Articles


The Reluctant Female Novice

by Rebecca Fishburne, SSC | August 19, 2020

At almost every Starting Strength Seminar, you’ll hear a variation of this question: “How do I get my wife/girlfriend/mom to begin a Starting Strength novice linear progression?” As individuals who have first-hand knowledge of the profound effects strength has on quality of life and general well-being, we want to share this gift with those we care about. Why is this often such a hard sell to the important women in our lives? Just like men, women have to sort through the confusing and contradictory claims of many popular fitness resources – information about the primacy of cardio or the importance of visible abs. That confusion gets amplified by a special brand of exercise marketing geared towards women which claims that women need special exercises and equipment to “lengthen and tone” their muscles to achieve a sculpted look and to avoid the appearance of “bulk.”

Even after wading through all that nonsense, many women face additional pressures before they are ready to commit to a NLP. Like it or not, there is still a prevalent mindset among particular age groups or cultural backgrounds that lifting heavy things is not appropriate for women. Even when specific women don’t buy into those beliefs, a husband or boyfriend who does can quickly put a damper on her desire to get stronger. Say what you will about “that guy,” but all too often women choose the relationship over their own training. If we as coaches want to reach and retain more female lifters, we need to be flexible in our approach to getting them started, use encouraging and collaborative communication, and help them build communities of strength.

Onboarding

A central claim of the Starting Strength program is that a trainee will become “as strong as possible as quickly as possible.” If you’re an under-muscled young male, that sounds like a dream come true – no further explanation or sales pitch needed. Another popular phrase attributed to Mark Rippetoe is that “Stronger people are harder to kill, and more useful in general.” That’s pretty motivating if you’re a strength coach or someone who values and aspires to physical strength.

I posted that phrase on my FB page a few years back. It didn’t go well. Some of the women I know who could most benefit from additional physical strength felt devalued and demeaned; these women who did not perceive themselves as strong and did not yet see the value of strength in their own lives thought I was calling them useless. Men grow up with a belief that gaining strength and being physically useful are inherently valuable; women are encouraged to focus on their appearance and to ask men to carry heavy objects for them. This message unfortunately persists even in an age when women are making bigger strides in athletics. In order to appeal to reluctant female novices, we need to be able to explain the value of strength in terms that are more meaningful to women.

Maintaining muscle mass and bone density are extremely appealing selling points for senior women. These women may have experienced difficulty doing physical tasks that used to be easy for them. They may have had a bad DEXA scan. They may have friends who have fallen and broken bones, or they may have relatives who have been placed in nursing care when muscle loss rendered them too weak to care for themselves. For these women, things are getting real. There is a sense of immediacy and a palpable, real-world demand for building strength and durability. Show these women practical information about staving off sarcopenia and osteoporosis and they’re sold. Talk to them about maintaining independence and quality of life and you’ve iced the cake.

Translating those long-term benefits into concepts that hold sway in the minds of younger women can be more complicated. Scale weight, body image, perceptions of “lifting heavy” as dangerous or masculine, and female trends towards participation in group fitness classes can all factor into the equation. For many women, the idea of building muscle mass isn’t all that compelling; they may confuse the term “muscle mass” with “bulk.” In this case, an explanation of building muscle in terms of changes to resting metabolic rate and body recomposition often succeeds where discussions of building strength and muscle mass don’t.

Many people don’t know that lighter weight bars and fractional plates exist. Learning about women’s bars, training bars, and bumper plates can completely change one’s understanding of the possibilities. Knowing that fractional plates allow for smaller jumps in added weight than is possible with dumbbells can make barbells seem like a safer option to reluctant novices.

Many female gym-goers tend toward group fitness classes, which we are apt to dismiss as “just exercise” because we are aware of the more substantial, long-term health benefits of training with heavier weights. If a Group Xer comes to you to get started, this is not the time to preach about “silly bullshit.” Most of us would happily program around a competitive athlete’s in-season training sessions or regular jiu jitsu classes; extend the same courtesy here. While you may view her favorite group fitness classes as pointless sweat sessions, those classes may hold much deeper social and psychological value for a reluctant beginner. Insisting that she sideline her usual exercise for the length of an NLP may prove to be a non-starter for someone who is convinced that hours of cardio are all that stand between her and increased scale weight.

She may need a little extra time to get onboard with a program that seems so vastly different from everything the fitness industry and her friends have been telling her. She may need a “pre-NLP” with fewer than standard training sessions optimally timed around her usual spin classes. Get her started, even though she’s “not doing the program,” and allow her to experience the mindset shift that accompanies positive strength-based goals in opposition to the forces that drive her to work for a smaller version of herself.

