10 Common Training Mistakes for Aspiring Women Competitors

by on August 25, 2014

One of the fastest growing categories in bodybuilding right now is the Bikini, physique, and figure divisions. At any show, there is an ample amount of female competitors, and classes are becoming increasingly crowded.

To use general terms, for any women competing in any physique category/class, the dedication to train is identical to that of any bodybuilder. However, there are unique training considerations that need to be considered for women that are truly interested in dedicating themselves to a competition and the overall lifestyle of a physique athlete.

Having a solid amount of experience training female client, I can definitely say that women present their own unique set of challenges that arise during training, and for the uniformed trainer or trainee, progress can be incredibly slow or grind to a halt. Often times this is simply due to lack of awareness of certain issues that may be inhibiting progress. Or it could be lack of understanding of the unique training needs that women present.

Regardless, I decided to break down and analyze as many of these common and not so common problems as I could. Some of these are extremely basic, other not so much. For all the women that new to training, and even for the ones that are not, this list should hopefully be an informative look that helps guide you in making your own process more effective.

1. Not Training Heavy Enough

Women as a gender tend to have less overall type II muscle fiber than men do, and this often makes them predisposed to be better and more comfortable with higher repetitions. This presents a common problem, as many women simply do not lift weights heavy enough to build any appreciable muscle, and instead spend time training endurance over and over again, with no progress to show for it.

This is partly a psychological issue, as I’ve found with many of my female clients, they are often upset initially that they can only do 5-6 reps with a weight, and they are determined to do 10. Because of this, I always breakdown to them the basics of muscle building physiology, the differences in fiber sizes, how muscle is remodeled through damage, progressive overload, and overall, why they HAVE TO lift heavy (relative to them) if they truly want to see body changes.

Working with bikini competitors, I have encountered the same common issue over and over again of a woman being told that she needs to fill out X muscle group, say glutes and hamstrings, but she continues to do the exact same workouts she was doing prior, with no differences in weight.

As you can imagine, one of the first changes I will suggest making is incorporating lower rep sets in the 3-8 repetition range, and recommending alternating 3-4 weeks period of heavier lifting with 3-4 week periods of higher volume. Combined with proper diet, this spurs new muscle growth that wasn’t happening prior.

2. Undeveloped Mind-Muscle Connection

It goes without saying that women do not have the same testosterone levels or natural levels of strength as men. Men have not only larger muscles, but greater levels of neuromuscular innervation.

Subsequently, many women who have never lifted will often have trouble “feeling” a muscle working when they first attempt to lift weights.

Addressing the psychology of this issue, women are often fixated on the “toning and burning” mentality, and they want the movements they do to give them that fatigued sensation. Problem though, is that they end up fixating on triceps kickbacks and that seated abductor machine, and not a squat of a pushup is done.

I always explain this to my novice female clients that they shouldn’t expect to automatically “feel the burn” when lifting heavy weights on compound movements, especially for lower reps. After a session or two when they report back being more sore than they ever have been in their life, they usually drop the “toning” mindset readily.

3. Gravitating Towards Isolation Movements

Following the lack of mind/muscle connection and fitting into the “burn” mindset, women often gravitate towards isolation movements, which by their very nature are far more acute in the small muscles they stimulate, and much easier to “feel” than the compound movements.

While these movements can have their place, they should not be comprising the majority of training. There is no replacement for properly performed squats, presses, pulls, and rows.

To solve for this, I would refer back to explaining the exercise hierarchy of effectivity, and basic muscle physiology. If you want to create major changes, you must use major movements, and that starts with the execution of the basics.

4. Not Utilizing “Plyometrics”

Let me qualify this statement first, I’m not referring to technical plyometrics, but the common definition of repeated jumps. If this statement is confusing, understand that Plyometrics were first conceived as a low volume, very specific way of training explosive reaction and power in athletes. They had precise jumping and landing guidelines. The usage of them was on a low volume basis for short periods of time in training.

In today’s current training environment, plyometrics are simply a catch all term that refers to anything that is “jumpy”, and covers everything from box jumps to hops to leaps and whatever else in between.

So yeah, plyometrics. If you are a female physique athlete of any kind, I would really recommend incorporating them into training.

Why is this? Simple, they are an explosive movement that stimulates the growth of type II muscle fibers. Additionally, I’ve had many women express to me that there lower half got much leaner after utilizing plyometrics in their training. Not so scientific, but I’ll take it as evidence that clearly they are doing something beneficial.

