Women In The Weight Room – How Things Have Changed

By Coach Dan John

I’ve been in the weightroom since 1965 when my brothers bought a barbell set and I fell in love with the sports of lifting and the fun of training. To say “Things have changed” in the world of fitness is an understatement. Gyms aren’t dungeons, lifting isn’t considered toxic, people are trained to work with clients and the participants aren’t just males with towels around their necks.

I am a member of two local gyms here in Utah and the most interesting thing I see today is that I am often the only male training in the gym. Weightlifting is recognized today as a fountain of youth for some, an amazing way to stay “in shape” for others and a great way to overcome the various issues of life’s accidents.

When I first began coaching in 1979, I was lucky to work with track athletes, both male and female. I quickly learned on big lesson:

The weightrooms of the 1970s were not designed for women. The benches for bench pressing were too high and we had to put boxes or plates so our female athletes could lift with their feet flat on something. The barbells and dumbbells didn’t have appropriate jumps in load and it wasn’t unusual to have to rig a device to apply progression. Most of the equipment simply didn’t fit.

Forty years later, much of this is a Ghost of Lifting Past: we have Olympic barbells with thinner grips and a host of equipment choices that fit more body types. The weightrooms are also now brightly lit and rarely smell like stale water and mold.

In terms of our training, most gyms have moved beyond the power bodybuilding training of my first experiences with simple “5 x 5” programs and basic raw barbell movements. Now, we have balls, bands, chains and a host of other items that can increase intensity with almost no joint issues.

As more and more people accept weightlifting, those of us who coach and train have had to adapt to the changing clientele, climate and culture. For me, moving from coaching athletes to training everybody else has been a joyful journey of discovering my ineptitude.

I have learned more recently FROM my clients than I think I have taught them. My experiences with a group of grandmothers and some other 50-ish female clients have rebooted the way I approach training for everyone.

Women training around and over the age of fifty can do anything. They are strong, flexible and mobile and train with crazy intensity.

But…

There is always a “but.” Fortunately, by using my ears more than my mouth I have learned some key lessons in training women over 50.

First, I am frankly amazed how “behind” medicine, at least the way it is often practiced, is in dealing with the 50 something female. I’m a big believer in sending every client to a medical doctor, an eye doctor and a dentist as we begin our journey in personal training.

Often, though, we find that simple blood tests and profiles don’t tell us enough. Or, as I have been told over and over, some doctors don’t seem to “care,” I wish I had a better term, about the hormonal numbers. Some women are told that their testosterone is “terribly high,” but the number is actually fairly low.

I don’t dispense medical advice but finding a good caregiver who understand women’s hormonal profiles can be a game-changer in health, fitness, longevity and performance for women. Here in Utah, we have “For Profit” clinics that help women with their hormone profile. Throughout my career, and I apologize for this, I have been critical of this kind of thing, but it has been impressive watching the positive changes that come from appropriate medical intervention here.

I was wrong. So, I know encourage, as appropriate, my female clients looking into at least getting the hormonal profiles checked. From there, I let the doctors take over.

My wife, Tiffini, was having problems swallowing. It turned out to be a dangerous and delicate Thyroid issue. After a fairly swift thyroidectomy, she had to begin using pills to stay alive. The side benefits of bringing her body “back on line” with her hormones have been stunning. After years of issues due to the thyroid problem, she has been transformed.

Certainly, this is just one case and personal to me, but I have seen this story happen enough times (dealing with hormones) that now I make this a pillar of my training with all older clients, male and female. See a doctor!

There is another issue that is often ignored with women no matter what their age may be: the pelvic floor. After the birth of a child, many women are given absolutely no help or guidance on the recovery and rebuilding of their body. Fortunately, my work in the kettlebell community puts me in touch with women who specialize in this field.

This is not my area, but I am very impressed by the use of basic breathing tools like practicing breathing with the diaphragm seem to work quickly. Keep this in mind when teaching the basic lifting movements: use your breathing.

Finally, I have to once again encourage dental hygiene. We all know what a typical personal trainer is going to tell us about diet: eat more veggies! True! But, if the client has need for a crown replacement and seven cavities, we are not going to see a lot of celery chewing.

I go to the dentist three times a year. My insurance pays for two visits and I found out that a visit only costs $46…so I splurge for a third. My hygienist convinced me to scrape my tongue daily, floss at least twice, and brush with an electronic toothbrush. My “Dental Hygiene Routine” takes a few minutes every morning and then a little “here and there” during the rest of the day.

Here is a good reason: the teeth I currently have are the last I will ever have.

Take care of your teeth!!!

As a strength coach, once I get my female clients to deal with these medical and dental issues, I am often almost “all the way there” with our goals. It can be that transforming to take care of basic medical issues.

