think of the muscles as lights, all controlled by one switch. Try the following exercise: place a couple of fingers between your legs, just in front of your rectum. Now draw your belly button toward your spine as though you were sucking your tummy in to pull on a pair of tight pants. You should feel your pelvic floor tighten up! There you have it - your nervous system recruits your pelvic floor in concert with your TVA.

The TVA is an essential stabilizer muscle, creating intra-abdominal pressure to protect the low back when lifting or carrying heavy loads. Incontinence results when intra-abdominal pressure is created without concurrent activation of the pelvic floor or when there is insufficient strength and poor activation of the pelvic floor.

Through testing, I have found that virtually every female who trains regularly with a weight belt has less strength and control of their transversus abdominis muscles than those who strengthen their own internal weight belt! Additionally, weak and poorly controlled TVA muscles lead to the pooch belly that females dearly hate! In my seminars, I tell therapists and trainers, "If your client looks like they need a girdle, build them one, don’t let them buy one!" Although there are several exercises that condition the TVA, their complexity is beyond the scope of this article. 

Supine Lateral Ball Roll:

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The Myth of Bulking Up

Jane wasn't big from free weight training, and you won't be either! That’s right, climbing and swinging from vines, hopping rocks and gathering firewood are all free weight exercises. Just because there are no handles on the vines or logs does not mean you couldn’t get strong pulling and lifting on such objects.



Swinging vine to vine Lat Pull Downs

Chin-ups (assisted or unassisted)

Hopping rock to rock across the streams Box Step Ups
Hike over the mountains to visit tribesmen Lunges
Harvesting roots Bent Over Row

Dead Lift

Gathering fire wood Standing Single Arm Row

Front Squat

Biceps Curl

Shoulder Abduction

Swimming Swimming!
Riding hippos and zebras Seated Posture Trainer

Supine Lateral Ball Roll

Kneeling Swiss Ball Exercises

Swiss Ball Push-Ups

From the Jungle to the Gym

Most females exercise on machines, avoiding free weights for fear of GETTING BIG! Here are several reasons why this is more myth than reality:

This is why it is important to include free weight exercises in a female’s training program and to learn how to use the TVA correctly. This does not mean that females should not use machines; it simply means that their programs should contain a significant (=/> 50%) percentage of free weight exercises. Females should also perform their free weight training prior to machine training exercises, allowing more neural energy for activation of postural and stabilizer muscles.


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Competitive female body builders train approximately three hours a day, performing five to 12 sets per exercise. Any competitive female body builder will tell you getting big is no easy task for a female. It requires a significant time commitment and serious commitment to nutritional modifications and supplementation. Any woman can enhance her beauty and function with as little as 45 minutes three times per week in the gym!

If you want to prove it to your client, take circumference measurements at the mid-point of the upper arms, chest, waist and mid-thighs. Every four weeks, re measure. If you (or your client) is truly putting on more muscle than wanted, the following changes can prevent adding unwanted muscle while maintaining physique:

Aerobics, Free Weights or Both?

It is common practice for females to come straight out of an aerobic class and lift weights. It is unsafe to lift weights in a state of fatigue unless you are an advanced lifter with at least three years supervision by a trained conditioning coach. Innately, many females find they have a hard time with free weights after such classes and therefore choose machine training. If this pattern persists, the female loses all the benefits of free weight training that support female physiology, including fat loss (see below)!

Box Step Up:

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If you want to do both, follow these guidelines:

Muscle Burns Calories

Even though females may go to the gym at the same time as their significant others, they often exercise very differently. Most females gravitate toward the machines, be they aerobic or resistance training. When they do perform weight training, they often use very low intensities, socialize between sets and seldom build any muscle as a result.

While using cardio machines does help burn calories, the body also becomes progressively more efficient at cardio exercise. The result is more miles to the gallon when the aim is actually to become less fuel-efficient with fewer miles to the gallon. Aerobic exercise has also been shown to be associated with increased levels of glucocorticoids, which are catabolic in nature and so do not favor increasing muscle mass; the very muscle needed to burn fat!

