Training Women

When I first started training clients full-time, I assumed that I’d specialize in training athletes. I bought all sorts of equipment from Elitefts including a huge power rack/platform with all the accessories (box squat box, step up attachment, monkey chin bar, dip bars, band peg attachments), a 45 degree hyper, glute ham raise, reverse hyper, competition bench press, incline press, deadlift lever, chalk bin, bands, chains, specialty barbells, etc. I situated the equipment in my garage and was in awe at how manly my gym appeared! I was well on my way to be the next Joe DeFranco.

What happened next was unexpected. A bunch of female friends and relatives of mine started requesting that I train them. At first, I told them, “I’m not sure, my equipment is more geared toward training athletes.” They’d say, “Cool, when can I start?” I quickly realized that women like this type of training and all of a sudden I’m training tons of women.

Next thing you know, I open up my own studio and within three months I have 55 clients; probably 45 of them were women. If you train a few women well, out of nowhere you’ll have tons of female clients through word-of-mouth advertisement as they love to tell their friends about their trainer. I’ve really grown to love training women over the past five years, and here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Women Can Tolerate More Training Frequency than Men

A very recent study showed that following a bench press training session, men took 48 hours to return to their previous levels of strength, whereas women took only 4 hours (Judge & Burke, 2010). Women are simply not as physically strong as men (especially in upper body strength) and don’t tax their muscular and nervous systems to the extent of males. For this reason, they should not be trained the same way as men and should be prescribed higher training frequencies. One of the primary reasons why my female clients get extremely strong and dramatically improve their shape is due to the fact that I train their entire bodies very frequently to take advantage of their superior recovery abilities.

2. Total Body Training is Best for the Majority of Women

In my experience, women do best with total body workouts. This is closely related to topic number one above. They can recover quicker and therefore probably detrain quicker as well. Men will swing a sledgehammer at a nail and whack it down in one attempt, and then take a nap. Women will take a hammer and continue to tap on the nail until it’s all the way in, and then move onto the next nail. What I’m getting at is that women should not perform bodypart splits or even lower/upper splits. It doesn’t matter how many times a woman trains with me per week (once, twice, three times, four times, or even five times), each session I’m going to hit her entire body. The trick is to give them a great workout without creating too much fatigue or soreness the following day.

3. Women are Often Intimidated, Self-Conscious, and Insecure

Women initially fear weight training and don’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of libidinous men leering over them, grunting, and throwing around heavy weights. Many like to train with fellow females so they don’t feel threatened, and they need reassurance and guidance. Women appreciate a confident trainer so make sure you exude confidence in your methods and in their ability to succeed. Most important, they thrive off of compliments! Notice the little things and compliment good effort and you’ll have a client for life.

4. Women Have Anatomical and Physiological Differences

Women are anatomically and physiologically different than males. They have wider q-angles which predisposes them to knee injuries, they are taught to “sit like a lady” which probably reinforces valgus-collapse over the years, they produce on average a tenth of the testosterone of males, and their estrogen, progesterone, FSH, and LH fluctuate throughout the month according to their menstrual cycles. They have different strength balances than men (less hamstring:quadricep strength ratio, greater lower body:upper body strength ratio) and their muscles fire differently than men as well (glute and hamstring timing often fires earlier due to a perception of weakness).

For these reasons, it’s important to teach proper mechanics, strengthen the posterior chain, and be understanding of mood-swings when training women because often it’s not their fault.

5. Women Can Ditch Flexibility/Mobility Work in Favor of Stability/Strength Work

Women are much more flexible on average than men. In fact, many are hypermobile. For this reason, they often do not need to do any stretching or mobility drills. They already possess good flexibility and many have laxity in certain joints. For this reason, it’s wiser to focus on stability and activation exercises in addition to some basic strength movements during the general dynamic warm-up rather than static stretches or mobility drills. If you have 50 minutes to train a female, most of that 50 minutes should be used for strengthening and conditioning. If strength exercises are taken through full ranges of motion then they’ll retain joint mobility while adding stability and strength to the joint which is exactly what they need.

One drawback of hypermobility is that many women over-extend their lumbar spine when they lift. It’s common to see women excessively arching (hyperextending) their low backs when they squat, deadlift, do push ups, hip thrusts, back extensions, and ab wheel rollouts. You need to teach them how to control their cores and maintain neutral spines.


*too much lower back arching

6. Fun and Variety Never Did a Woman No Harm

Women like to have fun during their workouts and they appreciate variety. Make them laugh from time to time; you don’t have to act like a drill-sergeant. Conversely, don’t be afraid to lay down the law when necessary. There are so many great exercises and women like learning little tweaks from time to time. Here are some of the main exercises I employ when I train women:

Quad Dominant: full squat, front squat, goblet squat, elevated dumbbell squat between benches, high box squat, low box squat, lever squat, Zercher squat, step up, Bulgarian split squat, walking lunge, reverse lunge, single leg box squat

Horizontal Press: torso-elevated push up, push up, dumbbell incline press, dumbbell bench press, barbell incline press, barbell bench press, close grip bench press

Standing Hip Dominant: conventional deadlift, trap bar deadlift, sumo deadlift, rack pull, Romanian deadlift, single leg RDL, good morning, pull through, kettlebell swing

Vertical Pull: close grip lat pulldown, wide grip lat pulldown, negative chin up, chin up, parallel grip pull up

Prone, Supine, or Quadruped Hip Dominant: back extension, single leg back extension, 45 degree hyper, single leg 45 degree hyper, reverse hyper, hip thrust, barbell glute bridge, single leg hip thrust, pendulum quadruped hip extension, pendulum quadruped donkey kick, Russian leg curl, glute ham raise, gliding leg curl, slideboard leg curl, stability ball leg curl

Vertical Press: dumbbell seated military press, dumbbell military press, barbell military press, dumbbell push press, barbell push press

Sagittal Plane Core: plank, bodysaw, stability ball rollout, ab wheel rollout, straight leg sit up, hanging leg raise, Turkish get up

Horizontal Pull: one arm row, inverted row, feet elevated inverted row, seated row, band seated row, face pull, chest supported row

Frontal/Transverse Plane Core: side plank, 45 degree side bend, Pallof press, cable hip rotation, cable woodchop, landmine

I throw in the following for variety as well:

Conditioning: complexes, tabatas, airdyne intervals, sled work, slideboard intervals, car pushes, jump rope, burpees, mountain climbers

Power: plyometrics, sprints, agility drills, jump squats, one arm snatches, med ball tosses

You don’t have to do all of this every single session, but try to plan well-balanced programs.

Utilize paired-supersets and you’ll be able to squeeze in more work and density in your sessions.

7. Women Love Athletic and “Manly” Training

Most women don’t know this, but deep-down they love feeling athletic and “hard-core.” Over time they will love it if you get them to be able to perform a chin up or a proper push up (without hips sagging). They love pushing cars around as they never realized that they could do it. They will learn to love deadlifting if you teach them well. Women love getting strong; it empowers them. When they realize that heavy lifting won’t automatically make them overly muscular and that if often causes them to lean out and improve in shape, they’ll be setting records left and right. It’s your job to get them to realize this.

Here’s my friend Joe Sansalone’s girlfriend Neghar Fanooni doing Romanian deadlifts with 1.5 times her bodyweight. Weight training obviously did her body good!

8. Women are Competitive…With Thine Own Selves

Many women do not like competing with men or with other women, but they love competing against themselves. Start off slow and know how to regress and progress exercises. Bump them up slowly but surely and pretty soon they’ll start getting strong. Keep a journal and log every workout. Tell the female client what she did last time she did the exercise and she will try her best to beat it. Often women will beat their records every week for months on end when they first start training.

9. Often Women Won’t Pony Up Any Feedback

Women are often too intimidated to offer feedback. Sometimes they’ll tell you something and you’ll ask them why they didn’t tell you sooner. They’ll reply with, “You never asked.” This is why you need to ask a ton of questions. Before every session ask them if they’re sore anywhere. If their low backs are sore skip the deadlifts. If their adductors are sore don’t go into deep ranges of hip flexion and opt for high box squats and rack pulls. Ask them if the exercise “feels right” and where they feel it working. Ask them if they like their program, ask them if there is anything they’d like to be doing that they haven’t been doing. The placebo effect is well-documented and very effective; if a client believes in the program then they will achieve better results.

