How to train strong women

Nov 09, 2022 | by Clare Hozack

By training your female client in these five key areas, you can empower her to greatly increase both her physical and mental strength, writes trainer and educator Clare Hozack.

Strength comes in many forms, but generally speaking, it’s not encouraged in women as they grow up. Little girls are taught to be kind and gentle, and while there’s nothing wrong with these characteristics (for little boys too!), it’s time to help them be fierce as well! So, let’s learn how to help our clients gain strength in its many forms.

With weight training

One of my favourite ways to build strength in women is through weight training, though not necessarily in order to attain the traditional goals of body shaping, bodybuilding or fat loss. Rather than focusing on aesthetics, we focus on the other benefits. Regular resistance training is a surefire way to build cardio (heart) strength, muscle strength, bone strength, and emotional resilience. However, not all weights are created equal, so here’s a quick refresher.

  • Sets of 15-20 reps using light weights target endurance/cardio. Start here with your client if she has never done weights before, or the movements you’re choosing are moving the weights away from the middle of the body. Sets of 15-20 are technically ‘light’, even if they’re hard.
  • Sets of 10 reps using slightly heavier weights are great for building muscle density and tone – but women will not gain size with this training modality. You will have to do an awful lot of sets of 10 daily, with several sessions a week and a very specific diet, to build muscle size as a woman.
  • Sets of 6 or fewer reps using heavier weights are fabulous for hormonal health, bone health, and muscle health – but they are also quite hard mentally for women, and should be worked up to gradually.

Going too hard, too soon is counterproductive: using a weight that feels like it’s crushing you, both physically and metaphorically, is an intimidating experience, and one that can be accompanied by fear of injury or failure. Depending on your client’s initial fitness and ability level, spend at least 2-6 months doing sets of 15-20 light reps with her, before progressing to heavier 10-rep sets, and then, gradually, to sets of 6 heavy reps. Additionally, before she moves on to heavier sets of 10 or fewer reps, make sure she’s had her pelvic floor checked.

Rather than focusing on aesthetics, we focus on the other benefits.

As with any client, ensure you train her body evenly, using one pulling motion (i.e. seated row, lat pull down, deadlifts), one pushing motion (i.e. push ups, shoulder press, sled pushes) and one legs exercise (i.e. squats, lunges, leg press) to begin with, and then build from there.

With power training

Power training involves moving loads with momentum. This often results in the ability to lift more than you can within a static, controlled movement. Types of power training include boxing, kickboxing, running, jumping, powerlifting, and any movement where you use momentum to move the load (including your body).

Power training is explosive or absorptive:

  1. Explosive: throwing a medicine ball; doing box jumps; the acceleration phase of a sprint.
  2. Absorptive: catching the medicine ball; absorbing the impact on landing; deceleration of the movement.

In addition to building strength, both the explosive and absorptive phases of power training increase bone and muscle density, and are also often accompanied by powerful feelings like euphoria, pride and self satisfaction. Even more reason to add these movements to your strong women’s training toolkit.

The explosive and absorptive phases of power training increase bone and muscle density

It should be noted that power training is a higher risk activity than static weights exercises. If, however, you’ve been training your female client with weights for a long time, and she has had her pelvic floor checked by a women’s health physio, incorporating this mode of training into her routine can be very beneficial.

Here are some ideas for adding power training:

  1. If she’s a runner, incorporate stair, hill, flat line or downhill sprints into her routine
  2. If she’s already lifting weights, coach her to go a little heavier and use her body to move the weight (e.g. shoulder press/squat turns into a thruster or clean)
  3. If she’s never tried boxing before, and you’re qualified to teach it, incorporate some pad work into her training, or add a boxing for fitness class to her routine

With brain training

Strength is a mental state as much as it is a physical one. The more resilient you are, the stronger you are. Resilience is a form of emotional strength that allows you to recover quickly from stress or tough events. If you can recover quickly, you’re better able to use the logical parts of your brain; this is a protective factor for mental illnesses such as depression.

Being resilient doesn’t mean being able to do it all, on your own, with an awesome attitude. Resilient people are actually more likely to ask for help, feel their feelings, express their emotions, and rearrange their work or plans to factor for the stressful event. The key difference is that they do so feeling optimistic about their ability to work it out, they encourage themselves, and keep on trying.

Positive Psychology has some excellent brain training tools for resilience which you can read here.

