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Why you are struggling to get stronger as a female CrossFitter, part 1

January 17, 2016

One of the top complaints I get from female CrossFitters is “I just can’t seem to get stronger!” and “I just want to get stronger, but nothing is working”. etc etc Over my time working as a CrossFit coach, there are some things I have noticed that seem to be very common mistakes that CrossFit women make in their strength training, which could very well be holding them back.

Below are 4 reasons why you may be struggling to get stronger and build muscle. If gaining strength is something you are struggling with, I’d recommend putting some of these things into action and you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. Of course this is assuming you ACTUALLY want to get stronger. If not, then carry on. :)

1) You train waaaaaay too much

I know you love the feeling of training for hours on end, but you have to realise that more training does not equal more strength and muscle growth. Understand that the purpose of weight training is to stimulate muscle growth. That doesn’t take 10 sets of 20 squats. It takes a few sets of 4-8 reps at a (legitimately) heavy percentage (keyword being: legitimately heavy). Once that has been done, the muscle needs to be repaired and new muscle needs to be built. That only happens when you are resting.

In another blog post I wrote about the CrossFitter’s version of runner’s junk miles. The extra miles that aren’t beneficial at all or necessary for peak performance. In CrossFit it is usually the junk training sessions, which serve no purpose. Every training session you do should serve a purpose. Are you trying to build strength? Then you need a proper plan and that plan needs to involve adequate rest days.

MEMORISE THIS: You do not build muscle in the gym, you build muscle when you are resting! If you never give your body any essential "non active" time, when will it have a chance to build muscle? Think about that.

Now, add in the fact that you naturally have a difficult time getting stronger already, and the importance of letting your muscles recover increases.

2) You steer away from the grindy, struggling reps

I know that many girls don’t like doing these type of reps. And I know this because I have been a coach for years now and I know exactly what it looks like when someone is going for a true 3RM or1RM versus a fake one.

I know you know what those reps should look like as well. The yucky-feeling ones that take 5 seconds to complete where you look like a frog because your face blows up and you turn bright red & feel like you are going to crap your pants. Yeah, they aren’t the prettiest, it’s a shit fight to complete them, and they are hard to do, but that kind of struggle is important when it comes to building strength. (*Please note, I am not talking about ugly, bad form reps.)

So if you are a woman who feels a little self-conscious about grunting or making faces and struggling when pushing a set near failure, so you steer away from the truly heavy weights, this is something that is more than likely holding you back from getting stronger.

Getting stronger and building muscle involves lifting heavy weight. This is necessary because the muscle fibres that cause the most amount of muscle size growth (called Type IIB) are best stimulated by the lifting of heavy weight. A heavy weight as one that only allows you to perform 4-8 reps max before your muscles literally fail.

8-12 reps is good for building visible muscle on your body (hypertrophy), but anything above this rep range without using heavier weights will be more of an aerobic workout in nature, and if you are a female CrossFitter struggling to build strength, this is probably the last thing you need to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong, using a lighter weight and doing more reps, as well as body weight strength movements can stimulate some Type IIB fibres, but again if you have a difficult time getting stronger, why make it more difficult on yourself? You need to try and stimulate as many as you can with the use of heavy weights.

In order to build muscle you have to push it to where it actually tears.  To get to this point, you have to exhaust your muscles.  As far as I’m concerned, you should be feeling this feeling quite a bit when you’re lifting; you should be pushing yourself. If you’re not pushing yourself & fighting for those heavy reps, your muscles most likely aren’t getting stronger.

An observation I have from my experience as a coach is that women tend to go too light with their weights, whereas men tend to go too heavy to the point where their form breaks down. There’s a common saying I’ve heard a few times, something along the lines of: women would benefit from adding 10% to the bar while men would benefit from taking 10% off the bar.

3) You aren’t resting enough between your strength sets

Many women would rather perform their entire workout as one giant circuit with limited rest. You figure that you are at CrossFit to move and sweat, so sitting around in between sets seems counter-productive. For strength gains though, you NEED to rest adequately between your heavy sets.

As you now know because I have repeated it many times already in this post :), building muscle and strength requires heavy lifting, and when you lift heavy weights, you push your muscles to their full contraction capacity. Sufficient recovery time in between sets is what allows you to repeat this process enough to achieve the optimum amount of muscle overload to stimulate and force new growth. If you don’t rest enough you won’t be able to lift the legitimately heavy weight needed to force your muscles to grow.

If you’re lifting weights to build muscle and strength, adequate rest in between sets is vital. You should probably even time your rest, and make sure that they are not less than 2 minutes between heavy sets.

4) You aren’t spending enough time under tension & time in the eccentric phase:

Time under tension is important when it comes to making strength gains. Spending more time under tension in movements will help you make improvements in lifts over time. What does this mean? It means you should be doing slower eccentric reps rather than dropping into the eccentric phase with no control.

Try it with a squat for example. I want you to use a moderately heavy weight, take 5 seconds to descend into the squat, hold in the bottom for 2 seconds, and then take 5 seconds to come out of it. Too many girls just drop into the squat with absolutely no control and then they can either bounce out of it or they can’t, depending on the weight and their amount of bounciness on that given day. You don’t get extra points for going ass to grass. Holding tension below parallel would be a whole lot more beneficial when it comes to getting stronger.

If you have never grinded for awhile and then failed a squat half way up, because you always just rely on the momentum of the bounce, you are not giving your body enough tension to build strength.

Control = strength. Doing the negative portion of the lift slower will help to develop more control. For example, when doing push-ups, the positive motion is the actual pushing up motion. Once you have pushed all the way up, you hit the mid point. The negative motion begins when you start to lower yourself back down. Most would simply lower themselves as fast as they pushed up, but if you are struggling to get stronger, I would recommend slowing down this portion. Slowing down the eccentric part of the lift or movement will help to stimulate more muscle growth. It actually activates more of the Type IIB fibres, which you want. You can do this with just about every lift.

And there you have it. The first part of my reasons why CrossFit women often struggle to get stronger. I am going to be doing a part 2, which will be based on diet reasons. Diet and training go hand in hand, and mistakes you are making with your diet could be holding you back as well. So stay tuned for part 2.

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