10. The Glutes Make a Woman

Women can buy breast implants, but getting a nice butt takes hard work. The glutes get activated best from high-load or high-velocity movement. Research shows that the glutes don’t get activated much from simple activities like standing up from a chair and walking; the body chooses instead to rely on the quads or leave the job for the more economical and elastic-storing hamstrings. Most women will come to you with poor glute activation and development due to the fact that many stop being active after high school. If you can make a woman’s butt look nicer, everyone around her will notice and she’ll start getting compliments left and right. Now she’ll be hooked on fitness for life because she won’t want to lose her nice booty. It sometimes takes time for the glutes to come around; if it took ten years for the glutes to atrophy away and sag they’re not going to come back in one week. If you’re a good trainer, for the most part every client will feel their glutes working very well within two months. Hammer the glutes every single session and they’ll respond best.

76 thoughts on “Training Women

  1. Neal W.

    Great stuff, Bret!

    A few questions:

    (1) Do you still do full body for women even if their schedule requires that they train 2 days in a row, or would you pick a non-strength training activity for one of those days? If you would do full body strength training 2 days in a row, what are the most days in a row that you would train a women (it will depend on the individual obviously) with full body strength training?

    (2) You never mentioned reps. Don’t women lift a higher number of reps per % of max? I’ve never seen a good rep chart for women.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Neal, great questions.

      1) Yes I do. Here’s my thought. If I can hit their glutes hard twice (double) per week then why would I opt for hitting them only once?

      Again, the secret is to not get women so sore so they can get in a productive workout the following day and not risk injury.

      Here’s an example of what I might do for strength work on a two day in a row workout:

      Day One (paired supersets) – full squat 3 x 3, bench press 3 x 8, sumo deadlift 4 x 1, negative chin up 4 x 1, planks 2 x :60, side planks 2 x :40

      Day Two (paired supersets) – Bulgarian split squat 2 x 10, dumbbell military press 2 x 12, barbell hip thrust 2 x 10, one arm row 2 x 12, single leg 45 degree hyper 2 x 10, straight leg sit up 2 x 15

      Day One would not get them very sore in the lower body as women are not as good at low rep work and therefore don’t get as sore when sticking to lower reps in comparison to higher reps. For day two, they’d probably get more sore due to the higher reps. I would tell them to take a day off and then I’d give them “homework” and tell them that on two different days they needed to do a workout consisting of bodyweight lunges and single leg glute bridges (or something like that….it all depends on the level of fitness of the individual).

      2) I haven’t either but I can tell you without a doubt that you are correct. I’d bet my life on it. Many times a girl can lift 80% of her 1RM for 20 reps. Since I train frequently, I’m able to utilize high reps, medium reps, and low reps throughout the week.

      I should have incorporated this stuff into the article. Great questions!

      Reply
  2. James

    Good stuff. I recently started training my girlfriend and she’s bragging to all her friends about feeling like a badass in the gym. It’s pretty awesome. Now I just need to convince her that she’ll be less sore if she gets in there at least 3x/week (sort of a minimum…).

    Idea for blog post: how a recreational lifter who works without a partner can know when he (or she) is hyperextending v. maintaining a neutral spine. I think I’ve started to hyperextend a little bit on certain movements (e.g. RDLs) but it’s a little hard to auto-correct.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Good idea James. I should blog about this in the future. Probably the best “trick” is to get a digital camera and film yourself. Most of us simply can’t rely on “feel” as there’s a gap between what we think our body position looks like and what it really is. Just the other day I was watching my deadlift form on video and I hyperextend my neck a bit. I could have sworn it was in neutral.

      Reply
  3. AJ

    Thanks Bret! It’s nice to hear a guy tell us that it’s not our fault once and a while ; ) I run up against similar issues in the power lifting world. Everything is designed for men, and my body just doesn’t always respond the same. Plus there isn’t a website or a handbook to help you figure out the tricky mental aspect of weight lifting from the female perspective either. I struggle with confidence and self doubt. I have trouble getting “psyched” for a lift. The tride and true “death metal and a red bull” just doesn’t do it for me. “Attacking the bar” makes me think of doing a Karate Kid style judo chop on the bar, and that’s just silly. So I’m working on it.

    Thanks for taking a look at things from our world!!

    AJ

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      AJ, your post made me laugh out loud. My old trainer Jordan and I would always be as sympathetic as humanly possible (for males) to our female clients but often we’d find ourselves looking at each other in awe because it was hard for us (two masculine guys) to understand what was going on in our clients’ minds. I’m sure our clients think the same way about our (male) primitive brains :)

      The good news is that as long as people try to be empathetic a natural equilibrium is created. This may sound harsh, but if we left strength training purely up to women there would be too many places like Curves, too much aerobics, too many pink dumbbells, too many stability balls, not enough “testosterone,” and not enough results. Women learn to love it but they often need a man to “show them the way.”

      Conversely, if we left strength training purely up to men there would be no stretching, no glute activation, no unilateral work, no yoga, no aerobics, no SMR, just heavy bench pressing and possibly squatting and deadlifting…all bilateral. And the facilities would be a mess; chalk everywhere, loud music, rusted plates, etc.

      Of course I’m overexaggerating but we learn a lot from the opposite genders and men appreciate the feminine touch just as much as women appreciate the masculine touch.

      However, men are very outspoken in this industry. We need more women to blog and write articles so we can learn and understand issues that are pertinent to women. We may be dense but we do try! We just need things spelled out for us.

      Reply
      1. Mike T Nelson

        “Conversely, if we left strength training purely up to men there would be no stretching, no glute activation, no unilateral work, no yoga, no aerobics, no SMR, just heavy bench pressing and possibly squatting and deadlifting…all bilateral. And the facilities would be a mess; chalk everywhere, loud music, rusted plates, etc.”

        Bret, that sounds like the Extreme Human Performance Center here—ha!

        Ok, so I do some unilateral work at times and not a ton of bench press. Loud music is a must, tons of plates and good times by all setting PRs. Awesome.

        Rock on
        Mike T Nelson PhD(c)
        http://www.ExtremeHumanPerformance.com/home.php

        Reply
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  5. Nia Shanks

    I must say, a steady routine of heavy squats and deadlifts have helped me to build an awesome ass. ; )

    Just sayin . . .

    Great article as usual, Bret. You’re awesome. : )

    Reply
  6. TJ

    You’re quickly becoming my favorite fitness blogger.. Excellent blog.

    Do you do anything particular for ACL prevention in women or do you just focus on improving the hamstring:quad ratio?

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Thanks TJ! Yes I do!!!!!

      This is very important. Here’s what I do:

      1) Teach them to use their hips during quad-dominant lifts (sit back in a box squat, sink straight down in a lunge, keep the knees out in a squat, go higher during step ups, avoid anterior weight shift, etc.)

      2) Hammer the glutes from every vector to get them strong as hip extensors, hip abductors, and hip external rotators (frontal and transverse plane issues can lead to ACL tears)

      3) Train the hamstrings as hip extensors and knee flexors (deadlifts, 45 degree hypers, glute ham raises, etc.)

      4) Teach proper high-velocity movement mechanics…how to land, how to shuffle, etc

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. allie

    Bret! favorite article! i echo neal’s questions above- wondering about the 2 days in a row thing too. do you not do an “emphasis” on one day so that the hard emphasis can be rotated if back to back training days? just wondering- thanks for this!!

    Reply
  8. Meg

    I get the overall point you’re trying to make and definitely wish there were more fitness articles like these focused on training women. I enjoy reading your blog and have learned a lot from your posts. But, I feel a bit wounded by some of your generalizations. I like to train hard, and I could care less if there’s men around, even if they are libidinous, leering men. I am not threatened by that, and neither are my gym buddies. In fact, we are the opposite of intimidated, self-conscious and insecure. And to state that women are only competitive with themselves makes me wonder where you are meeting women. Maybe keep the focus on the training and helping women achieve their bests in the gym, and leave the stereotypes for the girly magazines.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Meg, definitely not the angle I was trying to get at…that’s why I wrote “Many Women…”, “Often,” “Initially”…what I was trying to say was that some (not all) behave or feel a certain way.

      There is certainly a “masculine/feminine” continuum with both males and females, but you have to admit that generally there exists a big difference among genders. Hence the books like, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

      I love women who aren’t afraid to train hard in front of men and are very competitive.

      But girls like you are the exception, not the norm. Go to any commercial gym and you’ll see a much greater proportion of men in the free weights section and a greater proportion of women in the cardio section. This is true all around the world.

      My training buddies and I highly respect any woman who busts her butt in the weight room especially if they’re doing good exercises like squats, barbell push press, deadlifts, dumbbell lunges, etc.

      However, I’d always be so frustrated with my female clients whenever they would go out of town on vacation or go away to college for the semester. When they’d return I’d say, “Did you go the gym and lift weights?” They’d say, “No, I just did cardio…there were too many guys in the weightroom and I felt weird.”

