If you train women, then take a read. While most of us have 2 arms, 2 legs, and a core, there are some differences between the sexes that deserve some attention in the gym. This is part 1 of the article and covers the first 4 things you need to know. Part 2 will follow shortly with the next 4 things you need to know, plus a bonus tip. Sign up for the newsletter (sent out every few weeks) if you would like to be notified when the second part gets posted.
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 is 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. I believe contributing to someone disliking deadlifts is a sin. Don’t do it!
Instead, set the bar up so that she’s facing the gym so that she can execute a great deadlift without being self-conscious.
3. PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) is a real thing. Seriously. Symptoms vary enormously from person to person and throughout the period. For some, it is just a bit of a nuissance, whereas 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. If your client will actually tell you they are PMS’ing, then please respond appropriately. A little compassion will go 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. Often they feel pretty good within about 10 minutes, and so there is 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. Honestly, 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 if you’re a guy, then keep an eye out. If they are 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 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 Bella bar. It has a smaller grip than a standard bar, meaning my smaller-handed clients can enjoy a proportional deadlift experience. Straps are also a great option.
- Hip size. I love barbell glute bridges as an exercise (thanks to Bret Contreras for introducing me to it). It is 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 basically 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 is 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 potentially 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.
- 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 (if you do, please share in the comments below!), 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). 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.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.