How to Train: Female Edition


omen hire trainers far more often than men do. It’s a proven fact. Women are more likely to ask for help, and they’re more likely to trust that what they’re being told about fitness is the truth. Trouble is, most of the information available for women, both online and otherwise, is garbage. For years, women have been misled, and they’re constantly being told to do the wrong things, for the wrong reasons. This has to stop.

There are three major issues common to just about every woman I’ve ever coached. They start exercising because they want to get “toned,” they want to improve their health and longevity—and feel better in the process—and they want to make more time available because their lives are so busy. In my experience, there’s only one thing that can make all of this happen the way women want:

Strength training.

What the Hell Do I Know?

I’m a strength and conditioning coach, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. When you meet me for the first time and hear about my powerlifting career and coaching experience, you’ll probably assume I make my living training athletes—meaning men. In reality, I pay my bills by training women. Since 2001, I’ve helped hundreds of women achieve their goals with some very simple solutions—and what I’ve found is that the vast majority of these women have come to me with similar concerns.

What do you want when you hire a trainer or start an exercise program? You want to “tone,” or “get toned,” right? Most women don’t even know what this means, much less what it entails. What you need to know, before you go any further, is that there’s no such thing as toning. When you change your body composition, you’re doing one of three things (that you’re mistaking for toning): You’re building muscle, maintaining muscle, or losing muscle. That’s it.

You want to build muscle. When you do, it’s going to make you look more firm and more defined—and you’ll look like you’ve shrunk, because you’ll be losing body fat. This isn’t toning. You’re making your muscles fuller, and you’re making your body dense—and not in a way that has any negative connotations. You’re not going to “get all bulky.”

Racing Against Time

Most women I start working with know what they want, but they have no idea how to get it—and everything in this regard starts with the amount of time they have every day. Women are mothers, they’re business owners, and they have families they want to take care of. Society, at least in a traditional sense, demands these things of women, and it’s a fact of life that a huge percentage of the female population will eventually encounter this situation.

Society, however, isn’t finished. Today, the average woman is expected to have a job and a career, she wants to have a family, and she wants to look amazing while she’s doing all of this. You’re being pulled in twenty different directions at any moment of the day or night, so the last thing you need is to be stuck on the elliptical machine at your gym for two hours every day. It’s simply not necessary when strength training can get you better results in a fraction of the time.

Strength Equals Good Health

You want to look good, to feel good, and to be in good health while you’re doing it, but too many women—and, unfortunately, their trainers—seem to misunderstand the process by which all of this happens. Too many people seem to have bought into a boot camp mentality, where looking and feeling good entails beating yourself into the ground on a daily basis. This type of training is completely counterproductive for what you’re trying to accomplish.

An intelligent strength training program will improve your posture, address osteoporosis, help control and regulate your blood sugar, promote good movement patterns, protect your bone density, and give you the stability you need in all the right areas.

Most women don’t know how to control the middle of their bodies. Through years of improper training—or by relying solely on modalities like yoga, too much of which will make you too limber in your spine while neglecting to teach you how to brace your middle—a lack of stability will cause mobility and lower back issues. This stems from a lack of core stability, and strength training is the solution.

Strength in Practice

The idea here is to train like an athlete, using big movements like deadlifts, squats, and pull-ups—when appropriate. I’ll typically start women off with bodyweight movements to teach them how to control their bodies. Even with this, I’m talking about big moves here, with not very much isolation work. We’ll also throw in some explosive work, like medicine ball throws. This is essentially powerlifting combined with training for athleticism.


This type of training will build you a basic, general strength base, which is essential if you’re planning to move on to anything more advanced. Start with your bodyweight on all these major exercises, then advance to deadlifting and squatting with a kettlebell or dumbbell.

This is the most efficient way for you to train, because strength training gives you more for your investment than anything else you can do in the gym. It increases your metabolism, it builds muscle mass, and it actually burns more calories over a longer period of time than doing cardio. Smart strength training, done within your means, will also improve hormone optimization, which is essential if you want maximal results from any program.

“I thought I was supposed to feel exhausted…”

Again, it’s a common misconception, and not only among women, that training has to wipe you out and exhaust you—and that if you don’t leave the gym feeling this way, your session wasn’t a good one. By what criteria are we judging this, though? What results are you really looking for out of your exercise program? Do you want to feel exhausted all the time, or do you actually want to walk around feeling good and healthy?

Looking good doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. If your goal is overall longevity—and to look and feel your best—you don’t have to train yourself into the ground every day. If you’re so exhausted that it’s affecting your quality of life and giving you health issues, is this really beneficial for what you want over the long haul?

Getting the body you want, and the health you deserve, isn’t about getting tired. It’s more a function of getting your blood sugar under control through proper training and nutrition. Ironically enough, training to exhaustion will actually throw your blood sugar off. If you’re working so hard that it’s having a negative effect on your hormones, you’re not going to get anything you want out of your programming. You won’t have optimal performance, and you won’t even come close to the body composition you think you’ve been working so hard to achieve.

Strength and Self-Worth

When one of my clients does her first pull-up, or she sets a personal record in the squat, this is an event that causes a change. It tells a woman there’s something she can do that other people can’t. A lot of the women I train are now stronger than their husbands, which is a very interesting situation, to say the least. This gives them the confidence to know they can take care of themselves, and it works miracles when it comes to self-worth and self-esteem.

Many of my female clients come from backgrounds where they’ve done things like run marathons. What they don’t understand, at least at first, is that what they’ve been doing is giving them the opposite of what they want. I’ll take a woman like that and start with bodyweight movements. Very quickly, they’ll look and feel better, so we’ll give them a little bit more—and then some more after that. It’s almost like you’re being tricked into lifting weights.

In fact, I don’t even tell some women that I eventually want them to lift. We’ll do four weeks of bodyweight movements before anything more serious, and their bodies start to change, because that was all they needed. Then we’ll give them a kettlebell to work with for four weeks, and things change even more. After a while, I’ll start hearing things like, “I’m shrinking! I’ve lost a full dress size!” This is when you’ll start to enjoy going to the gym. You’ll feel better when you leave, you won’t be exhausted anymore, and you’ll sleep better, too. That’s what a good strength training program will do for you.


Jim Laird has been working as a Strength and Conditioning Coach helping clients achieve their goals since 1997. He has 4 years of Division One coaching experience and over a decade of working with clients in the private sector. He has worked with everyone from housewives who just want to look good and feel good, to professional athletes in the NFL, LPGA, and MLB; his most notable client being Scott Downs who is currently with the Chicago White Sox and is going on his 13th year in the MLB. Jim has helped dozens of young athletes achieve athletic scholarships to Division 1 schools and also trains a team of female Powerlifters. As an elite level Powerlifter, Jim pushed his body to the limit for years, and now understands the difference between working out to be healthy, and working out to achieve a high level performance goal, and he want to help others do the same. Learn more about Jim on his blog:

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