      I’d say, “Why would you feel that way? Your form is better than theirs! You can probably deadlift more than they can anyway, and you’re definitely stronger pound-for-pound than them. You’d blow the men away with your mechanics and your strength.” This never mattered to them, many women will never feel comfortable training heavy in a commercial gym setting.

      And by the way, I am not trying to feed the stereotype, even if it seemed that way. I’m simply trying to help other male trainers be more aware of certain possible issues associated with training women. I asked my female clients what they like about training in my garage and these were some of the things they came up with.

      Obviously I’m biased because women like you don’t always come train with me, you stick to the commercial gym. The clients I usually get seek my services because they are in fact intimidated, self-conscious, and insecure.

      I have made a life out of trying to empower women and get them more confident. I applaud you for already “arriving” there and apologize for ruffling your feathers. I think if I were able to have a conversation with you I would be able to communicate more effectively regarding this topic as it’s hard to write about without sounding pigish.

      Reply
      1. PolyisTCOandbanned

        Actually, I don’t really understand the mindset of worrying about what other people are doing or that they will judge you. I have lifted in gyms all around the world, around many people that were much stronger or weaker than I. And I’ve NEVER felt self conscious. Most people are so absorbed in their own thing, that they really don’t notice other people.

        Now, the women who complain that no one talks to them, or that they feel like the gym is lonely…that I can buy. but feeling self conscious? No one CARES what you do. Really honestly truly.

        And that goes double and triple for guys that worry about this crap.

        I really don’t understand it. And I’m not that strong. So it’s not like I’m Jack Lalanne walking around confidently. But I just don’t think anyone CARES what you are doing!

        Heck…if anything I think the weak and fat people need the gym the most! go use it!!!!

        Reply
  9. Jeff

    My wife struggles with additional fat in the arms (mainly tricep area). She trains pretty hard currently and I tell her it’s more a function of her overall bodyfat levels but any excercises that would assist in this area?

    She has great glutes and legs but I hear from her all the time when she wears sleeveless clothes.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Jeff, you are correct; she needs to lose bodyfat. Here’s what I’d do if I were in your shoes. First, assure her that you think she’s beautiful either way (it’s important for women to trust that). Second, give her exercises that hit the triceps to appease her such as dumbbell bench press, bench press, torso elevated push ups, etc. Third, tell her that this will firm the area but to lose the fat she has to cut down on her calorie intake. Be very clear about that point. Tell her that exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as people think and that to lose the flab she has to lose total body fat stores. The easiest way to do that is to diet down. Hope that helps! -Bret

      Reply
  10. James de Lacey

    Love your blog, visit it everyday :)

    At the moment I’m training my girlfriend and this is her program I wrote up for her.

    Goblet Squat 3×5

    Seated Row 3×5

    Military Press 3×5

    Then day 2 will be swapping the last 2 exercises with kettlebell swing 3×12 and DB chest press 3×5

    After strength I’ve given her some conditioning circuits

    Just wondering with your experience in training women if it would be worth supersetting these so I could add some more volume? (some more hip dom exercises and pulling just for her posture and to hammer those glutes!)

    She doesn’t like using a barbell because she feels “too manly.”
    Last question, what would be some good progressions from the goblet squat without the barbell?? I want to try eventually convince her to get under the bar but until then..

    Thanks!!
    Keep writing! :D

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      James, what are her goals? I’ll assume she wants to firm up and lose some bodyfat (like a majority of women). I agree, more exercises would be good.

      Rather than convince her to use a barbell, trick her into getting into awesome shape with bodyweight and unilateral exercises. Half of the reason why I’m a great trainer is due to the fact that I can trick any client into getting into shape, no matter what their excuses.

      A high step up (really high) is extremely challenging. A bottoms-up single leg hip thrust is one of the hardest lower body exercises there is. A single leg low box squat is very difficult as well. You can load single leg RDL’s, walking lunges, and Bulgarian squats in the form of dumbbells as she gains strength.

      I’d ditch the conditioning circuits and stick primarily with strength training, and I’d try to help her lean out by dieting with her (and cooking healthy food regularly, and going hiking with her, etc.).

      For each workout, try to do the following:

      -One knee dominant compound movement (either bilateral or unilateral)
      -One upper body pulling movement
      -One hip dominant movement
      -One upper body pushing movement
      -One core movement (sagittal plane, frontal plane, or transverse plane)

      Here are some examples:

      – goblet squat, one arm row, kb swing, db military, plank
      – step up, negative chin up, sl hip thrust, db bench, side plank
      – Bulgarian squat, seated row, sl RDL, push up, Pallof press
      – walking lunge, face pull, stability ball leg curl, db incline, straight leg sit up

      Hope that helps!!!

      Reply
      1. James de Lacey

        Thanks! Yep those are her goals.

        I’ll get her to drop those conditioning circuits and get hard strength training. I’m actually studying exercise science at the moment and have been hired as a trainer at a gym I’ve been doing a work placement at.

        This will definitely help heaps! I will probably be getting in contact with you again if I need some help :)

        Thanks again

        Reply
  11. kdavis27

    It’s funny that you should write this post because two days ago I was thinking about your paradox. You train mostly women, yet a majority of your professional writing is posted on sites geared toward men. I actually found you on T-Nation, likely the most masculine of sites out there.

    Though a ton of women read information on these manly sites, they might not necessarily seek you out as an authority on women’s training because your articles relate better to men. So, perhaps this may very well be your leap into writing female-related articles. I know plenty of women who would love to hear what you have to say about training in our world.

    Reply
      1. Daniel

        I hope I don’t have to dress up when I come to train at your facility some day. LOL Actually, I can relate to a lot of these points as a man, like competing with yourself etc.

        I have heard a lot women say that fitness is boring. They think fitness means sitting an a piece of equipment for an hour. If there were more trainers that let women do the “manly” stuff, there would be more (attractive) women hanging around in gyms, because they would start to think that fitness is fun. When I do power cleans in the gym, sometimes women wants to know what I am doing, while most wannabe bodybuilding men will think it’s stupid.

        Reply
  12. SIMON

    Hey Brett,

    What are some of the activation exercises you do with women prior to workouts? I need to steal them for my hyper mobile self.

    Best,

    Simon

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Simon, here you go: planks, side planks, Pallof presses, Bulgarian split squat EQI’s, glute bridges, single leg glute bridges, quadruped hip extensions, side lying clams, side lying abductions, psoas holds, scap push ups, bodysaws, bird dogs, multi-directional lunges, x-band walks, YTML’s, etc. Those are just off of the top of my head.

      As you gain stability and strength you can cut down on the amount of activation work you do and just do a 5 minute general warm-up followed by your strength workout. But you have to make sure your strength workout is well-balanced.

      Hope that helps! -Bret

      Reply
  13. Ray Mccarthy

    Bret,

    Oddly the same thing has happened to me.

    I think One great thing about women is they like to talk. If they find someone or something they like the WORD spreads like wildfire. A restaurant, a hair dresser, a nail place> and a WHY NOT a trainer.

    I started training a couple women and all of a sudden I am getting ton of interest.

    This is a great blog> just curious have you written any thing else on training training women?

    I love this point In Particular as this was clear to me immediately >>>>

    ” #5. Women Can Ditch Flexibility/Mobility Work in Favor of Stability/Strength Work.”

    Two thumbs UP!
    Ray McCarthy

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Thanks for the comment Ray! Nice to hear from you in these parts.

      I’ve alluded to some stuff before in some of my glute training blogs but this is the first women-specific piece I’ve written.

      Thanks again!

      Reply
  14. Truet

    Great article. I love training women as well. As you have noted, I also have noticed women tend to tolerate more training frequency. I just had to tone down the total volume of training per session. I now do six exercises persession, undulate the repetitions and sets based on training experience, and try to keep the workout duration between 45-60 minutes, not including pre-workout preparation and post exercise regenration-stretching.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Truet,

      Exactly, exactly, exactly! Of course you don’t go out and do 4 sets of 8 different exercises. You pick around 4-6 exercises, do 3-4 sets on a couple of them and 1-2 sets on some others. You mix up the rep ranges, stance widths, depths, centers of gravity, etc. so you’re always doing the best exercises and movement patterns but you’re always doing them a little bit differently to prevent habituation. Same but different!

      Bret

      Reply
  15. Karl

    Maybe I am an exception too, but I don’t see getting BIG on multiple full body workouts per week. I also don’t see myself recovering from a strength training workout in 4 hours (EVER). If my 130 lbs is laying down 200lb squats and 250lbs deads, I ain’t recovering that day even. Takes me at least 2 days to recover from that sort of workout.

