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Strength training your female clients

By incorporating strength training into your female client’s programming, you can help her improve functionality and defend against injury while achieving her goal physique, says Susy Natal.

For many years, women were encouraged by fitness professionals to focus on aerobic exercises and were not typically recommended resistance training. There was a fear that women would become ‘excessively’ muscly if exposed to weights, in particular heavy weights, and this type of training was usually not deemed necessary for females. Apart from generally being smaller in build, however, the musculoskeletal system of males and females is almost identical, so it makes little sense to assume that they would have such divergent needs.

More recently, research has demonstrated that women can obtain many benefits from weight training, and that they will not easily become ‘overly’ muscular. The shift in thinking has seen strength training increase in popularity among women. Even government guidelines recommend a minimum of twice-weekly muscular strengthening exercise, with no differentiation between the sexes. These are all important factors to bring up with a client if she is apprehensive about commencing strength training.

The incredible bulk?

Clients can benefit greatly from being educated about body composition, and on the differences in density between muscle and adipose tissue. Some clients may cite anecdotal ‘evidence’ of someone they know who became so much bigger after starting strength training. In this situation it can be helpful to point out how strength training can increase hunger, and that if somebody is increasing their calories drastically then they may increase their body fat deposits in addition to gaining muscle, which will definitely make them look larger. If, however, the same individual were to eat the correct amount to maintain or even lose body fat, then this ‘bulkiness’, as it is typically named, will not eventuate.

As strength training has increased in popularity, cardio has been unfairly demonised by many health and fitness professionals and media platforms. Cardio is beneficial, and a combination of both is likely to be ideal for most clients. Working on cardiovascular health will not only assist in the prevention of heart problems, but also help trim down body fat deposits, therefore avoiding the dreaded ‘bulky’ look.

The XX factor

The ability to put on size is somewhat genetic, and there will always be some unusual cases where a female can increase muscle mass with much greater ease. These, however are very uncommon, and the greatest factor playing a role is sex – female sex hormones very specifically hinder the ability to gain excessive muscle, something that even most males find quite difficult to achieve! Even females who can gain muscle more easily need not be fearful, though, as muscle takes time to build and will not appear overnight. Rather, it will gradually increase, meaning that training programmes can be altered according to these changes over time.

The health effects of strength training

Strength training will lead to more muscle, which can increase an individual’s resting metabolic rate. This, together with the training itself, can help decrease body fat and, along with it, the many health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, such as diabetes and heart disease. This lifestyle is also responsible for many postural issues, chronic pain, and injuries resulting from having a body that is no longer functioning properly. Increasing the strength of individual muscles and functional movement patterns can help combat some of these issues.

The physical effects of strength training

Rounded shoulders stemming from a weak rotator cuff and upper-back muscles, non-specific lower back pain stemming from inactive and underdeveloped glute muscles, weak core muscles and sore knees stemming from imbalanced and weak thigh muscles are some of the most common issues in bodies that are too inactive and weak. If your client suffers from any of these problems, then strength training will improve their overall health and quality of life.

A strong body moves and holds itself in proper form, and so can help alleviate prior pain caused by weakness and imbalance. Additionally, strong bodies can stand more stress being placed upon them without running as great a risk of injury. Strength training makes a body generally more capable, which can also make an individual feel good. Above and beyond just fixing an aching and slouching body, every-day tasks such as carrying the shopping, opening jars or doing the gardening become easier and more comfortable. As well as being physically empowering for your client, this also creates a greater sense of capability and independence.

A strong body is also more resilient to a major concern among older women: osteoporosis. While your client may not worry about this yet, it is important to think ahead, particularly if there is a history of osteoporosis in the family. Strength training can increase bone density, and so can help to prevent or lessen the severity of osteoporosis for your client.

Necessary precautions

When embarking upon a strength programme with clients who have pre-existing injuries, it is prudent to speak with the allied health professional managing their injury in order to clearly understand any contraindicated training movements or fitness equipment. It is also important to remember that no specific amount of strength training is right: it is highly individual. Greater training experience will mean that your client has a larger work capacity, and so can safely perform more strength training than a beginner. Similarly, clients who sleep more or implement more recovery techniques can also safely train more. However, time constraints and other commitments for the individual will usually dictate how much strength training they actually undertake.

Our bodies are supposed to move and to be able to withstand external stressors, so every body, of both genders, has much to gain from strength training.

About the author

Susy Natal is a Sydney-based performance coach, wellness writer and personal trainer with a background in psychology. She works with a varied clientele, from beginners through to competing athletes across multiple sports.

This feature is produced in conjunction with Australian Fitness Network.