Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Should women train like men for strength?

Crossfit takes a lot of heat from people in the strength community.  But so do fitness, figure, and physique competitors.

The parallel between the two tends to be that what they both do is essentially useless in regards to strength training.

Crossfit isn't "specific enough".

Figure, fitness, physique competitors have no idea how to build strength, or aren't strong.  They are "all show and no go".

They said that shit about bodybuilding men for a long time too.  But anyone that really follows the training of high level bodybuilders knows that there are plenty bodybuilders that are strong as shit.  And this whole "all show and no go" shit has gotten on my nerves for years.

Kai Green and Ronnie Coleman aren't strong?  Stan Efferding isn't strong?  Amit Sapir isn't strong?

Try 585x10 on squats belt only.




For months now I've seen women some fitness and physique competitors putting up numbers that rival and even best some of the top powerlifting women.

A few months ago I saw a video of Gillian Ward, currently an NPC Physique competitor whose roots lie in gymnastics and Crossfit, bench press 185 pounds for 15 reps at 132 pounds.

Why don't you let that sink in for a minute before you proceed.

185 for 15 at 132.

Do you know any 132 pound dudes that can do that?  Probably not.

And that's not even her best!




Gillian was kind enough to give me a very in depth look at her training history, and how she has trained throughout it.



  • I began gymnastics at the age of 2 and did tons of conditioning throughout my childhood to help with gymnastics. I was one of the less "graceful" gymnasts on the team so I compensated by getting strong and powerful. My favorite things to do were to run, jump, climb, swing and tumble and I would do it anywhere that I could. I discovered that if I trained to be strong that my gymnastics skills improved. 
  • Most of my training during my early childhood consisted of pull-ups, push-ups, dips, monkey bar climbing, squat jumps, lunges, sit-ups and sprints. 
  • In my 20's I focused on my career and put my own athletic endeavors on the back burner. I continued to train with voracity on a daily basis but had no specific athletic goal. For a few years I dabbled in mixed martial arts, ballroom dance, modern dance and even yoga. I yearned to be an athlete again and found that when I was introduced to CrossFit in 2008.
  • In 2008, I came in third at the CrossFit Games after only 14 weeks of dedicated training. This was because I had spent nearly 30 years at this point honing my physical skills and training. As a child I would day dream about having superhero strength & speed and spent my life chasing it. 
  • CrossFit introduced me to the Olympic lifts and the power lifts. The bodybuilder squats that I had done previously were not legitimate squats. Through CrossFit I fell in love with the barbell. After a few very serious injuries my CrossFit career came to a halt. It was at this juncture that I transitioned to olympic lifting and powerlifting with the guidance of Mark Rippetoe. I met Rip at the 2008 CF games and he wanted me to train for the 2012 London Olympics as a weightlifter but at the time I was not interested.
  • Once I started lifting seriously all of my nagging little injuries were gone and I felt better than I had in years. I no longer felt beat up all of the time. Instead I felt strong and capable. 
  • I have tried several programs with powerlifting as I have progressed from being a novice to being an advanced trainee. I began by running Starting Strength for as long as possible followed by the Texas Method. After I had milked that for all of it's gains I hired professional help to design a program. I used Jim Steel for a while and he drastically upped my volume. After I while I moved on from that and enlisted the help of Matt Reynolds (strong gym). He introduced me to Russian Block periodization which worked well for me. Eventually my husband took the reigns of my programming and then I started doing it myself. 

Some more info on Gillian.  These numbers are ridiculous for dudes at her bodyweight.

Best Competition Lifts (148lb class, raw)
285 Bench
465 deadlift
400 squat

Rep Prs
225 bench for 17 reps
Bodyweight bench for 33 reps
Deadlift 315x 20 reps (at BW of 140, overhand, belt less)

Overhead Press (strict)
185lbs

Max strict Pull-ups (recent)
42

Max weighted chin
135lbs added


When powerlifting I bench 2x week, squat 2x week, press 1x week, deadlift 1x per week. I generally hit some singles and doubles in the 92-102% range of my training based on way phase I'm in and then do volume work in the 70-88% range (anywhere from 4-6 sets per exercise with a rep range of 4-12). During my powerlifting training I also do front squats, rack pulls, RDLs, floor presses, close grip benches, heavy barbell rows, weighted chins and dips. I keep it simple and hit my heavy work first flowed by accessory at high volume. I typically do dedicated training for 12 weeks leading up to a meet.