    That PubMed article takes a “perceived” 1RM to come to its conclusion. I wonder if they took the “woman’s” perception because it is also the case that women will underestimate the work they can do whereas a man will over estimate.

    So Bret, if I walked into your studio and told you that I wanted to get HUGE, would you really do full body workouts on me and higher reps?

    Reply
  16. Bret Contreras

    Karla, great question. Here are my thoughts:

    First, since you squat 200 lbs and deadlift 250 lbs, I would agree that you won’t recover in 4 hours. I would venture to guess that you’re in the 99.999% in strength for women worldwide. This means that only 1 in 100,000 women are stronger than you. So obviously you’ll take longer to recover than “typical” women. However, the study looked at bench press strength. Women have disproportionately stronger lower bodies than upper bodies. How much can you bench press? I’m curious but I’d guess around 135? Making that assumption, I bet that you could bench press 135 every day since it wouldn’t tax you that much.

    Second (moving onto the more important question), yes, I would stick you with full body workouts if your goal was to get huge. What do you think would be optimal, a bodypart split? Lower/upper split? Push/pull?

    There are ways to make everything work, and I consider myself an absolute master at program design. I’m obsessed with it. With bodypart splits, you can figure out a creative way to hit most bodyparts twice per week (deadlifts and back extensions on back day hits the hammies, chin ups and close grip bench on arms day hits the lats and pecs, etc.). I am using a bodypart split routine with one of my figure competitor clients right now and I read bodybuilding magazines every month, so I’m not opposed to them. With full body workouts, you switch up the stimulus; one day go with low reps and the next day medium or high, one day do squats and the next day do deads, one day do bilateral and the next day do unilateral, etc. You mainly want to spare the spine but in my experience this is not very difficult to pull off.

    Here’s what I would do for you, which I believe would yield optimal results. Of course, over time I’d learn about your body and how you recover, what your best exercises are, whether you respond better to frequency, volume, or intensity, etc.

    At any rate, I have met you and have seen your physique (and I know your goals) so I’d probably start you off with something like this (assuming I screened you and no alarms went off):

    Monday – squat, incline press, hip thrust, inverted row, cable woodchop

    Tuesday – deadlift, military press, high step up, chin up, ab wheel rollout from knees

    Wednesday – off

    Thursday – front squat, dumbbell bench press, single leg hip thrust, one arm row, landmine

    Friday – Bulgarian split squat, close grip bench press, single leg back extension, parallel grip pull up, side plank

    Saturday – off

    Sunday – off

    squats, deads, incline press, and chin ups would be done for lower reps

    hip thrusts, front squats, military press, dumbbell bench, Bulgarian squats, close grip bench, and parallel grip pull ups would be done for medium reps

    inverted rows, woodchops, high step ups, ab wheel, single leg hip thrusts, one arm rows, landmines, single leg back extensions, and side planks would be done for higher rep ranges

    Before each session we’d do some plyos, sprints, and agility work, and after each session we’d do some brief conditioning work.

    I am of the opinion that you’d get stronger from this routine than if I gave you a bodypart split simply because you train the lower body, pressing, pulling, and core musculature four days per week. In my experience frequency works better than volume for most women. However, there are exceptions and if over time I learned that you do better with bodypart splits then I’d have no problem making the transition.

    -Bret

    Reply
    1. Karla

      I may be strong but I am also not young (47 years old this year)

      I thought that muscles grew in the rest. How does working a muscle 4 times per week give it enough time to rest?

      Yes, you are right RE the 135lb press btw.

      I am fairly new to this game but believe that a woman with the SAME goals as a man (IE get frigg’n big and strong as genetically possible) should have the same training protocol. Pardon me for questioning your experience here but I find that I have a harder time convincing trainers to allow me to train for my goals than not due to all the crap that you have posted in this blog RE women. And it pisses me off. I am not saying that what you post is incorrect. It unfortunately is. Most women do not want to get big and strong or muscled. Lou Schuler wrote an entire book on this topic in fact attempting to break the paradigms that women have towards lifting. I, however, do not have these fears and want to get big.

      Do you really have your guys doing plyos and sprints before their lifting routines or is that just reserved for chicks? Doesn’t that limit their overall lifting ability during the workout routine? I can tell you from experience that ANY sort of cardio workout during the week destroys (or at least greatly affects) my ability to lift heavier in my workout. As an example, I can only lift a very small percentage of my real potential when I am doing this football thing. Due to all this, I do NO (ZERO) sort of cardio when I am in a mass gaining phase of training for bbing. It limits what I can do in the gym by a lot IMHO. I get plenty of conditioning and cardio vasular training lifting 5x5x225lbs. :)

      Finally do you do reps in the 3-5 range for strength workouts for girls too?

      Reply
      1. Karla

        To be fair, you asked me what I think is optimal.

        I find an upper/lower split allowing for each muscle to get hit 2x a week is actually ideal. (again I am fairly new to this but just sharing what has worked for me)

        I would do like this

        Mon:
        1st workout lower (reps 9-12 sets 3 rests 60)
        Quad
        Ham
        Quad (secondary)
        Ham (Secondary)
        lowback
        calf (yeah, cause I am a bber)

        Tues:
        2nd workout lower (same format but 3-5 reps and 4 sets)

        Weds

        Thrs:
        (reps 9-12 sets 3 rests 60)
        Upper
        Push (chest)
        Pull (back)
        Push (secondary)
        Pull (secondary)
        Tris
        Bis
        Tris (secondary)
        Bis (secondary)

        Friday:
        2nd workout lower (same format but 3-5 reps and 4 sets)

        Sat and Sun = rest

        THIS workout still gives me 4 days of workout and hits all the muscles with 4 working sets BUT it allows me 48 hours of rest and repair between workouts which allows me to go in and really push it out the next time I hit it.

        Especially because it is SO hard for women to gain muscle, the concept of resting the muscle for growth should be emphasised. If you are doing training on a bunch of general fitness clients, then SURE, the program you have rocks. They will see some definition as they lose bodyfat, gain strength as their CNS learns to handle the work and gain overall fitness.

        Question is, could your theories hold up in the world of bodybuilding where it is essential to gain the MOST amount of muscle possible without losing any of it on the way down the bf% scale.

        idk… seems pretty metabolic to me in concept.

        Reply
      2. Bret Contreras

        Karla, I’ve read both of your posts and your facebook post and here is my response.

        Here’s a little bit about my background: I started lifting at age 15. I did high-volume bodypart splits until I was 24. During those years I saw great results. Then I did low-volume HIT training for a year and saw amazing results. Then I moved to 4-day lower/upper splits and saw great results. Now I’m using full body workouts 4-6 days per week and am seeing great results. Bottom line; everything works: bodypart splits, lower/upper splits, push/pull, total body training, high volume training, high intensity training, high frequency training, escalating density training, etc.

        Enough about me, now let’s talk about my clients. I am a unique trainer in that I don’t stick to one type of training for every client. I will vary routines considerably depending on the client. That said, I’m always trying to get people as strong as possible.

        As to what works best for bodybuilders; there’s no question about it – high volume bodypart splits. What works best for powerlifters? Lower/upper splits. What works best for strongmen and Olympic lifters? High frequency full body workouts.

        Finding the best routine takes trial and error and everything works for a while, then you must adapt.

        As to what works best for most women – I know for certain it’s high frequency total body training. I think I’ve trained more women in the past five years than almost any trainer in the world. My clients see so much better results than they would with other clients because I hammer them frequently.

        I know that you believe that muscles need rest; but we don’t have an adequate understanding of the proper recipe for hypertrophy in terms of intensity, volume, frequency, etc. We know that gymnasts and sprinters get jacked from full body training, as do Oly lifters and strongmen…and they’re working their entire bodies multiple times per week.

        We know that bodybuilders like to focus on one or two muscles per session, but this strategy doesn’t always work for everyone. Hence the many trainers and coaches who have adapted their training over the years to deliver better results to the general public. I believe that trainers/coaches such as Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Mike Boyle, Mark Verstegen, Alwyn Cosgrove, Jason Ferrugia, Chad Waterbury, and Charles Staley, to name a few, would prescribe full body workouts to most women (just like me).

        I’d also like to correct a misconception that you have…I train most guys this way as well. Nearly all of my male clients get put on full body workouts as well.

        Even bodybuilding trainers such as Charles Glass, and all of the pro bodybuilders, will tell you that beginners will grow best by using full body workouts. As they progress, then they can start to split. But most lifters never advance to the point where they benefit from splits.

        Now, when I was younger and I was sticking to a high-volume bodypart split routine, which is what all the pro bodybuilders were doing, I thought that all the other routines like HIT and HFT were stupid. I would have never guessed that they could work, as I believed that muscles need to be hit hard and then left alone to recover. Then I tried the different methods and learned a ton about the human body and its response to various types of stimuli.

