I won’t lie—I’m not entirely sure I even want to write this article. The subject is one I’m very confident in while simultaneously recognizing that irrespective of the actual nature of my opinions, the topic itself will always draw some criticism and complaint. But I suppose I should be fairly inured to criticism and complaint at this point, so let’s get on with it.
First, let me hurt your feelings a little bit: Women—you’re not THAT special, at least in this context. Now let me make up for it: Every individual is special, regardless of what type of gear your pants contain.
Let me make the underlying point clear quickly for those of you who habitually read only above the fold to minimize the mean comments that will hurt my feelings: Every weightlifter is an individual with a long list of relevant physical, mental and emotional qualities that can vary dramatically even among seemingly homogenous groups as defined by things like gender, age, ethnicity, athletic background, favorite food or astrological sign. Yes, you are a unique, special little darling and you deserve to be treated accordingly by your coach.
Every weightlifter is an individual with a long list of relevant physical, mental and emotional qualities that can vary dramatically even among seemingly homogenous groups...
In other words, we may be able to make very broad generalizations about any given type of weightlifter (according to gender, age, experience, etc.), and this is a smart way to start, but stopping there and assuming these generalizations are all perfectly accurate for a given lifter is an egregious mistake that will limit the effectiveness of your training or coaching. Generalizations are arguably a necessity in many respects, but they should never serve as anything more than a point from which to start refining your approach. You may start, consequently, considering a female weightlifter as a female weightlifter on day one—but you’d better get past that very quickly and start considering her as a weightlifter, period (no pun intended, but subsequently enjoyed).
I’m going to add one more point that may piss a few of you off, but that won’t be anything new, and I think it’s an important one. Being of a given group of people does not, as one might assume, necessarily make you an expert on that group. It is, in my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes you can make—assuming that because you share some defining quality with others that you know more about them then someone outside that group. That’s grade school nonsense for a number of reasons, including the fact that such an assumption means you believe all people in a given group are the same, so if you know one, you know them all. I hope I don’t have to explain the problems with that.
What that means here is that being a woman does not automatically make you more of an expert on coaching female weightlifters than a man. I’m sorry. As someone who has always coached more women than men, I find it offensive when it’s presumed that my gender prevents me from understanding women, effectively communicating with women, sympathizing with women, or in any way being unable to work with them as well as a female coach. I’d like to think that my record of coaching women is at least decent evidence of this, but it apparently is unconvincing to some.
This has a flipside also—two of the best weightlifting coaches I know are women: Ursula Garza and my wife, Aimee. I’ve seen many instances of these women being written off as unable to be good coaches for male weightlifters, as if their knowledge and experience suddenly evaporate in the absence of vaginas. And I’ve seen female coaches being heralded as having some kind of special ability to coach women by virtue of their parents creating female offspring through pure biological chance—despite a lack of experience actually coaching any women successfully.
Related to this is something to ponder—if a female weightlifter has used anabolic steroids for the bulk of her lifting career, in effect dramatically reducing the general physical disparities between the genders, is her training experience actually more valuable for drug-free women than the experience of a coach (male or female) with significant experience coaching women? This is in no way some kind of moral finger wagging—it’s a legitimate issue to consider.
Now that I’ve thrown my tantrum and everyone who was on the fence about liking me has long ago has made a decision and stopped reading, let’s throw some nuts and bolts on the table and sort them out. There are indeed some generalizations we can make—and remember, starting points to work from, not black and white facts to rely on. In no particular order:
Did you know men have more testosterone than women? I know, shocker. This affects a few different things pertinent to weightlifting such as the ability to build and maintain muscle mass, body composition, and even neurological efficiency (see below). That said, we all know women exist who posses significantly more muscularity, better body composition, more strength and more speed than many men—and I mean naturally, not with questionable supplementation practices.
Women tend to be more mobile than men. This probably didn’t blow your mind either. Typically mobility will not be a primary concern with new female lifters like it is often with males. But I can do the splits, and Jess Lucero can’t even put her arms over her head (and yet, she’s a far better snatcher and jerker than I am… that’s a triple whammy dome-scratcher).
Women tend to be able to handle more training volume
than men of similar biological age, training age and size. In other words, they can do more work in any given period of time and actually make progress with it.
Women tend to be able to handle longer burdening periods
in training before requiring a back-off in volume and/or intensity. For example, a male lifter may need to back off every third to fourth week, while his female counterpart may be able to add a week or so to that, and may even require a less dramatic change to the pertinent training variables.
Women tend to be less neurologically efficient. In practical terms, this means lower maximal strength relative to muscle mass than their male counterparts, along with the ability to perform more repetitions of a lift at a given percentage of max. That is, a male may be able to squat 90% for 3 reps, and his lady friend may be able to do it for 6. And they can still love each other.
