Ladies First

That is a video of my friend Antoinette deadlifting 250 for a single. A couple of weeks ago she e-mailed me telling me that her deadlift PR was 230 for a double, so 250 ain’t too shabby (she did it after being sick for two weeks too). I think Antoinette’s video has good timing for two reasons; it dispels some myths about girls who lift and let’s us have a talk about lifting mechanics.

Girls and Lifting
I’ve written about this before, but it’s still difficult to convince girls that lifting is not going to make them “bulky” or “big”. On one hand, it sounds ridiculous to the informed, but on the other hand, the strongest women are also the biggest women. As with men, the strongest lifters get the most publicity, so it’s natural for the average gal to see the bigger gals lifting. What they don’t see are all of the other weight classes lifting either, and these girls are usually in great aesthetic shape (like the gals here).

Girls always want to be “toned”. I don’t know what the hell the definition for “toned” is, but it can be deciphered as “I want less body fat and although I don’t know it yet, I’ll need some muscle underneath it to look how I want to.” Even girls who participated in sports in high school grow soft after not doing anything athletic for a while, and thus they don’t have much decent muscle mass. That’s just how the body works

Enter barbell training. Squatting, pressing, and deadlifting helps girls get stronger (which is never a bad thing) as well as developing a nice, shapely body (i.e. the appropriately curvy body they are wanting anyway). Nobody wants to have a flat butt, right?

Olympian weightlifter Melanie Roach (center) is a good lookin' 53kg lifter

Aside from the aesthetic results of lifting, girls are usually thrilled with the improvement that they can make with their strength, enjoy the challenge, and a few will go onto compete. Competing isn’t just a man’s realm; anybody can benefit from preparing for a contest and performing in a structured and high adrenaline environment.

In this instance, Antoinette picked up lifting and has a Paleo-type diet, and she has leaned out, dropped bodyfat, and gained muscle. She told that me that her friends think that she has lost weight, and then she tells them, “No, I’ve gained about 15 pounds, but lost fat and inches and my pants are falling off.” Sounds like crazy talk, but hopefully we can make it sane. Nice job, Antoinette.

Pulling Mechanics
Ah, now that we got that out of the way, we can scrutinize her lift. It’s important to note that this is a max or near maximal attempt for Antoinette. Form is not only expected to break down, but it should if you’re doing a maximal rep. As Rippetoe always says, if you are able to do it with perfect form, then the weight isn’t heavy enough and it isn’t your max. With that being said, I’m not sure how Antoinette lifts on her training sets because I don’t coach her (so I don’t know if this form fault is habitual or appearing on the max).

You can see that she has a good starting position (chest squeezed up correctly, bar underneath the scapula, bar over midfoot, etc.), but the first thing that happens as she pulls the bar off the ground is she loses tightness by raising her butt a little bit. This angles her chest down which helps round her lower and upper back round as a result. If your butt raises as you pull off the floor, then your knees extend just a little bit. This is a problem for two reasons:

1.Your quadriceps are the muscles that extend the knees, and if the knees extend and the bar doesn’t move up, then the quads haven’t done any work on the bar. This means that you are removing them from helping, and lifting with less muscles isn’t as fun..
2. The hamstrings are the muscles that flex the knee and extend the hip. They attach up under the butt cheek, and when your knees do their job correctly (in this case, correct would mean not extending early like they are here to help lift the bar) then the hamstrings would stay tight, and that tightness helps hold the back angle in place. Antoinette’s butt raises because her hamstrings do not maintain tension, and then the quadriceps don’t help the bar off the floor. This means that the low back will carry the brunt of the load if the bar is going to be lifted in this mechanically disadvantageous angle. It’s important to note that if you’re in a meet situation, bad form is not a sign that you should just stop the lift, and she does a good job of continuing to pull the bar.

Now here’s how we can improve in the short-term.

A good concept to think in Antoinette’s situation is “push the bar away from the floor with your feet”. She’ll set her back angle by squeezing her chest up like normal, and then she’ll think about pushing the floor away with her legs to eliminate the butt raising first. The simple, short cue is “push the floor away” (which is what she could think about or told right before the lift). This cue does a good job of not getting into the minutia of mechanics (which confuses the majority of lifters — or at least confuses their body), and gives the lifter a vague concept to think about and their body will usually get it right. I don’t take credit for it, I learned it from observing Rip (who is good at creating conceptual based cues to not confuse the lifter with little details – a necessary skill for a good coach).

Alas! Not all cues will work with all lifters. People think differently, learn differently, conceptualize differently, and know how to move their body differently. I take all of these variables (and tons more) into account when I coach to figure out what I say next to a lifter. In Antoinette’s case, if we stick with cuing her knees, we could try another cue. The next cue could be “make your knees go back as the bar comes off the floor”. This would make the knees extend off the floor appropriately, and the short, simple version is “knees go back”. I like the first cue better for a few reasons, namely because it simplifies and doesn’t direct the lifter’s attention to one little detail.

