I've worked with a lot of different athletes—and different types of athletes—over the last 13 years. I've seen professionals use training to accomplish amazing feats in their sport, and some straight-up boss accomplishments in the gym involving big numbers and big lifts.
So what gets me the most excited as a coach? It's pretty simple: Nothing beats watching a female client accomplish something in the gym she never thought was possible. A weight she couldn't budge in week 1 is now being lifted for multiple repetitions in week 5.
Why is it so satisfying? Well, for one, media and popular culture often tell that woman she shouldn't do that. They say she should only worry about looking pretty, and that to do it she should cut herself into pieces and pile up the puny reps. I love playing a small part in proving this idea wrong.
I know I'm dating myself by paraphrasing "Field of Dreams," but I'll say it anyway: Ladies, if you train for performance, the aesthetics will come.
Meet the "new fitness," same as the "old fitness"
Yeah, I know we've seen a drastic shift in the last five years when it comes to women and weights. More and more women are embracing strength training, thanks in no small part to the popularity of CrossFit. As I've written elsewhere, this is one of the best things CrossFit has going for it.
However, there's still an immense gap between how fitness is portrayed for men and women in the media. Just stay up late one night watching television or browse the magazine rack at the grocery store and you'll see infomercials and magazines still—still!—telling women how to "lose 10 pounds in one month," or how to "tone this" and get a "sleek that," all while following a detox diet that has them drinking nothing but grapefruit juice and unicorn tears for 47 days.
All of which is BS for two reasons:
Everyone knows unicorn tears are only effective after 49 days of continuous ingestion.
I have yet to see a cover model who looks like she followed a "simple 6-week plan." Nope; they've been prepping and carb-cutting for months for that one photo shoot, and then got Photoshopped beyond recognition—and beyond attainability.
So let's be honest: The nefarious old way of doing things is still the norm. And if Susan B. Anthony were alive and lifting—which I'm pretty sure she would be—she'd vomit a little in her mouth. I'm a dude and it pisses me off. I can't imagine how angry and frustrated it makes women.
Why Strength Is the Way
Whenever I start working with a female client, right out of the gate I try my best to hammer home the importance of setting performance-based goals—just like I do for every man who comes through the door.
Not that I feel anyone's personal goals are insignificant; they're not. Who am I to judge someone's goal? Whether you want to get sexified for an upcoming reunion, "tone" up the arms, or lose those last 10 pounds (funny how it's always 10 pounds for both men and women), it's all good in my book. However, those are all very subjective goals. The way we get to them, on the other hand, is objective.
A woman once started working with me to get ready for her wedding. Like many brides-to-be, she wanted to get into the best shape of her life and look amazing for the big day. She explained how she really wanted to focus on her upper back, shoulders, and arms, because her plan was to wear an open, strapless gown.
Cool, I thought. I accept this challenge.[Cue theme music from "Jaws."]
She then mentioned an article she'd seen in a popular bridal magazine. The "workouts" were structured around exercises like lightweight triceps kick-backs and teeny-tiny shoulder lateral raises. "Will we be doing those?" she asked.
"Nope," I said. "Our focus is going to be directed solely toward getting you to be able to perform your very first unassisted, full-ROM chin-up, in addition to being able to perform 10 clean, chest-to-the-ground, non-Michelle Obama push-ups." I could tell she wasn't entirely sold.
"Give me 60 days," I said. "Do what I say and trust the process for 60 days, and while I can't promise anything, you will be proud of yourself."
Before long, the same thing happened that always happens: A switch got flipped, and she became addicted to her performance rather than worrying about what the scale said or whether or not a certain exercise targeted the middle deltoid. She met—and exceeded—the goals we set, and when her wedding day came, she felt confident and ready, because she was.
Does muscle isolation have its uses? Of course. But unless you're a figure competitor or competitive bodybuilder, I'm confident that you need less of it than you probably think. Instead it's much more empowering—and a better use of training time—to tip the scales more toward performance and strength.
Strength is honest. It's hard to earn and takes time, but when you give it your full attention, it'll reward you with the type of results that last a long time.
Don't Waste Another Minute
Ripped abs and tank-top triceps are worthy goals—there's nothing wrong with wanting to look great. Just be wary of fad workouts that promise big results in an unreasonably short amount of time. Nothing really worth having is going to come easily, and fitness is no exception.
More importantly, focus on building the strength that comes with a well-conditioned physique, rather than simply measuring your progress based on what you see in the mirror. Set a performance-based goal, put in the work toward that goal, and surprising aesthetics will just kind of happen.
Like magic. Unicorns optional.