Lift Heavy, Girlfriend
They appear every time I innocently open my Facebook page. Gritty, sepia-toned photos of sweaty women dressed in booty-shorts and cut-off tank tops in what appear to be steamy dungeon gyms. Sweat glistens from every pore of their chiseled physiques while they hoist up a 70-pound kettlebell. Plastered over the images are words of inspiration such as “Squat Like Your Ass Depends on It” or “Go Hard or Go Home.” These types of “fitspiration” images (or “fitspo” as I’ve been told they’re now dubbed) are shared daily by fellow fitness professionals (both men and women alike) in an effort to encourage clients or other trainers to utilize heavy weights and big movements when training their female clients. And while the idea of getting women to train heavy is smart, the strategies they’re using to convince them of that could not be more dumb.
Let me get one thing off my chest. I am a huge believer in my female clients utilizing compound movements (squats, deadlifts, chin ups, overhead press, to name a few) with relatively heavy load. It is a very effective method of training for various reasons which I outline below. But the thing that we, as fitness professionals, are getting wrong is how we deliver that message.
It occurs to me that we do it in one of two ways. First are the images mentioned above. That somehow lifting heavy weights gets you one step away from looking like Jenna Jameson preparing for her next close-up. Or we go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, discussing hormonal function and how women don’t have the proper testosterone-to-estrogen ratio to effectively put on slabs of muscle mass (preventing them from ultimately looking like the second coming of Arnold).
Through my experience working with many female trainees, the reason neither of these rationales tends to work has become evident to me. Women (probably more so than men) will convince themselves that they are genetic outliers. They understand the "hormone argument" but have convinced themselves that, while that may be true for other women, "all the women on my Mom's side of the family tend to be stocky so I put on muscle really, really easily."
And, maybe more than anything else, I’ve found that my female clients really want to be listened to and heard. And when we cut them off from telling us about their fear of looking like a linebacker on their wedding day, we are usually too busy telling them “it’s impossible” and not addressing their concerns.
So, as a bald, 235-pound muscle-bound coach who has had to convince his female clients that they will not end up looking like yours truly, allow me to give you real, relatable rationale as to why women should be training big movements with relatively heavy weights.
Reason 1: It’s Empowering
There is nothing that can compare to deadlifting 300-pounds, bench pressing your bodyweight, or reaching any other strength goal you set for yourself. Not only will you feel stronger in the gym, you’ll be stronger in every other aspect of your life. It may be hard to imagine how a heavy squat can translate to a happier relationship or better performance at work, but I’ve seen it happen time and time again. There is something transformative about being able to do something that seemed impossible a few short weeks before. And once you realize achieving those milestones is possible, everything else in life seems possible. And I guarantee you that belief is much more appealing to women than having to train with pink dumbbells in the “Women’s Only” section of their gym because they’re afraid of getting stared at on the main floor.
Reason 2: It Will Improve Body Composition
Katlyn was probably the best female lifter (and maybe the best lifter, period) I have ever had the pleasure of training. She was also the sweetest person you could ever meet. She would bop into the gym, a huge smile on her face, and ask me about my weekend. But when it was time to lift, she would get pretty darn intense. One second she’d be asking me if I’d seen such-and-such a movie, and the next second, she’d step up to the bar and totally transform. Once the barbell hit the ground she would go back to being all sunshine and rainbows. It was something to watch. In our time together Katlyn worked up to a 296-pound deadlift and set a PR of 23 pull-ups. When she would bang out reps, jaws would drop to the floor—not only because she had the strength to move that type of weight, but because she had the toned, lean look female clients were sweating their butts off on the treadmill trying to attain.
The fact Katlyn took her strength training seriously and also had the best body composition of any female client I have trained is not a coincidence. In fact, I would say there is a direct correlation between the number of pounds my clients can squat, pull, and press, and what they look like in a strapless dress. And since so many female clients are training to improve body composition, I always like to mention that.
Reason 3: It’s Not the Same Old, Same Old
It stands to reason that if you do the same thing over and over (and over) again, you will probably get very, very good at that thing. And that’s great if you want to become a chess master or play the clarinet. When it comes to fitness, repeating the same exercise protocols ad nauseam also leads to getting very efficient at those programs. Unfortunately, exercise efficiency is the enemy of adaptation and body composition improvements. To put it simply, if you get very comfortable with your workout routine, you are not challenging your body to produce change.
There is a famous saying that the definition of the term “crazy” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So if you’ve been banging out 20 reps of incline press with 7-pound dumbbells for the past six months, chances are your body’s not responding to that anymore. Plus, lifting heavy and challenging yourself every time you step in the gym will get you excited (and maybe even a little nervous) for your training sessions. And, truthfully, when was the last time you were really psyched to work out?
And, no, this does not mean that jumping from one exercise class or plan to the next is the best way to improve body composition because you are always "keeping your body guessing". There is a sweet spot between plateauing and changing so often that you never get better at anything. You need to train in this sweet spot.
Reason 4: You’ll Be Part of a Community
When anyone in our gym goes for a personal best lift (meaning they are trying to lift a weight that is greater than they’ve ever lifted before) something amazing happens. Rather spontaneously, a group will form around that person, trying to psych her up for the lift. Words of encouragement will be shouted. Cheers will be heard. It’s as if everyone in the gym is part of the effort. And whether she hits the deadlift or locks out the bench press is almost irrelevant. She will be applauded for the effort and congratulated for the attempt. Discussions will occur as to what she did right, or how to nail it next time. Maybe someone grabbed a quick video on their iPhone so she can now relive and celebrate her success.
Interestingly enough, when I’ve gone to other gyms, I’ve seen this same type of camaraderie. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You probably don’t want all eyes on you when working out. You might prefer to anonymously sweat out your 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer while reading about the latest escapades of your favorite reality television stars. But I cannot encourage you enough to break out of your fortress of solitude and become part of your gym’s community. Having people root for you and celebrate with you when you’ve achieved something you’ve never done before, something that may have not even seemed possible a few short weeks before, is not only awesome, it’s addictive.
Reason 5: You Can Use It
Whether you want to pick your nieces up off the floor or carry a couple of bottles of apple juice home from the store, getting stronger will help you in more ways than you realize throughout your day. Obviously women hold big positions of power in today’s society, and yet on my morning commute I see women who can’t generate enough power to hoist their computer bags up to their shoulders. Last time I checked, no one really had to go to train at the gym to pick up a small stack of paper, yet if that’s the amount of weight you are training with, that’s about all you’ll be able to do.
Reason 6: It’s Healthy
The loss of bone density, specifically in post-menopausal women, is a growing concern in the population. By lifting heavier loads you can reduce this risk and make it less likely that you’ll crack in half when you reach your "golden years." Also, the ability to generate power and strength (and this is true for men and women) are the fitness qualities that decline most rapidly when we age. This is why we see more 55-year-olds competing in the marathon and not at a local power lifting meet.
So think of adding serious strength training now—kind of like you think of your 401K. Even if you don’t plan on using it for the next 20 years, you’ll be glad it’s there down the road. So the next time your social media page is bombarded with half-naked video vixens encouraging you to “Hit It Hard," you’ll have a better scientific and emotional rationale for breaking out of your comfort zone and discovering the true benefits of lifting heavier weights. And, I promise, you won’t end up looking anything like me.