If those cues didn’t work, there are plenty of other things to try. I was cuing her knees here, but I could also cue her butt or shoulders since they are different points in the system. As with all things, I use the method that works the highest percentage of the time, and then if it doesn’t work, I figure something else out. It’s like a little puzzle waiting to be solved, but it’s a puzzle that the lifter cannot solve on their own (only a few can). If you’re shitting your pants worrying about what you may be doing when you deadlift (or squat, or press, or snatch, or clean), then you should find a good coach to help you out. There is no substitute for a good coach.

39 thoughts on “Ladies First

  1. I’m glad you wrote this article, although I should mention that I consider any female who can pull lots of weight off the floor a “woman” and not a “girl”. My wife (who pulls ~360 raw @ 135lbs) would agree.

    BTW, Melanie Roach is awesome.

    A frivolous distinction.


  2. You state she has a good starting position, but I have a question about it. Her head/chin is up, thus causing a lot of neck extension in the beginning. Ideally, shouldn’t the chin be down more so the head and neck are in line with the back? I’m thinking of the illustrations in SS.

    The reason I bring this up is because my wife does exactly the same thing and outside of putting a tennis ball under her chin I can’t seem to break her of it. I don’t view this as a make or break form fault, but doesn’t this set the lifter up for more injury potential?

    Yes, her chin needs to be down, but I am talking about the “midfoot, bar, and scapula” relationship. Like I said in the post.


  3. By the way, I use that very same cue of “push the floor away” when coaching lifters in the deadlift. It works very well for many.

    Another one I’ve used is to have them imagine themselves as a car jack, where they stay tight and lock the knees and hips out at the same as they stand up with the bar. Plus it’s fun to yell “car jack!” in the gym.

  4. Good article. I am sending the “Girls and Lifting” portion to my wife. She isn’t opposed to lifting, just has some misconceptions and this article says exactly what I’ve been trying to explain.

  5. Great post, I usually send articles like this to my wife in hopes that she atleast understands it’s not a “meat-head” activity.

  6. Fantastic post, Justin. I’d like to see more of these where you break down a lifter’s technique and describe the various queues you would use. That’s a big help to me when I watch my own form and when I coach my wife and some of the neighborhood kids.

  7. Melanie Roach is cool and all, but HUGE PROPS to Antoinette for pulling 250.

    how huge should the props be?

    – brent

    I could give the angry Brent Kim rebuttal, but I’ll say Advantage: Brent


  8. @DAB-
    Head position was one of the first things I pointed out to her when she showed me the video. As you pointed out the diagrams in SS have the head in line with the back–craning your head up is bad because your traps tie into the base of your neck, so it’s a bad idea to be putting any unnatural or awkward strain on your neck when you’re pulling a lot of weight off the floor.

  9. great pull antoinatte, and good article Justin.

    Off topic… would we consider strong man competitors 70’s big? I would certainly think so, but I figured I would ask anyway. I mean guys like Mariusz Pudzianowski, Bill Kazmaier, and Zydrunas Savickas are absolute monsters.

    Why wouldn’t we?


  10. Women have a hard time believing they can lift heavy without getting bulky because women’s fitness magazines still advise women to use 5 pound dumbells so they don’t bulk up.

  11. Thanks for posting this, including the notes on how form will break down on a 1RM attempt and the analysis of how it did in Antoinette’s case.

    I just saw a nice lift, now I will go look at it again. I think I might need the same cue as she does.

  12. Hey Everybody! Thanks for the compliments on the lift and I am very flattered that Justin made a post of my video. Just slightly embarrassed at my dead lift form for a number of reasons: 1) I just started strength training this past March, 2) I train by myself at the gym which can feel pretty lonely being the only chic out there on the platform, also resulting in no immediate form corrections when needed 3) I video tape my lifts so that I can get feedback from my Boyfriend (Eric) and other trainers and then take their advice back to the platform and try to make sense of it the next lifting day, and 4) The little knowledge I have about good form is through viewing videos of others, talking with Crossfit trainers and my Boyfriend. I don’t know what my 1 rep max is b/c I have not tried more than 3’s lately along with being sick put me back. Hope his post was a good tutorial because it was a great learning experience for me as well! And Ladies, get some! Stop watching your man from the sideline and put on a pair of pink chucks. I bedazzle mine for extra feminine flair ; ) xoxo

    I think you’re doing a fine job so far, even without considering the stuff you mention here.


  13. Also, I forgot to add some very key items for the ladies:
    1) EAT, EAT, and EAT again. There is no shame in how much I eat per day…with a Paleo-type diet that is. I LOVE PROTEIN: bacon, steak, burgers, eggs, fish, you name it. When ordering, make sure to MAN-SIZE it too. And ask for seconds.
    2)Don’t weigh yourself, it means nothing except when you weigh-in for your first meet. I PUT ON weight when I started lifting big, but lost inches off my ass and hips.
    3) Cottage cheese belongs in the fridge, not on the back of your thighs, so squat big and do some GHD’s. Summer is here.
    4) Put bacon on everything.

