There is a lot of discussion that goes around the functional fitness training world on how to train the growing population of females walking through the doors of your gyms. Having these conversations is great, especially since there is a shift in the percentage of females participating in our beloved training methodology. So the question is: How can you make your classes and programming meet the wants and needs of both genders. But wait! Is it fair, safe, or even ‘right’ to classify all females into one category?

Think about some of the clients you currently coach, and remember what they were like when they first walked into your gym. There is a high probability that you have encountered multiple types of females in terms of experience and comfort level with your equipment. We could create endless ‘types’ of females that come through your doors, which for some coaches – both male and female – can be a challenge.

In the world of group fitness training, how can you provide every type of athlete the right training, the right attitude and the right amount of attention to get what they are looking for?

To make it easy, let’s break down the two most extreme types of females for this article. In the future, we will talk about more of these ‘types’ in the middle. You will be able to take bits and pieces from these types to think about the females who fall in the middle of the two.

The first type of females are those who are familiar with a weight room, due to collegiate or high school sports or potentially some training in a gym prior; some have had good training, some have not. We will call those females ‘mature’ athletes. Then there are females who come into the gym with no athletic history or physical background and what may seem like no athletic bones in their body. We will call them ‘immature’ athletes. I am sure you are able to picture both types of women, and are probably even thinking about some that may fall in between.

Let’s first dive into our ‘mature athletes,’ who are really just females who come into the gym and is comfortable around weights, barbells, kettle bells, etc. These women come in, and are refreshingly great during whatever your gym’s movement preparation classes. They learn the moves quickly, seem to have this unique intuitive sense of movement and are easily coachable. They may have some initial movement issues that are potentially dangerous, but as soon as you make them aware of what they need to do, they fix it, or are OK backing out of the movement, they may be unsafe in until they are capable of how to move safely.

These females have an athlete’s mentality, which means they will sacrifice themselves, or proper form, to win or progress faster.

‘Pros’ of mature female athletes:

  • Athlete is comfortable around weights
  • Athlete picks up on new moves or fixes quickly
  • Athlete moves fairly well
  • Athlete comes into the gym strong
  • Athlete has the mindset to improve
  • Athlete will be able to handle higher volumes quickly

‘Cons’ of mature female athletes:

  • Athlete will do anything to win or improve – include sacrifice form
  • Athlete moves too fast for their initial capacity
  • Athlete can be difficult to coach out of a bad movement pattern
  • Athlete has been pre-conditioned to work through pain, and doesn’t know the difference between pain and discomfort.

When this kind of female athlete comes into your gym, how do you work with them? Easy; no differently than you work with anyone else. These athletes have been working their entire lives to be physically and mentally strong. They have the same athletic mindset that the college football player has. They want to be spoken to like athletes and shown how to move like an athlete. When you need to have these females back off the load, or the movement due to poor form, you give them all of the steps they will need to do in order to reach full load or range of motion. This gives them specific goals and targets to hit in order to improve, which is what they will thrive on. Trust me, they will be the first ones to tell you when they achieve the next step.

Now let’s look at ‘immature’ female athletes who come into your gym. This can range from a +40 mother who has not done anything fitness in 15 years, to a female who does not have a fitness or sport background who has decided to try out this fitness regime she keeps seeing on TV, or even better yet, a friend of her has referred her. This female has never used a kettle bell, ring, medicine ball, or even … a barbell (gasp!). She is timid around the weights, and gym – including introducing herself to others in the gym.

‘Pros’ of immature female athletes:

  • Athlete has no preconceived poor motor patterns engraved in their movements
  • Athlete is extremely coachable and will listen to anything you tell them
  • Athlete will not work past the threshold of pain, or to the point that her from breaks down (unless encouraged to do so)
  • Athlete will improve rapidly, and be excited to do so

‘Cons’ of immature female athletes:

  • Athlete is hesitant or scared around the weights
  • Athlete has little confidence with movements
  • Athlete may have trouble working hard enough to push into their threshold to improve
  • Athlete can be emotionally fragile
  • Athlete will need to be introduced to intensity slower than a majority of your clients

When an immature athlete comes into your gym, how do you work with them? This answer is not so easy. These athletes require a different approach to achieve the same end-goal as the ‘mature athlete,’ which is hopefully something along the lines of getting them stronger, faster, and healthier safely. These females want a lot of feedback and direction, however it is your job as their coach to instill a sense of confidence in them prior to them joining class. You cannot possibly coach an athlete like this in a class if they solely require your approval before each movement. Doing this can be an ongoing process, and require patience and a bit of empathy.

Once you identify an athlete who seems to be an ‘immature athlete’ during your movement preparation/on-ramp/fundamentals, you can approach them differently. Think about the end-game; safe movement, confidence, an intuitive sense of movement and body awareness. Without going through multiple examples, the primary tool used to do these things is awarding positives and not punishing negatives. That means, asking the athlete how they felt when they did something well and reiterating that you agree – or celebrate their success. Let them know that how they felt in the good movement is how they want to always feel. Ask the athlete how the movement felt when they did it poorly, and ask additional questions to guide them to the answer and the fix. Once you let them know that they’re ready to join classes, they then have the ability to problem solve. At first, they will double check with you to make sure they are correct, which is exactly what you want. Eventually, they will be the ‘mature athlete’ who figures out what they need to do with just your oversight. They will trust that you believe in them when they want to go faster, lower, or heavier.

As a coach, seeing the ‘immature athletes’ turn into ‘mature’ athletes is the most rewarding for you. These are the females who have never thought they would train with the implements you are teaching them, or lift the weights they are with you. Just make sure to continue to check in with these athletes. Having a sense of confirmation is very important to them, as it is for all performance and fitness athletes.

How to speak to your female athletes:

One mistake that happens in the gyms often is the different treatment and speech patterns towards the female clients. If you speak to your females and males differently, they will treat themselves differently, and act accordingly. Treat them with the same amount of respect and speak to them in the same voice. You will see a shift in confidence and self-awareness in the gym from your female clients. Educate all of your clients in a uniform way, and hold them all to the same expectation. For example, female clients are given more leeway when they don’t remember an exercise from week to week. During the introduction into your classes, that is acceptable, however by the time they are ready for classes, they should know what you want when you say ‘front squat’ or ‘push-press.’ Also, do not be scared of using tactile cues with your females. The only way it is awkward or unwarranted is if you approach it that way. Oftentimes the most effective way of coaching a female is to physically guide her in the position you want. If you are scared of touching your client for fear that it will be misconstrued, then it will be when you do try it. Approach your client in a matter-of-fact manner, being comfortable with your approach and intent, and your client will not think anything of it.

Overall, the main point is to treat your female clients as you would your male clients. These types mentioned above are not solely tied to female clients, as you probably have several male clients who fall into the same categories. Be comfortable with your ability to coach, and empathetic to the experiences and preconceptions your clients walk in with. You will be amazed at the progress you see from your female clients when you approach them respectfully and with high expectations.

About the author:

Jenn Null has worked with athletes of all varying levels for over 6 years. Her background as a competitive rugby player, dabbling in the sport of strongman, along with being a CrossFit Level 1 coach, ONNIT Academy Level 1 coach as well as having previously being Starting Strength and USA T&F trained has allowed her to focus on helping CrossFitters and athletes gain strength, speed and balance along with overcoming injury. Jenn currently runs a ‘Strongman’ class at Knuckle Down Athletics in San Diego.

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