5. Not Enough Volume or Intensity

Whenever I open women’s health magazines, I’m always disappointed to see how low volume and low intensity the routines are. Often it’s nothing but a few “activation” type bodyweight movements.

As such, it seems to be a common issue with novice female lifters that they will end up following either lower volume routines, or lower intensity routines, or both.

I’ve observed women do something like a dumbbell shoulder press, 3 sets of 15, and not once during any set do they strain, struggle, or really have to work to move the weight.

Add in a similar set for some lateral raises, and that concludes shoulder training.

As you can imagine, no one is going to make progress training this way.

Your working sets should be weights heavy enough that if you aren’t mentally aware, you could either get hurt or the weight isn’t moving.

6. Neglecting Strength Development

These all intertwine with each other clearly. Neglecting strength is a common issue, and one I feel arises simply because women are often told that they cant get strong in the first place.

It certainly takes more time for women than men to build their strength in the big lifts, but in way is it an impossible. It just requires dedicated training and patience.

For many professional female physique athletes I’ve spoken with, their strength levels are actually how they gauge their physique progress. Over the years in which they trained, they realized there was a direct correlation to the progress in the mirror and the weights on the bar.

This is a mindset more women need to adopt in training, and not just focus on the short term.

7. Not Enough Bodyweight Movements

The most developed and impressive female physiques I have seen have all had one thing in common; high volume bodyweight training. Whether they were gymnasts, dancers, or crossfitters, they all trained with bodyweight movements. While most men wont get “big” with just bodyweight, bodyweight exercises are absolutely fantastic for women’s muscular growth. They are easy to progress, easy to assess, quick to recover from, and they can be practiced most every workout.

Any women that can rep out 10 chinups and 20 pushups and bust out high reps of jump squats is going to have excellent upper and low body development while being very lean. While these might seem like difficult goals, like anything else they take time.

See an example in this months training section on what a solid program looks like for a female competitor with bodyweight work incorporated into it.

8. Neglecting Weak Points

Men certainly do this as well, buts the inverse of women. For most men, upper body is the greatest area of focus, and legs get neglected. For women, the lower body tends to be their strong suit, and upper body is secondary.

Depending on your division, some women need more upper body development than others. If you are competing in fitness, figure, physique, I can say without hesitation that your upper half should be getting trained high frequency around 4x weekly. The upper body for women can take far longer to develop than the lower body, and should be prioritized in training. An example of this high frequency would be the following:

Day 1 – Lower body-Quad focus, abdominals
Day 2 – Upper body-Chest and back
Day 3 – Lower body-deadlifts, Hamstring and glute focus
Day 4 – Upper body-Shoulders, arms, abs
Day 5 – Upper body-Back training

In this way, you are working back 3x weekly (with chest, with deadlifts, and a dedicated back day) and the pressing muscles twice weekly. Depending on recovery, you could even add in another light pump day for shoulders or arms if you wished.

9. Neglecting Stabilizers and Synergists

Say you are a woman that is training hard and heavy, and you are making progess. But you start getting anterior shoulder pain that wont go away, or you have patella pain that comes and goes.

This is not uncommon. Women have smaller joints and more lax connective tissue than men, and while high volume works well, it also increases the chance of overuse injuries or general joint aggravation.

To remedy this, perform the following as part of your warm-up:

Upper body days – Extra rotator cuff work, band pull aparts for the rhomboids and rear delts,
Lower body days – High rep hyperextensions for glutes and low back, pulse lunges for VMO and glute medius

Maintaining a balance of pushing/pulling movements (2:1 ratio being the best), as well as lower body unilateral work, will go a long ways towards preventing injuries.

10. Not Modifying Training According to Menstrual Cycle

Depending on where a woman is at in her monthly menstrual cycle, she could be feeling high energy, be feeling sluggish, be experiencing extra water retention, have higher or lower pain tolerance, and potentially be at greater risk for an injury.

For both the trainers and trainee, it is important to be aware of this. There is evidence that female athletes are actually more likely to get ACL tears during the week of menstruation, and even for someone not competing on the field, this is relevant information. Temporary anemia would make it wise to taper back the volume, and changes in estrogen and testosterone levels can make a particular week a bad time to push heavy.

Every woman is a bit different, and make sure you training is working with your body and not against it week over week.

In summary, an aspiring female competitor should realize that this lifestyle is one that is constant learning process, and be willing to question and change things that are not working. Hopefully these insights can help both the women and men out there be better athletes and better trainers as well. Should anyone have any questions, as always feel free to ask me in the Q&A, or directly on Facebook as well.

Train hard,
Alexander Cortes