In our world of gender equality being so present we do have to remember male and females are similar, but still very different. To quote Lyle McDonald, “if you think of your female athletes as ‘little men’ you are probably setting yourself up to be fired as a coach.”
While the way I coach males and females is similar, there are aspects that are some-what customized. Here are my top three “check boxes” when coaching female athletes for physique contest prep.
Gathering Pre-Start Data is Mandatory
I am certainly no expert when it comes to the physiology of women during contest prep. With that said, you can cut down on much of the guess work if you insist on gathering a plethora of pre-start data. When it comes to men, a week or so, even just getting some basic information from them will work. Especially if you are a male coach, and your client is male, as there is a lot in common there. However, when it comes to females, I prefer a month of pre-start data mainly so I can get a glimpse of what their menstrual cycle does to them. However, a minimum of 2 weeks will work in a pinch if you have good communication with the client during that time.
I like to use one of our customized 3DMJ bodyweight and macro logs simply because it gives me a lot of useful data over time in a concise, one glance view. I do NOT recommend just randomly assigning macros for the athlete to hit. Rather, I recommend having them live life as they normally do, all the while logging that data. Here are the big things I like to see:
– Daily weigh ins, first thing in the morning after the morning constitution.
– Tracking the daily macros of the food they ate.
– Tracking their training, specifically when and the focus of training.
– Quantifying cardio when applicable. Preferably in kCals but time works as well.
– Start and end of the menstrual cycle.
– Qualitative emotional occurrences during data gathering. For example, time points where unexpected anger, extreme hunger or sadness occurred.
Plan For Longer Contest Preps
Female athletes will almost always lose less total weight and less fat than men. Mainly because they are generally smaller humans and you can’t create as large a deficit. So, while a 3500kCal per week deficit may be possible for 200lb humans, most female athletes are not 200lbs. Thus, making a 3500kcal per week deficit can not only be extreme, but almost impossible to adhere to over the long haul. So naturally, a smaller deficit over a longer period with more diet breaks makes sense. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for our female athletes. While they do tend to lose less fat, they also tend to hold on to lean body mass more effectively than men. So, prepare the athlete for very slow reductions in weight loss. But remind them their weight loss, likely, will predominantly be body fat.
Don’t Try To Customize Everything To What The Science Says
Or at least not yet. Yes, research does show there are a lot of changes on a week to week basis during the menstrual cycle. Everything from primary fuel sources to the ability to grow muscle changes over this monthly period. However, creating a protocol that takes advantage of every single aspect of this cycle has potential to cause more harm than good. That’s not to say research doesn’t exist showing that a plan customized to the menstrual cycle might help fat loss, in fact that research exists  believe it or not! However, there is only a single study to date, it’s on overweight women not competitors, and it doesn’t consider the psychological toll of micromanaging every aspect of menstrual cycle physiology. Therefore, at this stage, it’s probably best to take a broader view of what science shows definitively into consideration, and just use the most important aspects as they pertain to the athlete. For example, if your athlete has a history of Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) where insulin sensitivity is high, then it would be a good idea to customize the athlete’s macros to be higher in fat and protein and lower in carbs while still being in the programmed deficit . Then, as you make your adjustments during prep, do so based on a combination of what the science says, what can be adhered to, and what is most important in your athlete’s hierarchy of goals.
In all my years of coaching, I would guess the ratio of female clients to male clients who have fired me is about 3 to 1. I would venture to say if there was anything I did ‘wrong’, it was that I did not have the knowledge of how to get the results we both wanted. Therefore, it’s probably of no surprise that in my quest to become a better coach to female athletes, I now have more females on my athlete roster than ever. As always, my quest to be a better coach continues and I hope this article can help you (or your athletes) as well!
1. Geiker, N.R., et al., A weight-loss program adapted to the menstrual cycle increases weight loss in healthy, overweight, premenopausal women: a 6-mo randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr, 2016. 104(1): p. 15-20.
2. Moran, L.J., et al., Dietary Composition in the Treatment of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Systematic Review to Inform Evidence-Based Guidelines. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 113(4): p. 520-545.