5 brain training tips

Here are five tactics that you could incorporate into your client’s training, or encourage her to practice in her own time.

  1. Identify her strengths

What is she good at? What does she like about herself? Find ways to highlight and exploit these strengths in her session. Yes, we need to train in areas that we aren’t so strong in, but dedicating some time to showcase strengths can evoke strong, positive responses.

  1. Perform acts of kindness

Suggest that, if she has the time and ability in her busy life, she consider volunteering, or engaging in random acts of kindness such as buying coffee for the person after her in line.

Research has shown that these behaviours bring lots of benefits to the person performing them, as well as the beneficiaries of their actions. These include alleviated symptoms of stress and depression, a sense of purpose and increased confidence and wellbeing. Lead by example in this area too: the little things that don’t take a lot of time or effort will build a client base of devoted people, and also start to spread kindness and resilience through your network.

  1. Practise gratitude and positivity

It’s the practise, not the perfection, that matters to your brain. In your sessions, asking her to catch a ball while she states something she’s grateful for is an excellent way to build gratitude and positivity in the brain. You can also have her list something positive for every rep on the bench press, or ask her what her favourite part of her session was at the end. Take every opportunity to get her brain to think about the silver lining in your sessions.

  1. Find her flow

What gets her really engaged? For some, it’s meditation, yoga or tai chi. For others, it’s drawing, chess, or origami, or games that require pure focus. The perfect flow exercise for her is a mindful task that requires skill and concentration, is goal oriented, is controlled by her, and in which she will lose track of time. One of our clients has a very specific playlist that we put on for her cool down in every session. For three minutes she lies on the floor with her feet elevated and listens to a song that takes her out of herself and refreshes her brain like nothing else.

  1. Mindful breath activity

This can be used as both a warm up and cool down exercise, and simply involves consciously breathing out through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for a set duration.
– breath in through your nose for 4
– hold your breath for 7
– exhale through your mouth, with whoosh sound for 8
– repeat 4 times.

With discomfort

Discomfort is essential for building strength, resilience and confidence. As a fitness professional, you’ve probably coached a client to ‘get out of their comfort zone’, because on both a physical and mental level, that place of discomfort is where they grow.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The client plans something that makes them feel scared, nervous, or uncomfortable.
  2. They train for it, mentally and physically. If it’s abseiling, they might visualise what it will look like. If it’s a marathon, they might start running a bit further.
  3. They execute it – and succeed because you have trained them to be ready for the challenge.
  4. They feel happiness, a sense of accomplishment, and pride.
  5. Repeat, with a new ‘uncomfortable’ challenge.

The challenge doesn’t have to be extreme: they don’t have to bungee jump, do a silent retreat, or attempt to sleep standing up to be uncomfortable! It just has to be one step further than where they are now.

On both a physical and mental level, that place of discomfort is where they grow.

Great ways to start getting uncomfortable include:

  • Signing up for a fun run, obstacle racing event, or walk
  • Mixing up a daily walk by adding a hill that is usually avoided, a section of more challenging terrain such as sand or long grass, or an extra 100m distance in the same time taken to walk the usual route
  • Learning a new language, instrument or game (like chess, sudoku or word games).

With mobility

Mobility training enables your client to encounter less resistance from her own movement. To lift that heavy weight, or complete her power training, for example, she will have to overcome less of her own body’s resistance.

The goal is to have fluid and full range of movement, particularly in the:

  • shoulders
  • thoracic spine
  • pelvis
  • ankles and feet.

A good way to start is to incorporate 3D movement into your client’s stretching: forward and back, left and right, and circles. These common stretches can be a good place to start:

  • chest against wall
  • lats off power plate
  • hip flexor
  • adductors
  • glutes
  • toes.

With your coaching, your female client can achieve greater strength than she would ever think possible. Through working on her physical and mental strength with weights, power, brain, discomfort and mobility training, you can equip her with the skills to realise her true potential.

Clare Hozack

Clare Hozack

A former athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Clare applies this experience to her work training and educating pre- and post natal women to help them develop ‘next level’ fitness for parenting. A trainer with IntoYou studio on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, she is also the Australian and NZ Master Trainer for Burrell Education, which delivers a range of women’s health and pregnancy-related courses. You can download Burrell Education’s free Pre-Screening tools for pregnant women here and post natal women here. /

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