I transitioned to physique competition this past Spring and have added more "body Part" work though the meat of my training is still the main lifts. Right now I am training for the IFBB North Americans at the end of August in Pittsburgh. My current training cycle looks like this -



Day 1 - "Legs"
Squat - 5x5 heavy
Squat - 2x12 moderate load
Heavy Barbell Walking Lunges - 135lbs 4x20 steps
Super-set - Leg Press, Leg Extensions, some kind of plyo for about three sets of fairly high volume

Day 2 - "Upper/Push Priority"
Bench to a heavy single or some heavy doubles
Bench Volume Work – 3 or 4 sets of 12-15
Barbell press 4x10
Weighted Dips 4x10-15
Incline DB Press superset w/DB shoulder work – 304 sets to failure
One set max push-ups to finish (maybe 100 or more)

Day 3 - "Pull-priority"
Deadlift to a heavy triple or set of 5
Deadlift volume – one single hard set of 10
Legless Rope Climbs x 10to 20 ascents
Weighted Pull-ups or high volume unweighted pull-ups
DB or BB rows – 3-4 sets till failure

Day 4 rest

Gillian Ward


After that the three day split repeats again but I focus on more bodyweight exercises such as handstand push-ups and ring work in place of benching and pressing. I add in DB pressing and benching on these days. I will warm up for these days with some Olympic lifting – maybe snatch & c&J to a heavy single. My second leg day of the week tends to be higher volume, lighter load on the squats and then I do RDL instead of the lunges.

I do not do any direct arm work and focus entirely on large multi joint movements. It is not uncommon for there to be 300-400 pull-ups and 1000 push-ups in a week of training for me. This is very atypical but I have been doing it all my life.

She's not alone.  Susan Salazar, who started out doing figure, fitness, and physique competitions now sits atop the 123 class in powerlifting by totaling a world record 1,000 pounds.

In fact, in the 123 class she out totaled the person closest to her, world record holder in the squat, Caitlyn Trout, by a whopping 53 pounds.  Susan also holds the world record for the deadlift in the 123 class with a ridiculous 427 pounds.

Erin Stern, former Figure Olympia winner, said in Oxygen magazine that she's considering getting into powerlifting herself.  From Oxygen....

“It’s important to keep that competitive outlet, so I’m toying with the idea of doing some powerlifting competitions. I’m benching 165 pounds for reps, I’m squatting 225 for reps, and I just deadlifted almost 300 pounds. My strength is good,” 


These are solid lifts for someone who doesn't specialize in "strength" and weighs something to the tune of 135 pounds or so.  Especially in the bench press.

I chatted briefly a bit with Susan about her transition into powerlifting, and how her training differed from that of when she was doing shows.

Susan Salazar


Me - Ok so you came from figure, fitness, and physique competitors. That's how you got your start. Do you think the kind of training you did for those things carried right over into making you as successful as you've been in powerlifting?


Susan - Yes...I totally agree; that type of training helps "round out" the muscle group for a better performance on platform. We work on our weaker muscles groups that way, so to speak. Also the nutrition aspect of it has a lot to do with performance because I tend maintain a more consistent diet to be able to ease into my weight class rather than try to "cut" a large amount of weight at the end.

Me - So what did your training look like before when you were doing competitions compared to getting ready for meets?

Susan - It was pretty much not a method or style at all. Just a ton of volume (more like BBing) then maxing out wen it can closer to the meet. There wasn't much too it.  I was so new to it...I really wasn't sure what to do. I just continued with my BBing training and my coach fixed my technique so there you go.

Sooooo basically her training didn't change much at all.  She just refined her technique a bit, and off she went.  In other words, her base of strength was built from doing bodybuilding style training.

Now of course, powerlifting and strength sports will probably be dominated top to bottom by women who do just specialize in those areas.  So I'm not saying that physique competitors or Crossfitters have the market cornered on getting strong by any stretch of the imagination.  What I am saying is, their training methods probably do have benefits that powerlifting women could take some notes from.

Physique competitors essentially train like bodybuilders.  Lots of movements, lots of volume, lots of reps.

Crossfit women do a lot of bodyweight work.

Gillian was a gymnast.  So a big part of her "base" was built on tons of volume bodyweight work.

I've said all of this for a while.  In the offseason, powerlifters could and should take a few notes from what bodybuilders, strongmen, and other "strength" enthusiasts do.

For women especially, train to build the musculature involved in the big three, and most importantly in the torso.  At the end of the day, more muscle moves more weight.  There's no getting around that fact.  The bigger and more muscular you are, the higher your strength ceiling will become.  Powerlifting purists sometimes scoff at this.  But no one that got more muscular ever got weaker.  And when you limit yourself mainly to the big three, you're short changing your strength ceiling potential because you don't "fill out" completely.  The stabilizing muscle groups DO MATTER.