In training, we are not going to do anything too fancy. I think that every BODY needs to do the fundamental human movements:

Push

Pull

Hinge

Squat

Loaded Carry

I’m pretty sure we need to strength train at least twice a week….three might be better, so you can either do all five movements every workout or split them up. This is how my trainer, Ben Fogel, breaks up my training:

A Day

Push

Squat

B Day

Pull

Hinge

Every day we also work the core in multiple ways and directions, work on tissue integrity, push sleds, and do a bit of work to get me huffing and puffing. Any good trainer can take care of this for you. Some of my friends, like Marty Gallagher and Rob King, train their females with the powerlifts (squat, bench press, deadlift) and make great progress focusing on strength.

I always recommend walking for every client I work with from Olympian to newbie. I recently read an interesting book on women’s sexuality and the key point I took away from this doctor was his insistence that women build up to walking three miles a day…every day. I can’t think of a piece of advice for every human person.

When training any client over 25 or so, I really focus on the glute. Obviously, as a strength coach, we would see squats and deadlifts, but the work by Bret Contreras on the hip thrust can’t be overlooked. I suggest hip thrusts every day for everyone I train. We also wrap the Glute Loop around the knees to make the hip thrust challenge the glutes harder. Mixing these simple Hip Thrusts with banded Clamshells will remind everyone where their “seat of power” is the next day. Vary the reps daily and really get those numbers up occasionally.

There is another reason I like doing the hip thrust: it gets my people up and down off the ground. I work with three 71-year old women who swear more than any athlete I have ever worked with in my career. And, universally, they swear EVERY time I say “Give me 15 hip thrusts.” It is because…

They have to get down and up off the floor again!

One of THE most important things I teach clients is this: falling down is probably the most dangerous thing you can do. I often ask my young audiences: when was the last time you saw your parents willingly on the floor? Slipping and falling, or simply taking a tumble, can ruin the life of an adult. So, I teach all my people basic tumbling and breakfalling. I also insist on lots of movements that are done on the floor…and followed by “get back up.”

I do this so much that I have a drill: Get Back Ups!

There’s an important key to using this drill: Do not overcoach. In fact, intentionally undercoach the whole movement.

Announce the position on the ground (on the front, on the right side, on the left side, pushup position plank and on the back). Wait for the client, or clients, to get in position. When all have stopped moving, announce, “Get back up.” When all are standing still, move to the next position.

Series One

The hands are free.

    On your front (or on your belly)

    Get back up

    On your right side

    Get back up

    On your left side

    Get back up

    Pushup position plank

    Get back up

    On your back

    Get back up

Series Two

The right hand is stuck to the right knee (tell them a puppy dies if their hands come loose from their knees).

    On your front (or on your belly)

    Get back up

    On your right side

    Get back up

    On your left side

    Get back up

    Pushup position plank

    Get back up

    One your back

    Get back up

Series Three

The left hand is stuck to the left knee

    On your front (or on your belly)

    Get back up

    On your right side

    Get back up

    On your left side

    Get back up

    Pushup position plank

    Get back up

    On your back

    Get back up

Series Four

The right hand is stuck to the left knee.

    On your front (or on your belly)

    Get back up

    On your right side

    Get back up

    On your left side

    Get back up

    Pushup position plank

    Get back up

    On your back

    Get back up

Series Five

The left hand is stuck to the right knee.

    On your front (or on your belly)

    Get back up

    On your right side

    Get back up

    On your left side

    Get back up

    Pushup position plank

    Get back up

    On your back

    Get back up

Doing all five series is a total of twenty-five reps of going up and down, and the body will be hot and sweating. It’s a fine warm-up, but it also seems to improve movement. As the movements are restricted (hands on knees), the client needs to come up with new strategies to get back up and down.

For more of a challenge, try these variations:

    Right hand on right knee AND left hand on left knee

    Both hands clasped behind neck

    Putting your hands in your back pockets

Throughout all of this movement, most people, as they tire, will begin to become more and more efficient. When they move to one foot, the lunge position, they will stack their knees vertical over their feet. They begin to roll and use momentum to continue the movement. Generally, as they tire, most people will do “less.”

The movement becomes more beautiful as the person simplifies things. In addition, we would also focus on teaching the kettlebell movement, the Turkish Get Up.

Part of my job is to teach the tools of longevity: don’t smoke, wear your seatbelt and learn to fall and recover.

The other part of my job is to help people with their body composition goals.

Not long ago, a woman asked me to help her prepare for a bikini photo shoot. Even though she was young, merely approaching fifty, we used the same toolkit that we would use for any athlete: we focused on getting her stronger. She taught me an amazing lesson: for women, getting stronger gives them their body composition goals.

She built herself up to two sets of five in strict pull ups and looked simply amazing. Her program consisted of very few movements: cleans, presses, swings and pull ups. As she got stronger, she looked better.

As I was putting this together, I talked with another long-term client of mine. She has lost 65 pounds by doing something we certainly can all learn from: she stopped drinking alcohol (well, an occasional wine), added protein to every meal and focuses on veggies.

These two women both remind of us of the key to the whole journey to health, fitness and longevity:

It’s going to be simple.

Get Stronger.

Eat protein and Veggies.

Drink Water.

This is true for every athlete and client I see. And, with appropriate medical (and dental) advice, all of us can look and feel like we have a Fountain of Youth in our backyard.


Daniel John


Dan John has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

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