Nature may have shortchanged ladies on the testosterone dose, but in exchange they got a bigger dose of mental toughness and less back hair. Nearly invariably, the higher-level women I’ve coached have been tougher than the men (sorry guys—nothing personal). More often than not, in a similar training situation I have to reign in the female lifter and keep her from completely blowing herself out, while I have to push the male lifter to work harder. I’ve seen women many times train through incredible pain and serious injuries, for example, while men are in the corner crying over a torn callus and stopping their workouts because their handsies hurt. This toughness goes beyond physical pain—it applies to all kinds of hardship in and out of the gym. Rememer, this is another generalization—there are plenty of crybaby women out there.
Bodyweight & Food
Men are more often far more insecure than most women know (or want to know), but women do tend to have less psychologically and emotionally healthy relationships with eating and bodyweight/appearance
. Changes in bodyweight, for example, can be a very serious emotional issue for many women. Care needs to be taken with regard to bodyweight and nutrition to prevent exacerbating any issues and helping establish healthier perspectives and habits.
Yes, women are typically more emotional, or at least emotionally demonstrative, than men, largely because we’ve had our feelings beaten out of us (or shamed out of us by cruel women…). This can manifest in a number of ways, from the way a lifter behaves day to day in the gym or in competition, to the nature of the coach-athlete relationship, to the response to coaching, etc. This can also simply be a difference, with regard to outward emotion, in the type of emotional expression, e.g. in the same situation a woman may cry while a man throws his belt and kicks the wall like a child whose parents don’t like to say No.
With regard to coaching specifically, it has been claimed (by many female lifters; this author would never be so presumptuous) that the manner of communicating needs to differ somewhat between men and women. Because women tend to be more emotional where men tend to be more rational, the same kind of repetitive technical coaching that men seem to respond well to can sometimes become extremely frustrating to women because they may feel the coach is disappointed or upset, when in reality he or she is more likely simply emphasizing a certain technical element in need of improvement—that is, critique is viewed as criticism.
While this may be true in general, it is a great disservice to female athletes to assume they require any special treatment, and divergence from what is necessary to help improve their lifting is in a sense crippling them, both in terms of performance in the lifts, and in future coaching and performance situations (and hell… life). The coach simply needs to pay close attention—as he or she does with any athlete, male or female—to how a particular athlete responds to coaching of various manners, and adjust accordingly. Adjustment, however, does not mean coddling of fragile athletes—such athletes are responsible for doing their part to toughen up and meet the coach halfway in the effort.
Such adjustment for certain female lifters is often as simple as providing more encouragement and positive reinforcement along with any technical coaching. That is, where men are less likely to be upset by, or even notice, a lack of frequent outright praise and tend to be more receptive to continual technical correction without associating it with emotion, women may respond better to such technical correction when accompanied by praise. There will never be a lift that is entirely wrong, no matter how many elements the coach may want to correct—it’s not hard to find one good point to emphasize before making a correction. In reality, such an approach is reasonable for men as well—it turns out that no human being dislikes being told they’ve done a good job.
Athletes… Not Men or Women
These issues notwithstanding, men and women respond and adapt to training in the same elemental manner. In other words, they may respond to a given stimulus to different degrees and at different rates, but you’re going to get the same basic result. And this is where individualization—not genderization—is so critical. Program design, technical coaching, and all of the other elements that go into coaching the sport of weightlifting need to be adapted appropriately to each athlete
—not to each gender.
Let me give you a simple example. We assume women have less upper body strength than men, so women weightlifters must all need to do more upper body strength work than men. But what if you actually evaluate a female lifter like anyone else and find she can overhead squat or even snatch balance considerably more than she can snatch, and can jerk support well over her best jerk (like quite a few women I’ve coached)? If you waste her time with a bunch of upper body strength work you wouldn’t give a male counterpart with the same metrics, requiring she do less of what she truly needs at that time, you’re doing a bad job as a coach.
Women: As a lifter, don’t be tricked into believing you need the same specific, special approach to training every other woman does; as a coach, don’t fool yourself into believing every woman is just like you and needs to train and be treated just like you. Men: As a coach, don’t train every woman exactly the same for no other reason than their gender, and certainly don’t train them as if they’re delicate little children who can’t work too hard or ever hear a harsh word from a coach without crawling under a blanket with a pint of ice cream for the rest of the evening.
If you’re a coach, treat your athletes like athletes—not like male or female archetypes, no matter how accurate you believe your vision of those may be. And if you’re an athlete, find what works for you
, not what some stranger who knows not one thing about you says for no reason other than you share reproductive organs of the same classification.