  14. Very inspirational Antoinette. You’ve made some awesome progress, especially with out a coach.

    I work out alone too, and have gotten some pretty awful advice from gym members who don’t squat or deadlift.

    Just keep on, keepin’ on!

  15. I train alone too, and I have to agree it gets pretty lonely sometimes.

    Homer your comment brings up a good point; when you see some one who has terrible form and you know a que that could help them should you say anything or keep your mouth shut? I usually feel that I should keep my mouth shut but sometimes the form is just so bad…

  16. well stonewall when I have to go to the public gym (I have the luxury of my best friend who has rigged up a gym in his garage) and I see kids squatting or benching or stuff like that and think one little comment will help I usually just throw it out there. You have to assess the type of person you are talking to though. Are they younger, older, snatching, doing dumbbell curls, do they have headphones in? all that stuff you need to consider. I think people train with headphones for not only music but to not be disturbed by other people. I haven’t had anyone harp at me for making one comment on form which did help them after, just make sure you know what you’re talking about! XD

  17. Stonewall,

    Where in Houston do you live? I’m in the Heights, maybe we could meet up for some mutual coaching once a week or something like that.

    Wow, that sounded pretty gay.

  18. You may want to look at having a quote of the day from the comments section.

    Today I nominate Antoinette: “Put bacon on everything.”

    I was thinking quote of the week.


  19. There’s no need to educate women about weightlifting. They know that them getting bulky is complete nonsense, afterall, it’d be very easy to just stop lifting if one saw the results and judged themselves “too bulky”. They don’t train hard and properly for the same reason most men don’t: because it’s fucking hard and they don’t have the willpower and determination to do heavy squats and deadlifts on a regular basis. The desire to do these hard things is rare enough in men, and even rarer in women.

    I don’t know what kind of women you are talking to, but the majority of women believe that they will get bulky if they Squat and Deadlift. Ask a rando walkin down the street and she will most likely give you that answer. What do I know. Much like Brent I am afraid of talking to girls, so I could be wrong.


    not talking basically means we do a lot of listening, so really we are the resident experts here …………

    – brent

    I guess this also makes us the resident experts on trolling.


  20. Idk if I agree about women willing to do hard things being more rare than men, Hippo. I hear a lot more excuses out of guys than I do girls. Why just today we had 12 women back squat, and that’s just a Thursday for the ladies following Justin’s WFAC program. Not including all of the ladies who squat every Monday, or the ladies squatting every MWF following the Novice Program. Women are willing to work every bit as hard as men do. You just gotta show them the way…

  21. “Idk if I agree about women willing to do hard things being more rare than men, Hippo. I hear a lot more excuses out of guys than I do girls. Why just today we had 12 women back squat, and that’s just a Thursday for the ladies following Justin’s WFAC program. Not including all of the ladies who squat every Monday, or the ladies squatting every MWF following the Novice Program. Women are willing to work every bit as hard as men do. You just gotta show them the way…”

    Maybe it’s just a small sample size, but it seems a vast majority of the women and a slightly smaller majority(but still 60%+) of the men who come into the oly gym I train at don’t last more than a week. Keep in mind people who would frequent an oly gym in the first place are self selected for doing hard things compared to the rest of the LA Fitness population. Most of these people get a decent primer on the lifts and how they affect one’s body and when they quit it’s not for fear of being “too bulky”. They have a basic understanding of why and how compound barbell exercises are more useful than machines/cardio, yet still it seems lots of people even with newfound knowledge just want to go back to benching at LA fitness or doing cardio and watching television. Our coach is a 90s small 77kg 5’10 40 year old and only 2 or 3 of us out of 20 regulars who train in the gym would be considered “bulky”. No, the reason people refuse to lift heavy weights at this point is usually just insufficient willpower or different priorities. They’re not really afraid of being too “bulky”, though that term is getting nebulous with so many people using it as an excuse not to squat heavy.

    To clarify, AC, I don’t doubt women and men SAY they fear becoming too bulky in doing heavy lifting, but I think they realize on some level it’s a copout excuse to mask the fact that they just don’t want to do hard things.

    Be more specific as to who is saying they don’t want to become bulky next time something like this is said. The general population of women (who NEED to be educated) are a lot different than the ones who walk into your Oly Gym.


    Guess how many people are in USAW (coaches, lifters, judges combined)? Around 5,000. Even if there was another 50,000 people recreationally doing the lifts, there are still 307 million people in our country, and the majority of those women have been taught that lifting will make them bulky. That’s just how it is.


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  23. finally figured out how to get my video off camera and onto Utube. Like “ladies first” area. Can I submit my deadlift and front squat video to give feedback? Thanks, Robbie

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