Jill Coleman Talks Getting Strong Faster and Helping Women Love Heavy Weight

In 2010, Jill Coleman launched JillFit to help women get stronger, leaner, and happier. That happier part is perhaps the most important aspect of her brand: Coleman spent a large part of her twenties as a successful physique competitor, a period that taught her the intricacies of fine-tuning body composition but also gave rise to issues with body image, perfectionism, and yo-yo dieting.

Today, Coleman — who holds a Bachelor’s in Nutrition and a Master’s degree in Health & Exercise Science — is focused on designing innovative workout programs that help women enjoy exercise and improve strength, body composition, and performance at the same time. We spoke with her about how she designs programs for rapid strength gains and how to help women get under their first heavy barbells.

BarBend: Jill, thanks for taking the time to chat. You started out as a figure competitor, right?

I did. My roots are in bodybuilding, I did figure competitions for about five years in my twenties, and it was a lot of extreme dieting, yo-yo weight loss, and all that good stuff. It’s only been in the last five or six years that I’ve kind of maintained  a steady weight and I’ve been training more for fun than physique.

BarBend: You’ve written a lot about how competing as a physique athlete brought about some unexpected issues with body image. 

Yeah, 100 percent. It’s one of those things some people can make it work for, for other people it’s just not the right fit.

I tended toward perfectionism and not feling good enough anyway, and getting up on stage and being judged on my body with other women, it’s kind of the ultimate punishment in a way. You know what I mean? That was my most insecure time, not feeling good enough about how I looked and kind of using that outlet to justify my body obsession.

BarBend:  Is it fair to say that you focus more on strength and performance now?

Yeah, a little more on performance. For a lot of my programs, my number one goal is how can I get people to be consistent with exercise. I design programs for the average, intermediate exerciser who like me, goes through ebbs and flows in their motivation.

So for me, that means creating a program that helps people learn new skills while at same time having a typical progressive overload where you’re recording your weights and going up in weight from week to week and being able to track that. But it also needs to be interesting and fun and not monotonous. So I like to combine strength, performance, and bodybuilding in fast workouts.

BarBend: So how many sessions a week do you prescribe for faster strength gains?

When trying to change your body in a short amount of time, including potentially losing fat and gaining muscle in a short amount of time, I prescribe six days a week, forty minutes a day, for nine weeks. That’s what I do in my Fast Physique program.

Four days a week we do major powerlifting lifts, so one day there’s a chest focus with different kinds of benching, one one that’s mostly posterior chain with  variations of deadlifts and rowing, there’s also a squat and lunge day and there’s a shoulder day. And every three weeks you’re changing and doing a different version of that lift.

BarBend: As far as building strength in a shorter timeframe, would you say the secret is volume?

Yeah volume is the key, getting under a barbell multiple times per week is extremely important. I wouldn’t do it forever — the program is pretty intense and you definitely want a washout period afterward. But if you want to build strength it has to be consistent and it has to be at least four times a week of pretty intense powerlifting type movements.

But the rep scheme is unorthodox, it’s not standard powerlifting.

BarBend: So what does, say, the deadlift workout look like? 

I recommend starting with a 10-minute cardio primer, where we’re really priming the metabolism for exercise. It’s a warmup, but we do ten minutes of sprints at the beginning with any kind of cardio you like.

I know it’s a little counter-intuitive because most of us do cardio after weights, but the reason why is lipolysis, where we want to start to mobilize fat from the fat storage to be used for fuel. So there’s this 10-minute primer that starts that process, which is different to beta oxidation which is when you’re actually burning the fat during exercise. So the primer starts mobilizing fat and once we start lifting we start that beta oxidation cycle.

Then with deadlifts, we lift every two minutes. We warm up with one full set of 12 reps and then it’s 9 reps, then 6, then a heavy triple. Then you strip the weight and go back to 12. So you’re hitting all those different energy cycles, all the different energy mechanisms throughout that workout, and usually it takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Then you do an accessory circuit where we use movements that are complementary to the main lift. It’s a little more cardiovascular and with more moderate weight. The main thing is to work up to the heavy triple and then really hone in on that endurance piece by going 12 reps at the end.

BarBend: I remember reading a tweet of yours a while ago that said the best way for women to improve body composition is to get under a heavy barbell. What’s your most successful strategy for encouraging women to try lifting heavy weights?

I do think a lot of women are open to it, but in some old school gyms, powerlifting gyms, even CrossFit gyms, it can feel really inaccessible for the average woman.

So I ask, what’s the lowest hanging fruit? Often someone will say they go to the gym and do Zumba, or a toning class with 4-pound weights. I’ll say, “Great! Let’s start there.” And then as we get consistent with that, you start to feel more power and you get more confident in your skin and eventually I’ll say, “Let’s do some of these machines.” And then you start to gather even more confidence, and then you might say, “Maybe I’ll hire a trainer to teach me to do a squat.”

So I think there’s a progression we need to get warmed up to. I can get some beginners under a barbell, but you’re kind of jumping from A to Z, versus bringing someone on that journey. In my experience, most women need 1 or 2 years of being consistent in the gym to warm up to consistent barbell training. That’s not everybody, but in general.

BarBend: You focus a lot on mindset, “Get your mind right and body will follow.” What does that look like for you?

What we miss a lot of the time when we focus on just the physical change is that sometimes, it’s unsustainable because the mind hasn’t quite gotten there.

People who are the most successful with body change know it takes time, years and years to “build a body,” whatever that looks like, to build muscle and burn fat over time.

And those people don’t say, “I might go to the gym this week.” They just go to the gym because it’s who they are. So the mindset is, instead of exercising you start to become an exerciser. Instead of someone who eats healthy, you’re a healthy eater. Instead of doing the thing, you’re actually becoming the thing.

So for me, the mindset component is building that habit, building that ritual, and building it into your identity – until you say, “This is just who I am now.” And that takes some work, because a lot of people aren’t used to being that consistent in the gym, they’re not used to eating healthy. But as soon as they start to envelop that self identity. then all of a sudden it becomes non-negotiable. Now it’s not hard to get to the gym, and it’s just a natural progression to eat healthy, that’s just who you are.

BarBend: Awesome, I love it. What are you working on right now?

Mostly, I’m working with fitness professionals to help them build their own programs like mine, programs that are different from the standard “12-Week Fitness Program.” Those programs are fine, but what’s the angle? What’s the goal? How are you creating a solution for an audience that needs one? So that’s what I’m working on a lot, helping coaches find better ways to help their clients.

BarBend: Great. Thanks for taking the time to chat!

This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Featured image via @jillfit on Instagram.