        I believe that every lifter should experiment with different types of routines for several months at a time so they can learn how to manipulate acute training variables and create optimal routines. In fact, I draw from every type of system in my own training and in my training of others.

        If I thought that I could get my present clients (both male and female) bigger faster by doing bodypart splits or lower/upper splits, then I’d switch over. I have no loyalty to any system; I just seek results.

        But the truth is I’ve discovered that full body workouts, if done correctly, pack on the most mass for clients in their first year or two of training. After that they can split to lower/upper or bodypart splits but in the meantime they have to learn the rules of total-body training. One of those rules is that the first rule of recovery is to not get so beat up in the first place. You don’t pound a certain muscle group with four exercises and sixteen sets; you pick 4-6 compound movements that together work the entire body, and you typically do 2-4 sets of each exercise.

        To answer some of your other questions, I do not prescribe plyos/sprints/agility work to all of my clients. I put them in your program because I know that you play football. For this reason, you need to do some explosive stuff in concordance with your lifting or you get slower. The science is dead-on on this topic; heavy lifting while never doing explosive work will slow you down. When combined, there is synergy between heavy lifting and explosive work and the end result is maximum power and speed.

        However, if your goal is solely bodybuilding, then I agree; you shouldn’t do explosive work prior to strength training. Nor should you overdo it on conditioning.

        The template you listed is good and could yield great results. It might even be the optimal program for you. I thrived for years doing lower body on Mon and Thur and upper body on Tues and Fri. However, there are many ways to skin a cat and many roads lead to Rome.

        John Broz trains Olympic lifters and he has his guys squat and clean 7 days per week 2-3 times per day. Sound idiotic, right? Well he has some of his younger athletes are already world-class and his methods are receiving tons of attention. At the end of the day we should all realize that we simply don’t have a full understanding of training variable manipulation and optimal individualized programming.

        And btw, I own Lou Shuler’s book and love it. I spend my days trying to convince women that strength training will make them look better. In my blog I wasn’t inferring that women are weaker, or that they don’t want to be strong, I was just stating potential obstacles and pointing out what I believe to be true regarding female training. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions.

        I apologize for ruffling your feathers but I believe if you were in my shoes you’d understand. I freakin’ love women and I love training them. I am stating what I feel works best and I have just as high of expectations for them as I do for men. I don’t baby anyone and I push women just as hard as I push men (if not harder because men usually need more rest in between sets and can’t do as much volume). I hope I was able to communicate my message effectively, and I hope that over time you do some digging and experimenting and arrive at the same conclusion.

        Bret

        Reply
  17. Janine

    Hi Bret,
    I was very interested to read your article. I am currently training for a military fitness test but have been really struggling to master pushups on my toes. I do weights focusing on my chest, shoulders, biceps & triceps every 2nd day & also do a lot of swimming mostly breaststroke. But I still struggle with pushups. I only have 10 days left before my test & can currently do 5 which I need to increased to 8. I find the initial push off the floor the hardest part & also struggle with my arched back & sagging abdominal. I take protein shakes also to try & get additional benefit.

    Do you have any suggestions of exercises to try, & should I increase my weights or my reps? Should I be practising everyday as you mention in that first paragraph?

    Anything to help!!

    Reply
  18. Bret Contreras

    Janine, most women have the pressing strength to do push ups but they have such energy leaks at the spine that it destroys their momentum and form.

    In the next ten days you need to gain some serious core stability.

    Here’s what I suggest:

    Every day do the following workout until your competition:

    1. Do one set of regular push ups for as many reps as you can get.

    2. Do three sets of torso-elevated push ups: put a bar in the rack at just the right height where you can do push ups with perfect form.

    3. Do three sets of either: front planks, bodysaws, or ab wheel rollouts from the knees. Do not leg your spine buckle; keep it in neutral. Film your form or ask a friend for feedback to make sure you’re in neutral.

    4. Do one set of close grip bench press.

    Eight total sets each day for ten days. That’s it. This should do the trick.

    Please let me know the outcome. Best of luck! -Bret

    Reply
    1. Janine

      Hi Bret,
      Just letting you know that those exercises helped enormously! Not only did the pushups become so much easier in such a short time, on testing day, not only did I manage my 8 – I actually did 11! Thank you for pointing out the core strength issue as this was obviously what was holding me back.
      Thank you very very much for your help, it was so appreciated!

      Reply
  19. Bret Contreras

    Karla; one more thing:

    This is going to sound a bit cocky, but I don’t see many trainers/coaches duplicating my results for average women in strength or physique-enhancement.

    At my training studio Lifts I had around five different female clients who could do the following:

    1 – full squat 155
    2 – deadlift 185
    3 – do 8 chin ups
    4 – do 10 push ups

    My female records for various lifts were 185 full squat, 225 parallel squat, 255 deadlift, 30 push ups, 13 chins, 120 Bulgarian squats (in a row with each leg), and 500 45-degree back extensions (it was a ten-minute non-stop set).

    Yesterday one of my 120 lb female clients sumo deadlifted 185 for 12 reps and she could have done 15. I have a 57 year old female client who has been training with me for 2 months and is almost doing a bodyweight chin up by herself (in two more weeks she’ll get one).

    My clients have been trained by some of the most prestigious trainers/facilities in Arizona and each of them will tell you that they got far more results with me than they did with any of their other trainers. In fact, it’s not uncommon for clients to tell me that they saw better results with me in 3 weeks than they did in 8 months with their previous trainer.

    I’m not saying this to toot my own horn; I’m just trying to impress upon you that I don’t train my women like sissies.

    Here’s Kellie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWOOFjEy6vg

    Here’s Katie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6syken-m1Vo

    Here’s Karli:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FskVWPv_2wI

    -Bret

    Reply
    1. Karla

      Bret,

      Thanks for the detailed explanation and answers. I understand now that you wrote the plan for me based on me being a football player. My reference was to me being a bodybuilder only (which is what is happening after this season) When I am a football player, I only do full body workouts two times a week to compliment my football practice and speedwork training. I am weak as a school girl in those lifting sessions due to all the football training work that I must do so am VERY sensitive to how cardio/HIT type work can really make the lifting go down. Training the athlete for sport (esp the one who is older) is a very delicate balancing act and not really what I want to get into in this thread.

      I admit my feathers are a bit “ruffled” RE this article, but then again you have to understand that I spent my entire life getting over female “stero-types” and in my small time as a lifting athlete, I honestly cannot ever find a trainer who actually “gets” that I want to lift. AND I mean LIFT BIG! They will ALWAYS try to hand me the lighter weights, (AKA pink dumbells) and give me fullbody and high rep workouts. (sound familiar in concepts at least?) So now you are saying that this is “better” for women based on some pubmed article that doesn’t really test women reaching their potential in this article.

      So while I get what you are saying (now that we have had this side conversation), I sure worry that this sort of article will only perpetuate those same training paradigms by men. You have not only ruffled my feathers, btw. There is a thread on a large bbing board that I am following that is pretty “hot” wrt this blog post. I wanted to hear your side of this before I responded to that thread. These women are also athletes and serious lifters and have faced the same problem I have with male trainers. (sigh)

      In my “world” of women, those stats that you have achieved with your women are not that impressive (sorry, not meaning to sound cocky RE your cockiness) (wink) In fact I find it very hard to believe that my stats are 99.9% stronger than most women and am wondering if you aren’t stuck on a perception about women and their potentials. When plug my 1RMs numbers into strength test guidelines for females my lifts rank me in the high mid range to low elite range for a women my size. That I will buy from my own personal experience but there are MANY, MANY women in the bbing world who can out lift my numbers. So I again am left to wonder if your training stuido is actually filled with more serious athletes or general fitness women and if your mind and perception wouldn’t change if you were to work with real female athletes. The two types will give you vastly different results. One thing women do NOT have in the gym that men typically do is the big egos. The result of this is that, as a trainer, you will spend your time telling a women to add weight because she fears it and telling a man to back off the weigh because he is sure he can lift more than he is ready to lift. In my world of women, we have to be told to back off. Just like the men.

      I am actually glad to hear that you are finding excellent results on full body workout routines as well as do this same protocol with men. When I finish my last season in professional female full contact football, I am coming back to bodybuilding. I have a world of information now on how my body works and what I need. What I don’t have is a training plan for that. Put me on your e-training books for Sept of next year (that will be when I start coming back). I intend to start a 1-year bulk and strength training program then and you will be my advisor for that if you will accept that job then. I can’t wait to try this concept.

