While most of us have 2 arms, 2 legs, and a core, there are differences between the sexes that deserve some attention in the gym.
So, here are some top insider tips for personal trainers to consider in their fitness training program for women.
1. Sometimes we forget our sports bra.
When that happens, ladder drills and plyometrics fall somewhere between embarrassing and painful. If your client tells you she forgot her sports bra, it’s best if you skip the plyos and ladder drills that day. If she doesn’t say anything but you see her doing the drill squeezing her breasts against her body with her forearms, then help a girl out and tell her that she can skip that drill today.
2. Be mindful of where she is positioned when doing lifts like deadlifts.
If you have a client who’s a bit overweight and self-conscious about the size of her butt, then don’t ask her to do deadlifts in a spot where she is sticking her butt out for all to look at. One of two things will happen:
– She’ll do a crappy deadlift because she’ll do everything possible to minimize how much her butt is sticking out.
– She’ll abide but decide she doesn’t like deadlifts. This may lead to not liking training with you.
Instead, set the bar up so that she’s facing the gym so that she can execute a great deadlift without being self-conscious.
I believe contributing to someone disliking deadlifts is a sin. Don’t do it!
“I believe contributing to someone disliking deadlifts is a sin.” – Click to Tweet
3. PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) is a real thing.
Seriously. Symptoms vary enormously from person to person and throughout the period. For some, it’s just a nuisance, for others, it involves bloating, low back pain, cramps, food cravings, and moodiness. Not fun. As it turns out exercise often alleviates the symptoms, so getting the workout in can really improve someone’s day when they are experiencing PMS symptoms.
This doesn’t mean the symptoms are in our heads. It isn’t. It’s in the uterus. Really.
Here’s a fantastic detailed post concerning the menstrual cycle from Greg Nuckols to read later: www.strengtheory.com/menstrual-cycle-contraceptives-complete-guide-athletes/
If your client will actually tell you they are PMS’ing, then please respond appropriately. A little compassion goes a long way, whereas downplaying it or suggesting it’s in their heads will go a really long way toward them not trusting you. When my clients tell me they are PMS’ing, I tell them that we will plan to take it a bit easy this workout but we’ll see how they feel as they progress.
Here’s PTDC head coach Jonathan Goodman’s strategy to speak to female clients about female issues as a male trainer: www.theptdc.com/2014/09/a-male-trainer-speaks-about-post-pregnancy-workouts/
Often they feel pretty good within about 10 minutes, so there’s no need to take it easy. But by offering to ease up, they have faith that you listen and that you understand what they’re going through. There are some periods where the notion of getting to the gym is just unfathomable. Understand that the very fact that they showed up is huge. Don’t ruin that!
If they haven’t said anything, and odds are they won’t especially if you’re a guy, then keep an eye out. If they’re not the lazy type, but are really dogging it one day or complain about not feeling great, then respond as above, and take a note for their file. Most of us get our period every 28 days, so mark down the general crappy-feeling days on your calendar, and you may quickly see a pattern.
4. Every body is different
This one seems obvious, but you may not have considered all of the implications.
- Height. Some of your women fitness clients are probably, um, less than tall. This requires some adjustments in the gym. If your 5’2″ client is bench pressing, consider giving her a step to put under her feet.
Getting her to keep her feet on the floor will require an excessive back arch which may be very uncomfortable and even lead to back pain. Feet on the bench is also not a great option, as it means she’ll lose that extra force you get by driving the feet through the floor.
- Machine dimensions. Similarly, if you use machines with your clients, then keep in mind some of them may be suboptimal for anyone who is not 6’0″. This even applies to many seated upper body exercises, where the arm span or torso length, or shoulder span may actually put a shorter client at risk.
- Hand size. Small hands can make holding free weights much more difficult. If your client has very small hands, then grip will likely become the limiting factor in their deadlift. I’m not suggesting we ignore grip strength – it is important. But let’s understand that a deadlift with a regular bar for your 5’0″ client is similar to a deadlift with Fat Gripz for you 5’9″ client.
Would you have your 5’9″ client do all of their deadlifting with Fat Gripz? If the answer is no, then give your 5’0″ client a level playing field. One of the best purchases I made at Custom Strength was a women’s Olympic bar. The bar diameter is 25mm instead of the standard 28.5mm for a regular Olympic bar.