The temporary sense of sweaty satisfaction she may experience in a group fitness class is nothing compared with the long-term confidence and independence she will build through strength training. Sell her on that feeling, and chances are she’ll be hooked. When she becomes more invested in setting and reaching strength goals, she will notice for herself the competing influence of her random exercise sessions. A reluctant female novice may require extra time to work through the various influences that shaped her impression of barbell training in the first place and to make the messaging around strength training relevant and meaningful for her. For a reluctant female, this slower approach may be the fastest route to getting her “as strong as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Communication

As Starting Strength Coaches, we understand the need for clear, concise cues on the platform. We use simple, straightforward directions in the teaching progression to get our lifter to produce a movement model without overthinking it. For some people this is a comfortable way to speak. For me it was like learning a foreign language. The standard manner of teaching the lifts can sound very different to men than it does to women, who often tend to communicate conversationally rather than through commands. While brief cues are necessary when the lifter is in the middle of a set, we may need to adopt a different style of communication in between sets. In 2013 Fran Mason wrote an article about effective communication with female novices: How to Talk About Lifting to Adult Novice Women. She urged the use of conversational “concept teaching” to communicate with female lifters in between sets. It’s worth a reread if you want to attract and retain more female trainees.

As coaches we are accustomed to giving detailed feedback, explaining what deviations may have happened on a particular rep so the lifter can better understand and make corrections in the future. We might comment on bar speed as an indication that a set looked light and that the weight wasn’t heavy for them. For some women, this sort of analysis can sound like criticism, so a collaborative approach in which the coach encourages the lifter to actively participate in their learning process can be beneficial in boosting the client’s confidence. The coaching feedback may also be perceived differently when coming from a male coach, who may need to be more cautious so as not to sound patronizing, and who will likely want to avoid some of the more colorful cues he might normally use with male clients. Ultimately the tone of coaching depends on the two personalities involved and will evolve as coach and lifter continue to work together, but professional and mutually respectful interactions are a smart place to start.

New female lifters may require more encouragement than their male counterparts. Women are often raised to be people-pleasers and perfectionists, and a reluctant female trainee will not want to disappoint her coach or embarrass herself if the movements don’t come naturally. It’s easier to walk away from something that doesn’t come quickly when you weren’t that invested in it to begin with. This attitude is, of course, not limited to novice females; I’ve had male novices indicate that they don’t want to waste my time with video of “bad sets.” When movements don’t come easily or when major form deviations occur, reassure your lifter that lots of people struggle initially. Remind them that learning the lifts is a process. Correct their form while keeping the focus on their progress and hard work.

Community

Women who don’t regularly exercise or who are sedentary can feel overwhelmed, out of place, and self-conscious when they start strength training. Women who are group fitness enthusiasts and are used to being autonomous in the gym can feel equally lost and also resistant to abandoning their usual approach. If these women are lucky enough to get started in a Starting Strength Gym or an SS affiliate gym, they will have a ready made community of people building strength in an identical manner. The novice female lifter training in a commercial gym may be the only person in the gym doing this sort of training. Other gym goers and trainers are often very vocal about their opinions. We’ve all heard the comments: “You’re going to break your back squatting like that,” or “You’ll never get in shape sitting around so long between sets.” The assertiveness and perceived authority of the individual delivering such comments can be upsetting even for more advanced lifters. On several occasions, I’ve received texts from an intermediate level female lifter in the midst of a training session upset by the aggressive and uninvited criticism of a particular trainer in the commercial gym where she trains. Imagine how this would sound to a novice in the same situation – perhaps the equivalent of a doctor telling a patient squatting will damage their knees.

We need to take particular care with reluctant female novices to explain why we train as we do, and to put these women in touch with the Starting Strength resources and virtual community. We can point them towards the Facebook pages and Instagram accounts of Starting Strength Gyms, affiliate gyms, SSCs, and strength athletes. Even better, help them find or build their own in-person community of like-minded women. Consider taking your novice to watch a meet or strongwoman competition. Encourage her to bring an interested friend to watch one of her training sessions to see if she’d like it. For individuals who were drawn to group fitness classes for the social component, going it alone in a squat rack will not be a sustainable approach. A little extra effort on our part can do a lot to ensure more buy-in and longevity.

There are plenty of women who will walk right into a Starting Strength gym and want to get started on an NLP. I would assert that these women are the exception and not the norm. Making strength training appealing and accessible to more types of women is not just an altruistic endeavor – it makes good business sense. If we want to reach more women in our coaching practices, we need to be creative in getting them started, to take care in communication, and help them build supportive communities. If they are willing to step outside their comfort zones to get stronger, we can also step out of ours and try to meet them where they are.


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