Q. I am female and work out at a local health club. I can't seem to find many women who are competent in strength-training instruction. Should I change clubs and find a club that is more male-oriented? There appear to be more competent male instructors than female instructors. Can you help me and give me some basic guidelines so that I can compare what I am doing now to what you might suggest for a woman interested in strengthening and toning the muscles?

R.L.

Gaithersburg.

A. It's only been a few years since women in general have accepted the benefits of strength training, so it's no wonder that there are more knowledgeable male instructors than females. But I've met some extremely capable and competent women instructors, and it won't be long before they equal or outnumber the men.

Don't just assume a male instructor is more knowledgeable or competent than his female counterpart. There's a generation of men who've been taught and influenced by the competitive weightlifters and bodybuilders. Some of their traditional practices are outdated, some are pure nonsense and some are even dangerous. It would be a mistake for a woman (or a man) to adopt some methods merely because a male instructor advocates them.

If you aren't satisfied with your club try another. I'd be more concerned with the facilities than with the instruction. The best teaching does no good if the right equipment isn't available. Ideally you should look for both -- quality instruction and an adequate facility.

An instructor doesn't have to know all that much to be competent. Too many people try to make strength training into a science or something very deep. Let's face it, there are only so many exercises you can do for your buns.

There are eight basic training variables to any muscular fitness program, regardless of sex or age. These guidelines provide the safest, soundest and most efficient methods to accomplish your objective:

HOW MANY REPETITIONS? Each time you raise and lower a weight, you perform a repetition (rep). I recommend that you perform 10 to 12 reps of most exercises.

HOW MUCH WEIGHT? There are two factors to consider. First, there's a "starting weight." The first time you perform an exercise you must select a weight that's light enough so that you won't hurt yourself. Pick a weight that will allow you to easily perform 12 reps and thus learn the skill of each individual movement.

Each time you perform the exercise, add more resistance. Your goal is to make the transition from a starting weight to an "effective training weight." That's when youre overloading the muscles adequately. This will force the muscles to adapt to increasing resistance and stimulate improvement in strength and muscle tone.

How will you know when to add resistance? As soon as you can properly perform 12 reps, add some weight. When you first begin working out you might be able to add 10 pounds each time. The longer you train the smaller the increments will become.

Remember, you must continue to add resistance each workout or be satisfied with your existing state of fitness.

HOW INTENSE SHOULD THE EXERCISE BE? The intensity of an exercise is extremely high when you can no longer perform another repetition of an exercise since the muscles involved are momentarily exhausted. You need not exercise at this level of intensity to stimulate significant gains, but aim at a high level.

Keep a workout card: the amount of weight you use, the number of good reps performed and the order of the exercise, every time you work out. You should show improvement on the amount of weight and/or the number of reps performed almost every workout.

HOW MANY SETS? Each time you perform a prescribed number of reps of an exercise, that constitutes a set. For example, if you perform 10 pushups (10 reps) and then rest and perform another ten reps, you've just performed two sets of 10 reps. I recommend that you perform only one set of each exercise. If you do one set properly, you won't want to perform a second set, and a second set will not make the exercise any more productive.

HOW MUCH REST BETWEEN EXERCISES? You can rest as long as you like or move from one exercise to the next with little or no rest. How much rest you take between exercises will have no effect on your strength gains.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU WORK OUT? Two or three times a week. A muscle begins to atrophy (lose strength and tone) within 48 to 72 hours of your last workout. If you're strength training twice a week, try a Monday-Thursday, Tuesday-Friday, or Wednesday-Saturday routine. If it's three times a week, try Monday- Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday- Thursday-Saturday.

WHAT EXERCISES SHOULD YOU PERFORM? There are a multitude of exercises for each major muscle group. The equipment available will dictate which ones you do. With the Redskins, we divide the body into five major segments (and so should you): the neck, the hips and legs, the midsection (lower back and abdominals), the torso (chest, shoulders, upper back) and the arms. Select a facility that has equipment specifically designed to develop each of these major areas of the body.

IN WHAT ORDER SHOULD YOU PERFORM THE EXERCISES? With the Redskins we perform the exercises by body segment in the following order: 1. Hips and legs. 2. Midsection. 3. Neck. 4. Torso. 5. Arms.

Within these body segments we change the order of exercises and substitute different ones every workout. Why? To eliminate boredom. Don't perform the same exercise in the same order time and again, you'll go stale.

Well there you have it -- a basic plan with methods that I think work best. I'd question any significant changes in the above package. Once you become accustomed to the equipment available in your facility, you can use the program outlined above.

There are specifics that can make each exercise more effective, but don't worry about that now. The muscles will respond to almost anything, so find a facility that suits you best. Train regularly and you'll soon see results.