The 7 Deadly Sins of Powerlifting for Women

WRITTEN BY Mike Samuels

A powerlifting routine is a powerlifting routine, right?

Surely a program that makes one person stronger will more or less work for everybody?

And besides a few changes in exercise selection, sets, reps and loading parameters, isn’t it more or less one size fits all?

These are all common misconceptions, even amongst advanced trainers, who think that once you go beyond determining whether you’re using linear or non-linear periodization and your weekly training schedule, people don’t need much differentiation between routines, especially when it comes to males versus females.And sure, while 90% of a training program can probably stay the same, certainly with regard to exercise selection and a general template, there are important differences that need to be taken into account when it comes to how female lifters should train.

And sure, while 90% of a training program can probably stay the same, certainly with regard to exercise selection and a general template, there are important differences that need to be taken into account when it comes to how female lifters should train.

And sure, while 90% of a training program can probably stay the same, certainly with regard to exercise selection and a general template, there are important differences that need to be taken into account when it comes to how female lifters should train.

Obviously, if you’re a lady reading this, you still need to be squatting, benching and deadlifting, using mostly low to moderate reps with a higher percentage of your maximum, and a regular routine will probably get you okay results.

But if you want more than ‘just okay’ and want to excel in your pursuit of some awesome numbers, then your training DOES need changing to suit your own individual needs, body structure and abilities.

Change 1: You Can Do More

 Women tend to be able to do more reps at a certain percentage of their maximum than most guys can.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be busting out sets of 10 at 90%, but if the average guy can do 5 reps at 85% of their maximum, you’ll probably be able to get out sets of 6 or even 7.

This means that you either need to take this into account when creating your own program, or, if you’re following a pre-written workout, then you can add in an extra rep or two per set, or use a slightly higher working max.

Say for instance you’re on the 5/3/1 program, where Jim Wendler calls for you to take 90% of your true 1-rep max as a training max, you may wish to take 95% instead.

Change 2: You Recover Faster

 Have you ever trained with guys, and wondered why the hell they take so long between sets, while you’re ready to go again within a minute or two?

It’s because women recover quicker.

This may in part be due to the fact you’re lifting a little lighter in total, even though your percentages are the same, but could also be thanks to your superior recovery capabilities. A 2014 study from Acta Physiologica found that women are less resistant to fatigue (1), while a separate, slightly earlier study from the same journal also showed that women needed shorter rests between sets to regain a higher MVC (maximal voluntary contraction) force than men (2).

Another reason for this could be the higher level of estrogen that women have, as this has been shown to have a glycogen-sparing effect (3), allowing you to go harder for longer.

Change 3: You Recover Faster (Part 2)


 Recovery doesn’t just mean rest between sets – it applies on a between session basis too.

Whereas a guy may need 3 to 5 days between heavy sessions, or even as long as a week to 10 days in the case of high percentage squats and deadlifts, a female is likely to need a lot less.

Change 4: More Glutes Please

Due to increased Q angles (meaning wider hips and narrower knees) women are more prone to valgus collapse, where your knees drop inward during movements such as squats and lunges. This massively increases your risk of anterior cruciate ligament injury. (4)

To rectify this, you need to make your glutes stronger, particularly your glute medius, which is the muscle on the side of your butt, and responsible for hip abduction and aiding with rotation.

Some of the best exercises to help here are X-band walks (where you step sideways with a resistance band looped around your ankles or knees) as well as warming up for your squats with a band around your knees. This forces you to push out against the band to stop your knees from caving and acts as a way to prevent valgus collapse.

Throw some side-lying clam shells into the mix, or some seated band abductions, and you can kiss goodbye to valgus collapse for good.

Change 5: AND More Upper Body


 Women are approximately 52% as strong as men in the upper body, and 66% in the lower body (5).

Therefore, if you want to be more balanced, you might want to look at throwing some extra upper body volume into your program. This can either be done by simply increasing the number of sets you do on upper body days, or by adding an extra couple of upper exercises into your lower days.

There’d be no harm for instance in chucking three to four sets of 8 to 10 reps of assisted chins and incline dumbbell presses in on one lower day each week, and the doing the same for bench presses and barbell rows on another day. Provided you’re still recovering okay and your strength is going up, this is unlikely to have any detrimental effect.

Change 6: Deload Every 4 Weeks

 The female cycle has a lot to say over the training cycle.

Chances are when it’s your time of the month you’re not going to feel like doing as much as you would normally, so it makes sense to deload at this time.

Work with how your body feels, though, and try to determine when in your cycle you feel most energetic and at your strongest, and when you struggle with motivation and plan your training around that.

On a side note, you may also find that at certain times of the month you need more food to recover, and so planning your nutrition in this way makes sense too.

Bear in mind though that your bodyweight can change a lot here due to bloating and fluid retention, so don’t worry if you gain a couple of pounds. It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s entirely natural, and any gain will likely be gone in a few days.

Change 7: Your Goals Are Different

 While we may all want to strong, females tend to have different body composition goals to males. Not all the time, but in general, women want more glute and hamstring development than they do want quad development, and aren’t too worried about having massive pecs.

Therefore, when training with physique in mind, it might benefit you to do a 2:1 ratio of posterior chain to quad work, and the same in terms of back and chest work.

When training for powerlifting you’ll still need to squat, deadlift and bench press, but you can always make the majority of your lower body assistance work exercises like stiff-leg and Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, glute bridges, hip thrusts, or even wide-stance box squats, and get a tonne of rows, pulldowns, chins (or assisted chins) and overhead presses into your upper days as opposed to focusing too much on bench press variations.

7 Sins to Make You Strong


 Aside from the seven changes above, there really isn’t much you need to do differently to progress as well as you possibly can.

Use the guidelines here to tweak your workouts as needed. For example, the aspect of increased recovery extends to preparing for a meet.

Let’s say your average dude needs to taper a full week before a competition, and just do a couple of very low-rep sessions in the 70-80% range to avoid feeling beat up on the platform, you might do just fine with a three or four day taper, or a week where you’re working at a slightly higher percentage and volume.

As with any training guidelines, these are just that – guidelines.

It’s not to say you absolutely must always do a higher volume, or that you have to do more upper body volume; it’s simply outlining the gender differences that research or experience have shown, and suggesting ways around them so you make the most of your time in the gym, and achieve your strength and physique goals faster.

You have all the tools at your disposal to build your perfect body and get strong as hell. Now use ‘em.



Author: Mike Samuels
Mike is a coach and writer based in Southampton, UK. He trains people to get ripped and strong eating ice cream and pizza. You can find him at
You can find Mike Samuels at

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.



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