Women tend to have more difficulty building upper body strength in comparison to men, because they tend to have a lower proportion of muscle mass in their torso compared to men (ratio wise).  Note this particular study....

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8477683

The greater gender difference in upper body strength can probably be attributed to the fact that women tend to have a lower proportion of their lean tissue distributed in the upper body.
  

You will often read that women should train like men to build strength.  Hell, even I have been guilty of saying this in the past.  But I do believe that women probably need to make some changes in their training in order to account for gender differences.  From an anecdotal standpoint, what I see going on with Physique competitors that cross over into powerlifting tends to back that up.  

Women probably need a LOT more volume and frequency than men to really maximize their upper body strength.  Not only that, they should also concentrate on getting stronger on their bodyweight movements as well.  I can't remember who, but someone once told me in regards to why Crossfit women were so muscular was all of the bodyweight movements they did.  It was something to the effect  of "bodyweight movements turn men into women, and women into beasts."  Some may argue that comment but I got the gist of it, and honestly I pretty much agree with it.  Women tend to do really well in terms of building upperbody strength and mass with high volume bodyweight work.  

To add to that, women also tend to need a significantly higher volume of upperbody work than men do overall.   

That means working the "angles" that bodybuilders talk about so much, doing a lot of rep work, and getting strong at moving your body through space. Where a man can go in and do lots of bench presses and some curls and get fairly jacked looking over time; women tend to need to do a lot of movements for a lot of volume, to really "fill in" all the gaps to achieve jackedness and get more strumpf. 

In my opinion, women should modify their strength training a bit to account for these differences and understand how to benefit from them.  

  • Women might be better off having three to four upperbody days in a week.  Possibly two pressing days, and one or two pulling days.
    • A quick look at Erin Stern's training routine from Bodybuilding.com shows she has three days dedicated to upperbody work.  
    • Monday: Shoulders and Arms
      Tuesday: Plyometric Circuit and Legs
      Wednesday: Rest or Cardio
      Thursday: Back
      Friday: Chest and Shoulders
      Saturday: High-Intensity Interval Cardio
      Sunday: Rest
  • Again by no means am I saying that Erin is the epitome of what a strength athlete is, but doing 165 for reps on bench at 135 or so, is pretty damn good.  Notice she presses twice a week, then does back on another day by itself.  Just something to think about.
  • They would benefit from doing all the various isolation movements that a lot of women in powerlifting ignore because it often gets seen as "fluff" by the men they train with.  But it may benefit the women a lot more by filling in the muscular gaps overall.  In other words, don't ignore flyes, laterals, curls, cables, and machines.  To maximize your upperbody strength and development you will need to do more work than your male counterparts.
  • Women should be including bodyweight movements because I've never seen a female that could do a ton of dips, chins, and push ups that wasn't strong on barbell movements as well.  Some may say that the barbell movements are what make them strong on the bodyweight stuff but I don't agree.  I've generally seen it the other way around.  Gymnasts can move their body through space with speed and power, and I will bet a dollar to a hole in a doughnut that they could easily perform very well immediately on barbell movements.  In contrast, a lot of powerlifting women that gain weight in order to get strong on the powerlifts aren't going to be able to do chins, lots of dips, etc.  Women tend to struggle more with getting stronger on bodyweight stuff than just moving a barbell through space.  I do think they compliment each other very well, so just cover your bases and include both.  
  • None of this means to totally exclude the lower rep ranges.  It just means to INCLUDE a lot of variation, higher reps, frequency, and volume in your upperbody training.

These are just ideas and nothing that was sent down from the Golden Gods. As you can see, the point is to cover all of the ideas touched on above. If you're a female and have been struggling to gain strength on your upperbody movements then the ideas addressed above may be what you need to change in your training to spurn on progress again.

3 comments:

  1. Let's not forget Bev Francis. Her volume was ferocious and she would go high on both her sets, reps and frequency; benching 6 days a week and doing sets of 10. I don't think her bench press record has been broken by anyone still.

    I realise Bev was anything but the bathing beauty, so probably not the best example in the world to wheel out when trying to convince a chick on how she should train.

    Christian Thibaudeau was also recently saying that women need higher rep ranges compared to men, and "male hardgainers" should tend to stick to similar protocols as women.

    Loving your stuff recently, Paul.

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  2. Wow! Gillian is very strong. I feel like athletics in early childhood can have manor benefits later in life on strength and athleticism.

    I recently injured a ligament in my wrist and will be unable to bench, press, deadlift or do anything that requires gripping a bar for about 2-3 months. I am able to squat, so I will be doing that. I don't want to lose all my upper body muscle though, any tips on how to minimize my losses?

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    Replies
    1. See the article down below that I wrote for Charles Poliquin on training around injuries.

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