      Reply
      1. Bret Contreras

        Karla, when I met you at the JPFitness Summit this is what Alan Aragon told me; “That is one badass chick. She’s great people but you better stay on her good side.” He’s right! :)

        This is a great debate and I’m very glad that you had the “juevos” to chime in. I took my time before I threw out that statistic so let me expound upon the 99.999% statement. Out of 1,000 people in the world, 503 are men and 497 are women. Right now there are approximately 6,875,682,455 people in the world. This means that there are around 3.37 billion women on our planet. If we divide this by 100,000, we get around 33,688. This sounds reasonable to me. I think that there are probably around 33,000 women in the world who are capable of benching 135, squatting 200, and deadlifting 250 lbs. Consider that India and China comprise around 1/3 of the world’s population and strength training is quite unpopular in those countries for the common woman. Out of the countries where strength training is popular, such as the U.S., I can assure you that most women who work out don’t even come close to reaching your levels of strength.

        There is a big gap between perception of strength and the real-world in both men and women.

        Men see videos of powerlifters squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing over 1,000 lbs and it makes them feel very weak. In truth, a solid strength goal for the average Joe is to reach the 300/400/500 club – a 300 lb bench press, 400 lb squat, and 500 lb deadlift. I’d venture to guess that only 1 in 100 males who strength train ever reach this club.

        For women, a more realistic goal, based on my experience (and I’ve trained tons of people bare in mind), is the 100/150/200 club – a 100 lb bench press, 150 lb squat, and 200 lb deadlift. I’d venture to guess that only 1 in 1,000 women who strength train ever reach this club. Most women simply don’t train for strength. And the ones who do aren’t reaching these levels.

        Not only have I trained tons of women, I’m also friends with many trainers and coaches at the collegiate and professional levels. I ask them how strong their females and female athletes are and my girls are right up there with theirs.

        It’s important that we realize that there is a hierarchy of strength in women that goes something like this:

        1. Female Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and strongwomen
        2. Female Bodybuilders, gymnasts, track & field athletes, etc.
        3. Female fitness and figure competitors
        4. Female weekend warriors and females who regularly strength train
        5. Active females who don’t strength train but hike, do yoga, Pilates, etc.
        6. Sedentary females

        It’s important that our judgment isn’t skewed by categories 1 and 2, and that women using anabolic steroids are taken out of consideration.

        I’m sure I could email all of my colleagues and they’d verify this. You are correct in your assumptions – I don’t train many serious athletes. I train mostly regular women looking to get in shape. Most serious athletes have coaches and don’t want to pay top dollar for my services. However, I get regular women very strong. The overwhelming majority start out unable to perform a proper bodyweight squat and lunge. And they are far away from being able to do a push up or chin up. Anyone who believes otherwise does not have much experience training the general public.

        The bodybuilding discussion board that you’re involved in is undoubtedly very advanced in strength and is likely “skewed” in thought as to average fitness levels of regular women. This happens with men too. I see male bodybuilders training their girlfriend and they immediately put a bar and their back and tell them to squat. The woman isn’t ready for the barbell so she ends up doing quarter squats with the bar. The bodybuilder tells her to go deeper. She tries but falls forward and does a modified squat/good morning or “squat morning.” He tells her to stay upright, but she can’t. She needs to learn how to squat with her bodyweight before using a barbell but the bodybuilder isn’t experienced as a trainer so he doesn’t understand the art of regression/progression.

        As to high reps, there is evidence that they lead to more hypertrophy than low reps both in the research and anecdotes (just look at bodybuilders compared to powerlifters). When I say high reps I don’t mean high reps with pink dumbbells, I mean high reps with relatively heavy loads.

        And never in my post did I say that women should be treated like sissies. They should be pushed very hard and encouraged to set records regularly. If their goals are hypertrophy and strength (or just getting a good physique), they need to train very hard and strive to reach impressive levels of strength. I’m never satisfied by mediocrity – not with myself or with my clients. If I trained the bodybuilders on the forum in which you’re involved, I guarantee you I’d get them much stronger. I’d do this by screening/assessing their joint ROM, joint stability, mechanics, etc. and cleaning up form and eliminating dysfunction and improper motor patterns, and by superior program design that is not limited to one type of thinking (HVT, HIT, HFT, etc.). I’d tinker with program design to find what works best for the individual. Just look at the different bodybuilders who use HIT vs. HVT, and the ones who train various muscles once per week vs. twice or three times per week, etc. We’re all unique!

        Anyway, first you should be happy that you are a strong woman! Congratulations.

        And second, know that I will take you up on your offer and train you online.

        Thanks for the excellent dialogue Karla. I’m looking forward to hearing your response.

        Bret

        Reply
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  21. Bret Contreras

    Karla, I just thought of something else that you and your friends should consider.

    Most women are indeed nervous about embarking upon a strength training regime.

    Those of us in the know (like you and me) are aware that it will do their bodies good (for strength, health, bone density, and physical asthetics), but we have to be aware of their fears.

    If upon their first session I start talking about muscle growth, hypertrophy, etc., and start telling them that my goal is to get them doing barbell squats, barbell deadlifts with big 45 lb plates on each end, chin ups, etc. they would never come back. They’d vanish after their first session.

    You have to take things slow, demonstrate to them that they don’t have to get crippled after every workout, show them that they’ll start to lean out and lose bodyfat while firming muscles, etc. You have to use different language with women (toning, firming, shaping, etc.) than you would with men (jacked, swole, yolked, hyooge, etc.) :) so you don’t scare them off.

    Once you earn their trust, then you can do whatever you want with them and they’ll believe you. But if you aren’t aware of these fears (self-conscious, insecure, etc.), then you’ll do more harm than good because not only will they quit training with you, they’ll also be turned off to strength training and never want to start up again.

    So you “trick” them into loving strength training and you convert them one-by-one.

    This does not apply to all women of course and there are obviously one’s like you with different goals. But your types are the exception, not the norm. I love getting clients like you; I don’t have to do any “convincing.”

    Hope this makes sense.

    Bret

    Reply
  22. Karl

    Dear Bret….

    I and my friends are WELL aware of how to approach women RE weight lifting and also about their fears of getting bulky. We deal with this daily on our forum. This isn’t “news” and Lou Schuler wrote the book on it when he published New Rules of Lifting with Cosgrove about 3 years ago. Back then the New Rules Books revolutionised the industry as the training programs focused on full body training for both men and women general population beginners and poo-poo’d the traditional bbing type workouts for that demographic. Today, I think it is generally accepted that most “general fitness” people (MEN and WOMEN) benefit from the workouts listed in those books and from full body workouts until they have adapted to the exercises to some degree.

    The reason, I have to speak up is that I send a LOT of women to your site. (this one) I think that you are one of the most fascinating and exciting trainers of our day and that your blog is the most amazing one in existence. Quite honestly, I admire you a whole lot and I have never made that a secret. I simply wanted you to clarify what you meant in the first two paragraphs a little as I obviously have different experiences. Your first two paragraphs sure seem like you are referring to ALL women so now that we know you are talking general population only and primarily beginners I think I am cool and we can agree. It also appears as though you are taking a study RE women BENCH PRESSING (which you even say is a proportionality weak lift for a women) and applying the findings from this rather questionable study to the entire body to draw some conclusions about training frequency. The logic simply doesn’t connect for me and all your experience does not make this disconnect different. How do the study and your belief RE full body and training frequency of full body connect? (Sorry if I am being dense. I really am trying to get it)

    I would like to share with you a little bit of my own experience if you do not mind as food for thought. The deal with training women (and especially the elite women) is that there is very little real data available about this rather rare demographic. The truth is that people do not really care so much about female athletes. It isn’t the “big” money so studies rarely get funded. In fact there are precious few studies about athletes at all even. So we are left primarily to go by our anecdote. Training women (as you rightly discovered) is more of a psychological difference then a physiological one.

    In my own case, I reached all those big numbers in my lifting game ONLY after I gave up all my paradigms about having to do cardio and getting fat and getting bulky. A bbing trainer told me that women and men both need to lift big, eat big and sleep and NOTHING else if they want to gain maximum muscle. I tried it using a plan developed by Alan. This plan was huge volume and gave me nice long rests after maximum exertion in the gym. During the peak of this bulk is when I hit those numbers that you claim put me in the 99.9 percentile of all women lifter. It also put a significant amount of raw meat on my body.

    Within a few months of joining a football team and doing 4 (sometimes more) hours of cardio type practice work per week, my lifts all dropped significantly. Today I can do only what you consider a “normal” amount in my lifts and maintain football practice type work for even 1 hour a week. When practice reaches 2-6 hours or more a week it gets worse.