This is why resistance training performed with acute exercise variables suitable for bodybuilding is good for females. Body building exercises performed at eight to 12 rep intensity, slow tempos, and short rest periods (one minute or less) stimulate muscle growth and protein synthesis. Hormones that step-up metabolism such as testosterone and growth hormone, are known to be more prevalent in the blood stream after exposure to body building protocols. This results in increased caloric consumption, often for some time after resistance training is completed. In fact, fit people always metabolize more fat, and can metabolize fat at higher intensities than the unfit person.

Interestingly, Australian researcher Robby Parker showed that after performing resistance training, obese pre-menopausal women used 50% more fat, even though total metabolic rate did not change. He also noted that resistance training appears better for reducing abdominal fat than aerobic exercise.

Dead Lift:

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Bent Over Row:

Exercise Frequency 

Jane never entertained dieting, attempted quick fix weight loss programs or canned exercise classes designed to suit the masses with minimal supervision; she exercised with Tarzan every day! If we analyze Jane of the jungle’s daily exercise regimen, we will find many useful clues as to how she remained so healthy and functional (see Table 2).

This does not mean that to look as good as Jane of the jungle you must swing on your clothesline, hop desk to desk at the office or request that your fitness center put hippos in the swimming pool. Jane of the gym can achieve the same results as Jane of the jungle by either combining or alternating aerobic exercise with resistance training exercise (Tables 3 and 4.).

Front Squat:

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Combining Resistance Training and Aerobics for Time Efficiency




Lat. Pull Downs Swiss Ball

Seated Posture Trainer

Box Step-Ups
Lunges Standing High Cable Row Dumbbell Flys
Swiss Ball Push-Up Dumbbell Biceps Curls Front Squat
Chest Press Triceps Press Down Swiss Ball

Supine Lateral Ball Roll

Calf Raises Shoulder Abduction Butt Blaster Machine
Lower Abdominals Aerobics Class Swiss Ball Crunch
Stationary Bicycle 30-45:00 Swiss Ball Reverse Crunch Rowing Machine 20-30min

Acute variables for Resistance Training


Station Format

Circuit Format








8-12 rep load

12 rep load


1:00 min between sets

1:30min between circuits

Table 3b

Separating Resistance and Aerobic Training for Optimal Training Effects
















Note: The same exercise sequencing as above may be used with aerobics being performed on the days indicated.

Kneeling Swiss Ball Exercises:

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Seated Posture Trainer:

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There are many other issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve optimal health, and functionality for females, such as bone health and excessive flexibility. Another huge topic is that of proper nutrition for females – an area that could consume this site for the next year or more!

However, the fact remains that although Tarzan and Jane are very different, they are very compatible in the gym. In fact, most females would be better off if they were encouraged to train like men instead of being led to believe that they will get big if they do so. Getting big is not easy even for men with their favorable anabolic hormonal profile! If a woman can lose five to 10 pounds of fat in trade for a few pounds of muscle, she will look better, feel better and burn more fat, even when she sleeps.


  1. James E. Zachazewski et. al. Athletic Injuries and Rehabilitation (pg. 841. 843) W.B. Saunders Co. 1996
  2. Nygaard I. et. al. Exercise and Incontinence. Obstetrics and Gynecology 75:848-851, 1990
  3. Diane Lee. Treatment of Pelvic Instability (445-459) Movement, Stability & Low Back Pain. The essential role of the pelvis
    Ed. Andry Vleeming Churchill Livingstone 1997
  4. Allen Hedrick. Training for Hypertrophy NSCA Journal Vol. 17, No. 3, June 1995
  5. Richard Schmidt. Motor Learning and Performance Human Kinetics
  6. Paul Chek. Training Jane Not Tarzan (Correspondence Course) C.H.E.K Institute, 1998
  7. Paul Chek. Program Design: Choosing Reps, Sets, Loads, Tempo, and Rest Periods (Correspondence Course) C.H.E.K Institute, 1995
  8. Robbie Parker. Resistance Training and Fat Loss in Pre-Menopausal Women FILEX Convention, Sydney Australia. July, 1998.
  9. Judy Daly and Wendy Ey. Hormones and Female Athletic Performance. Australian Sports Commission, 1996