Prior to purchasing the bar, I had a very strong and athletic female client tell me she hated deadlifts. It was like a dagger to the heart. After one session with the new bar (I went with the Rogue Bella bar), the response was an emphatic “I love deadlifts”. All was well in the gym again. If a women’s bar is not an option, then straps can be a great option for those with smaller hands.
- Hip size. I love barbell glute bridges (thanks to Bret Contreras for introducing me to it). It’s a great way to really strengthen the glutes, which tend to be the weak link for many. But I won’t use this exercise with any client who is bigger than me in the legs, hips or stomach.
The barbell glute bridge setup involves basically rolling the bar over your legs. It’s about 7.5″ off the ground, courtesy of the plates on either side. If any part of your clients lower body is wider than 7.5″, this becomes an awkward and embarrassing exercise. On the opposite end of the spectrum, clients with extremely low body fat may find the bar placement to be uncomfortable. Keep an eye out for this.
Here’s Bret Contreras instructing the glute bridge:
- Breast size. For women with large breasts, single arm dumbbell (DB) rows and DB bench press may be awkward, and their breasts may actually limit their functional ROM (range of motion). For rows, consider using kettlebells (KB) instead. I don’t have a great alternative suggestion for bench press, and so just keep in mind that they are getting a smaller range of motion out of this exercise. This may lead you to limit the use of this exercise in favour of others (one arm cable press).
Here’s PTDC coach Nick Tumminello instructing two different types of cable presses:
Similarly, a KB swing may also be problematic for these women. Moving to a one arm KB swing, or using a towel to hold the KB are options.
Keep an eye on plyometrics with large-breasted clients as well. Many women with large breasts will wear two sports bras to keep the girls from bouncing too much. In some cases, this is still insufficient for some drills. As with the first point above about plyos when clients forget their sports bra, for large-breasted women, some plyos may not be a good option even if they remembered.
5. Urinary incontinence is very common.
Be wary of too much bouncing during pregnancy, post-pregnancy, and for older women. A simple set of pogo jumps can leave a woman with a touch of leakage. If this happens, they will not look forward to the exercise, or to come back to see you.
What to do? Avoid things like pogo jumps for “older” women (I’m talking 45 plus here), pregnant women and those who have recently had babies. Beyond that, if a woman who is normally up for anything tells you she really hates an exercise, and it’s a plyometric type of drill, then it may be because she pees a bit every time she does it.
Not a nice feeling! Do her a favour and drop the exercise. If she actually mentions it, then get her to see her doctor about it. It may be an issue of retraining pelvic floor muscles, but it may also be a sign of something like distasis recti.
6. Lack of muscle.
A lot of women grew up without playing any sports. Thankfully this is changing, but for women 30 and older, there isn’t much history of physical activity. This likely means they have very little muscle. You get to help them build muscle for the first time ever.
This is exciting and important, but it also brings with it a need for altered expectations. While most men who come in your door will be able to drop down and give you 10 pushups the first time they see you, most women will not. This is partly because women are physiologically disadvantaged for pushups (and pull-ups), but it’s also for lack of a base of muscle.
Absolutely get your women clients doing pushups! Just don’t expect 25 pushups from them on day 1 – 99% of your women clients will not be able to do this. Instead of setting them up for failure and bad form, set them up at the appropriate progression or regression and set them up to succeed and build strength. I use the term “Pushup progression” on the program sheets I create for my clients. This covers the full range from pushup against a wall to feet elevated with weight vests and a pause.
Depending on their fitness background, I start most of my female clients with pushups against a bar at about the height most people rack their bar for benching and ask them to do as many as they can.
If it’s less than 10 (with good form), I know that’s the right spot and the person still feels like a success. If it’s much more than 10, I bring it down quickly, and continue to do so until we find the right challenge (which might be feet elevated with weight and a pause). The only downside to this approach is that a few women will end up wasting a set or two. Oh well. Meanwhile they will all feel successful. That’s a trade-off I’ll take any day.
Another exercise where lack of muscle is evident is in the deadlift. In addition to the custom bar that I bought for my gym, I also bought a 5kg training bar, and a set of 10 and 25 lb bumper plates that have the same diameter as a standard 45 lb plate. This means my clients can deadlift with proper form starting at 32 pounds, instead of the 135 lbs you would need with a standard 45 lb bar and 45 lb plates. This makes the deadlift viable for so many women who would otherwise never get to do it.
If you don’t have this setup, you can also use boxes or pins on a power rack to set the bar at a proper height, or use kettlebells. But when I had a 76 year old client say with a big smile that she felt like she was lifting like the big boys, I knew the 5kg bar and bumper plates had been a great purchase.