    So when I read about all of your years of experience with women the question comes first of what is first. Chicken or the egg thing. Since I cannot do those lifts now, is it the case that I am incapable? If you did not know that I was capable of doing those numbers from my previous bulk, you would put me on a more frequent and more metabolic full body type workout and the end result would be that I would be incapable of achieving those lifts . In other words, I would become one of the 99.9%.

    If I did not care about achieving the maximum muscle possible, I would be happy with being fit and also with my program where I progressed at different lifts in different ways. Still that does not lead me to the conclusion that lifting in this program is better for me. It certainly is not better for me in the case of uncovering my true strength and/or potential.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Karla, this has made for a very enjoyable post. Thanks for chiming in and I appreciate your passion on this matter. Here are my thoughts to this round.

      1. Regarding the study I posted, I disagree and feel that it’s huge. Studies like these open the doors for more research in the same area. While I believe that you are correct in your assumption that upper body tests may not correlate with lower body tests, I still believe that there is a difference between men vs women (and between strong men vs. weak men and strong women vs. weak women). For example, if a have a female client who is not proficient in squats and can only do her own bodyweight, I could easily have her squat 7 days per week (and probably even 2-3 times per day seven days per week) for optimal results. From this concept I’ve been able to advance clients so much faster than typical bodybuilding approaches. The majority of female clients arrrive at my doorstep unable to squat with the bar, lunge properly, or deadlift more than 65 lbs with good form, so they need much higher frequencies because they’re not dipping into their recovery reserves because they’re not stressing their muscles or CNS to any substantial degree. I’m sure you’d agree with me on this so far.

      Now, even with “advanced” women, the same holds true. My strongest female clients are full squatting 135ish and deadlifting 225ish. Some of your colleagues might be squatting 225ish and deadlifting 315ish or higher depending on whether or not they’re natural or using AAS, their bodyweight, and their goals.

      Either way, that’s still just 225 lbs for the squat and 315 lbs for the deadlift. I’ve done each for 30 reps and I’m a joke by powerlifting standards.

      Male powerlifters are much stronger, yet many of them have a max effort day, a dynamic effort day, and they do the reverse hyper, glute ham raises, and sled work on off days. So many are hitting their lower bodies 3-5 times per week and these are the strongest people on Earth. Nearly all Olympic weightlifters from around the world are doing full squats, front squats, cleans, snatches, jerks, power cleans, and power snatches 4-7 days per week. Again, these are some of the strongest individuals in the world.

      These days more and more male bodybuilders are splitting up quads and hamstrings and doing them on seperate days. If the legs are a weak-point, many male bodybuilders will hit the quads and hams twice per week. Yet when we consider that many are doing deadlifts and back extensions on back day we realize that they’re really hitting the lower body 3 times per week (once on quad day, once on back day, and once on ham day).

      Sprinters (both male and female) are hitting their legs five days per week via sprints, plyos, ballistics, towing, and heavy strength training.

      If stronger males who lift double to triple the loads that women lift are able to hit their legs with such frequency, I believe that women are able to hit their legs with at least as much if not more frequency than their male counterparts.

      Regarding training frequency, I don’t believe we possess an adequate understanding and I don’t think that anybody has the right to say that hitting them once per week, twice per week, three time per week, four times per week, etc. is optimal for strength, power, or hypertrophy purposes.

      The program design and individual genetics is what matters (more on that in a minute).

      2. As women get stronger, they can choose to reduce their frequency and “blast” their legs a couple of times per week, or to keep the frequency high and tinker (reduce) with the volume and intensity to continue to allow such training frequencies.

      3. When I did bodypart split high-volume training, I assumed that anything else was idiotic. I laughed at the concept of HIT and HFT. When I switched to HIT and gave my body time to get good at it, I realized it was amazing but I still laughed at HFT. Years later I switched to HFT and gave my body time to get good at it and realized that it worked great as well. Now I use a combination of all three.

      The problem with every “expert” these days is that most have only tried one system or dabbled in two or three but they’ve never given their bodies time to get good at them. For example, when I tried the 20-rep squat routine (one set to failure) I sucked at them for the first time. I did 135 for 20 reps. Three months later I full squatted 265 for 20 reps. My body needed time to get good at HIT.

      Perhaps the single greatest problem in the fitness industry today is the speculation. I see it all the time with my colleagues. Even though they’ve never tried an exercise, they feel they can comment on its effectiveness. They can criticize all other methods even though they’ve never tried it.

      I am in love with bodybuilding, powerlifting, and sport specific training, but these camps are known for being close-minded and not “open” to other methods.

      When I started training Kellie (figure competitor) she was doing high volume bodypart splits and tons of plyos and cardio. I took her off of plyos and cardio and moved her to a full body routine and her physique exploded. She saw more results in a short period of time than ever before because she was relatively weak in reference to her genetic limit. Once she got stronger, I moved her to a lower/upper split and now I have her doing bodypart splits again (and she’s seeing great results because she’s using much more weight for higher reps than she did in the past).

      After her next competiton, I’ll have her toggle between full body, lower/upper splits, and bodypart splits depending on how far out her competitions are.

      I’m getting off topic but my point is this:

      I believe that the ONLY people who have the right to comment on different types of splits and methods are those who have dedicated adequate time and effort to each system. If you’ve never tried the various systems and have always trained one way, then you have no right to speculate as to which is best (I’m not directing this toward you; I’m directing it toward everyone). Furthermore, those who train others for a living get to see how different individuals respond and realize that there’s a huge genetic compenent to program design (well, only the good ones realize this), which brings me to my next point.

      4. For years I tried to make my genetically-gifted training partner do my routines (lower/upper splits and total body training) until I finally came to the realization that he does best when he sticks to bodypart splits and hits his muscles once per week. That same routine seriously gets me weaker and less muscular. If I only bench press, squat, or deadlift once per week I truly get weaker and am unable to match what I did the previous week. Even though I’m hitting my muscles from lots of angles and “blasting” them with different stimuli, they don’t grow. Even when I did do HVT bodypart splits, I learned quickly that I had to do the following (this was my routine for around five years):

      Monday – legs, Tuesday – chest and tri’s, Wednesday – back and bi’s, Thursday – shoulders and traps, Friday – 3 powerlifts, Saturday – off, Sunday – off.

      By doing the 3 powerlifts on Friday, I was able to gain strength and hit my muscles hard twice per week.

      I believe that genetically gifted people (mesomorphs, naturally high anabolic hormones, naturally low catabolic hormones, etc.) do well with HVT and bodypart splits, whereas more genetically average folks do better with TBT, lower/upper splits, or push pull splits.

      Charles Poliquin wrote an article years ago that there were clients who seemed to respond better to volume, some to intensity, some to variety, etc. I’d add that some to frequency. In a DVD I have, sprint coach Dan Pfaff talked about how one Olympic sprinter he trained needed intense but infrequent bouts of stimuli, whereas another needed more frequent, higher volume, but less intense bouts of stimuli. He mentioned that he trained the two world champions totally differently.

      So the notion that one type of system works best for everyone is absurd. It’s up to the individual and/or trainer to discover the optimal program and blend of frequency, volume, intensity, intensiveness, density, exercise selection, and periodization which takes many years and the optimal blend evolves over time. What works best one year doesn’t always work best another year as weak links change, etc.

      5. In your case, I’d guess that you’re correct. You probably do best by avoiding HFT. However, I’d have to talk to you to determine if you went about HFT correctly in the past. The only way I’m able to make HFT to work for me is to control the volume. I often do 3 progressively heavier singles for a lift and then I’m done. I can squat, bench, and deadlift heavy four days per week if I do 3 sets of 1 rep (and only one of those reps is above 95% of my 1RM). You can say that this method is absurd but I got stronger in a short period of time from it than from any other method in terms of maximum strength. Clearly I respond well to frequency.

      I would agree that I was working mostly on neural adaptations as I didn’t get more muscular on this program. My muscles weren’t receiving adequate metabolic stress, cellular swelling, hypoxia, etc. or even enough time under max tension. However, if I stuck with this phase for a few months, then transitioned into a phase of less frequency and higher volume, perhaps I’d see max hypertrophy as then I’d be able to use more weight on my sets in the medium rep ranges.

      I’d argue that heavy lifting in the regard I mentioned isn’t safe for most lifters because they don’t use optimal form when doing max effort work, nor do they know when to call it quits. But this is an area of specialty for me so I’m comfortable with it and I’m comfortable using it with the clients that I train.

      6. I completely agree with you regarding limiting the cardio, plyos, sprints, agility work, and interval training if seeking maximum hypertrophy and/or strength. You’re preaching to the choir on that one. I could write a whole article on that topic, but my clients always get leaner and stronger as I shift their focus away from conditioning and onto heavy strength training.

      Okay that’s all. I’m done for now. Great conversation Karla.

      Reply
  23. Karla

    Bret,

    Thanks again for the detailed response and we can continue this over beers in the near future as I believe our conversation may have nuances left out in this communication.

    For now suffice it to say that I get you and am so very looking forward to working with you. I know I am pretty new to this and also that I do not invest nearly the time in it that you do. I chose to allow you to do that work and I just get the “cliffs” here. LOL!

    You are 100% correct. I believe I did not get volume correct in my experiment and am always dancing the whole optimum volume game. Seriously I am excited to start my next bulk with your concepts and guidance. I am actually also going to experiment a little bit with upper body during this season and see if Ican find some sort of “happy”place there.

    So my friend, get ready because in Sept 2010, you will have the most rare of all the demographics on your hands. An over 40, female high-level performance athlete with non of the typical mental barriers towards weight lifting. Open minded and looking to grow and willing to eat to support said growth. If you can get me reaching again or surpassing these numbers on a more frequent type plan I will be thrilled. I actually like the concept due to the safety and form issues that you discuss. Like I said, I likes it and I am totally “up” for trying it.

    When I “pop” out the other side, I will have a deeper understanding and can then help others.

    Reply
  24. Kaz Adams

    Hi Brett,

    My mate James de Lacey, showed me you blog site and its awesome!!

    I just have one question. I train my mum every now and then and she is 49 years old. She is very active loves to workout and will work as hard as she can but she doesn’t want to do any type of weight lifting. I don’t argue with her 1, because shes my mum, but also because of her age I’m unsure if I will be doing harm to her or helping her. She always talks about toning up, has a good diet but only ever goes for walks or aerobic workouts at the gym. Her goal is to get toned up and be fitter. Is it ok for her to do weights?

    Thanks Heaps!!
    Kaz

    Reply
  25. Bret Contreras

    Just in case anyone is interested, I re-read the study and took some notes for the study I mentioned in this post.

    1. The average years of training experience for men was 6.5 years and for women 4.6 years, so the athletes were quite experienced.

    2. The average 5RM bench press strength was 319 lbs for men and 162 lbs for women. This is pretty damn impressive…some strong folks used in this study.

    3. The subjects took 3 weeks to familiarize themselves with testing protocol, which allowed them to get accustomed to the set/rep scheme, reduce DOMS and fatigue, and more accurately predict their 5RM.

    4. A certified strength coach (CSCS) was present to motivate subjects and ensure proper technique.

    5. A proper lift meant that the bar had to touch chest and the elbows had to lock out.

    6. During the test, subjects rested 3 min between sets.

    7. The set/rep/load scheme was as follows: 10 reps at 50% of 5RM , 5 reps at 70% of 5RM, 4 reps at 85% of 5RM, 2 reps at 95% of 5RM, and 100% of 5RM to failure. The reps to failure ensured that nothing is “left on the table” and would prevent women from having a “wimpier” workout even if they under-reported their 5RM (which is unlikely as the women were very strong and experienced).

    8. The subjects could change their perceived 5RM could during the testing period if they felt that their strength increased.

    9. Training background did not seem to matter in this study, as there were control groups of men and women with less training experience (3.8 years average for men and 1.8 years average for women) that showed the same recovery pattern

    10. This study seems pretty legit. It provides an indication for more research in this area too.

    Reply
  26. PolyisTCOandbanned

    There was a pretty good study of female midshipmen at the Naval Academy on pullups. Even after several weeks of training (by a member of the PE staff) only about 50% could do a single pullup. The rationale for the experiment was to see if the flexed arm could ever be changed to pullups as a strength test requirement. Men have to do a minimum of 6 pullups (15 is max). Women all do flexed arm hang.

    The differences in fitness tests for men and women is a big source of resentment to the small population of females. They concluded it was impractical to use pullups as a fitness measurement for women and that changing the requirements to require pullups would screen out well over 50% of possible women. In contrast, almost every man can learn to do 6 pullups.

    Note, that these are PROPER pullups. Like you did in PE class in elementary school. No kip. And all the way up and all the way down. (Harder than the half range stuff you see bodybuilders do at the gym.)

    So…if you are a lady doing pullups…MAJOR PROPS. But if someone says it is an expectation for women to do them, I call BS.

    Oh…and there is an article by Staley calling BS on Polliquen for saying that every trainer should be able to get an average female to do 12 pullups.

    And there are a bunch of articles on females doing pullups. Some good studies in the 80s. Just google scholar for them…

    Reply
  27. PolyisTCOandbanned

    I find women more coachable in some ways, less hard-headed. Like teaching swimming or gymnastics or surfing or skiing. Men or boys have much more tendancy to just kind of muscle things and not pay attention to helpful instruction. Then they flail and get mad. Whereas girls will listen as long as you are confident and not too abrupt with them.

    Even have had this experience with teaching shooting!

    Reply
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  31. Tomek

    Bret, could you write a little bit more about getting full range of motion in extension of the hip? I try to achieve it but although I do tons of stretching and glute bridges there seems to be no progress. I suffer from knee and back pain and getting in the neutral hip position is a priority of mine (currently I have hyperlordosis).

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Tomek, since you have hyperlordosis then exercises like hip thrusts, back exensions, and reverse hypers will be very tricky for you. You actually probably don’t want to try to reach full hip extension on them as they could lead to back pain (facet and/or disc issues). Conversely, you may find that you’re able to squat and deadlift just fine with full ROM. In theory you should stretch the hip flexors and low back and strengthen the glute max and abdominals but just know that some aren’t fruitful in their endeavor to improve their posture. It can be done but don’t rush anything or you’ll just keep hurting yourself. Best of luck to you!

      Reply
  32. SLS

    “Women are simply not as physically strong as men (especially in upper body strength) and don’t tax their muscular and nervous systems to the extent of males.”

    I think this is spot on and am fascinated at how this can segue into the topic of muscle fatigue, which is currently the topic in which I’m most interested. I’d like to write up some thoughts in my own post on my blog and further detail the link between the CNS and muscular adaptation to different types of training. I wonder especially how estrogen and testosterone differentially affect the CNS as they differentially impact muscular development. Also, I really enjoyed so much of what you wrote about your process in learning to train women. Female specific training techniques are actually what led me to your site, and when I saw beautiful strong figure goddesses adorning your blog, and unabashedly starring in your training vids, I’ve been hooked on reading and training heavy ever since. Keep up the great work and information on female strength training, it’s so amazingly rare to find! Even with all the crossfit hype going on, I still see too many conditioning bodies that just don’t look good. Somewhere, there’s still a disconnect.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Thanks SLS! I’ve actually seen some amazing Crossfit bodies….but in terms of physique training I know I can do better (not to take anything away from their impressive levels of conditioning) and I can do better in terms of making them move more efficiently (though there are some good crossfit coaches who know what they’re doing in this regard).

      Reply
  33. Marianne

    Hi Bret, Great read – I can identify with most of these things (over the course of my training). Although, now i know what I am doing i have no issue showing all the men up in the gym! :P

    The thing that has never rang true for me is only being competitive with myself. If that were the case I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I feel the need to be the strongest – or at least give it my best shot – against men or women! What wins every time is good form in combination with strength. :D

    If I know someone can do 1 more pull up than me, all of a sudden, I have more in the tank! A competitive nature can be an amazing thing sometimes!!

    Cheers

    Reply
  34. Michelle

    I completely agree with everything you wrote! It is interesting reading Marianne’s comment above because I am the opposite. I guess I am the average woman because the one point that I identified with most in your article was only being competitive with myself. This has worked for me but it has also worked against me! Recently I have been wondering about adding in extra workout days, currently it is just 4, but I was worried about the recovery period. So it was interesting to read about women being able to tolerate more training frequency than men. Love your blog.

    Reply
  35. Sonya

    Hey Bret,

    Your blog is awesome! I’ve been trying to read up on lower body training (esp glutes) and I’m so glad to have stumbled upon your site.

    I have been training for a couple of years and though I’ve gained strength I’m still pretty lanky with skinny legs(I’m built like a long distance runner).

    To gain leg mass would doing one quad dominant and one hip dominant exercise along with one push and pull for the upper body, per session, provide enough leg stimulus or would it be ok to throw in more leg work while keeping two lifts for the upper body?

    Thanks again for all the useful information you’ve put out!

    Reply
  36. LULU

    What would you recommend for women who would like more defined leg muscles? (besides a clean diet)
    -low rep with heavier weights? or
    – high rep with lighter weights?
    i have read that heavier weights low reps are the way to get the tight muscle look in a women’s legs. Any guidance would be appreciated !!

    Reply
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