Yelling and negativity is not the way to motivate women. There may be an exception or two to this rule, but not many. We just don’t respond positively to yelling.
I don’t know why this is, but I do know there is a self-esteem gap between men and women that starts young. Here are a few facts that struck me:
- “ While 13% of Canadian girls (ages 10-14) are comfortable calling themselves ‘beautiful’, this number slides to 6% for girls ages 15-17 and to only 3% for women (ages 18-64)” 
- “Nearly half (47%) of Canadian girls between the ages of 10 and 17 have avoided social activities like going to the beach, participating in physical activities, going to school or giving an opinion because they feel badly about the way they look. “
- “the percentage of girls who claim to be confident declines from 76% of girls 10-14 to only 56% of girls 15-17. 
- “Many girls ages 11–17 say they do not play sports because they do not feel skilled or competent (40%) or because they do not think their bodies look good (23%). “
I became very aware of this when I used to coach the Ottawa junior (under 18) ultimate team. It was a co-ed team, and the difference in self-perception between many of the boys and the girls was alarming.
When I spoke with some of the top girls trying out, I was shocked when they told me they didn’t think they would make the team. I was equally shocked when some of the worst boys at tryouts approached us after, looking for an explanation of why they didn’t make the team. The difference in self-perception blew me away.
This self-esteem gap is one of the reasons that we still see such a minority of women executives in the corporate world. There may be systemic inequality, but I believe a big portion of the problem is that most women don’t ask for what they want and deserve.
I don’t have stats or studies to back that up – it’s just a theory. But it is one based on having been the only woman out of 20 senior managers sitting around a boardroom table; and having been the only woman of over 100 entrepreneurs pitching to an investment group. I only bring this up to say that confidence is a big problem for many women; potentially in all facets of their lives.
As a trainer, you can be a significant contributor to the self-confidence and self-perception of your women clients. If you chose negativity, then you can be sure your clients will remain among the 97% of adult women who think they are not beautiful. Chose positivity, you can make them feel better, help them accomplish their fitness goals, and help them develop the confidence to improve other facets of their lives.
8. High heels and barefoot training.
I fully support barefoot or minimalist footwear training, but you must use caution when introducing it to clients who spend a lot of time in heels. Your clients who wear high heels most of the time, will likely have shortened Achilles tendons, and poor ankle mobility. Jumping immediately into barefoot training could actually lead to overuse injury in these women.
I introduce barefoot work with my clients gradually. For women who wear heels often, I don’t actually introduce it at all until phase 2 of their program (3-4 weeks in). The first few weeks, they get some ankle mobility and calf stretching, as well as single leg work to improve proprioception and balance, but all while wearing their gym shoes. Even this is an adaptation for some.
In phase 2, I have them do their warm-up in socks. This allows gradual adaptation. I encourage sticking with this for a couple of months while their body adapts and they get mentally accustomed to being without shoes – for some women this is a very new feeling! From here I will move to socks or minimalist shoes for the entire workout for some clients, whereas others will continue to use shoes for the remainder of the workout.
Special Bonus Tip: Tampons and hair elastics.
This is a very inexpensive special bonus you can provide for your female clients – and if they need them, they will be incredibly grateful.
There’s no worse feeling than realizing you just got your period and you have no tampons or pads. Having an emergency supply at your facility could make someone’s day. One box will last months and months, so it’s not a big expense. Just don’t get the scented ones – they are like a beacon for dogs – clearly there were no women on the product development team for scented tampons.
Also make sure there is a garbage can in the bathroom. If we have to change a tampon or pad when we use the gym, there will likely be a need for disposal. If you are grossed out by reading this, then give yourself a slap – It’s natural and it’s part of the whole process of life.
If your client has long hair, forgetting a hair elastic will be a distraction and a discomfort. Help a girl out. A package of hair elastics is cheap: I bought some at Giant Tiger for $2.97 and it has lasted 4 months and counting.
 Physiological differences between men and women and the impact on pushup performance is discussed in this article: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/the_best_damn_pushups_article_period
 Women’s Sports Foundation, Women’s Sports and Physical Activity Facts and Statistics, 2007.
 Dove’s “The Real Truth about Beauty” research, which is based on two international surveys of 1200 girls and 6400 women from around the world http://www.dove.ca/en/Article/Surprising-Self-Esteem-Statistics.aspx
 The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006) http://www.girlscouts.org/research/facts_findings/sports_and_physical_activity.asp