STRONG-HER THE ARTICLE
By Jared Bidne CSCS D*
Over the past 30 years, the participation of women in sports has grown dramatically. With the greater demands for power, speed, and intensity in women’s sports there is a definitive need for total body power. For years many women “played themselves into shape,” which placed them in situations where their bodies were not ready to take on the demands of the sport. Females need strength for power, do not need to fear “getting big”, and need to understand strength training.
The Females Need For Strength
Female athletes in sports such as tennis, basketball, and volleyball often neglect strength training during high school years. While in college they find their athletic performance is limited by poor physical development, and try to develop strength as fast as possible giving them an increased injury risk and/or they end up dropping out of the sport. I have had several of my D1 female athletes tell me many of their scholarship athletes end up quitting.
In terms of absolute strength, women generally have about two thirds the strength of men. Most of the difference being in the upper body, because women tend to have less muscle mass above the waist. In many sports it is this physical difference that will limit performance outcomes (ie. hitting a softball, shooting distance in basketball, hitting power in volleyball, throw in distance in soccer).
Females are also put together a little differently than males. Women have thinner ACL’s than those of men, but with strength training women can increase ligament and tendon strength, thus reducing injury risk. In males, the type II fibers of the vastus laterals (outside thigh muscle) are larger than the slow fibers, but the opposite tends to occur in females. As females train they can alter the contractile properties of the muscle and make one type of fiber act like or become another type.
Here are a few benefits of strength training for women.
* Improved physical skills running agility and jumping
* Enhanced bone strength and reduce the risk of osteoporosis
* Stronger connective tissue to increase joint stability
* Increased sports performance
* Decreased body fat
* Increased metabolism
* Improved self-esteem and confidence
Many women have a fear of “getting big” or developing too much muscle. This myth has limited their performance. The fear of getting big is unfounded, and the development of strength in women is extremely important. Strength and overall body power is more of a neuromuscular effect than muscular. In other words, strength is not about muscle size, but of the appropriate muscles powerfully contracted by effective nervous stimulation. If training is done properly more neurons and the appropriate fibers will be activated for creating more strength and power without any unnecessary size. Here are a few things to consider.
Due to neuromuscular effects, women can increase their strength at the same rate or faster than men. I have had a 13 year old 125 pound girl out squat some of my high school males. I have even had some females out jump high school males. Although absolute strength gains are often greater for men, trained women can out perform the average guy. There is no reason why training programs for women need to be different from those of men. The programs should be designed to improve the performance of the nervous system and muscles regardless of sex. However, it is important that female athletes avoid prolonged periods of inactivity because they experience a faster detraining effect (loss of gains) than males.
Benefits of lifting:
I hear some high school females talk about participating in high school weight training. Most, if not all high school weight training programs are geared toward the schools football program. Other students may participate, but more than likely they will not experience the same attention as the main sport players. Most high school programs have their lifters go through a mass building phase which is not necessary for most athletes. College training is sometimes no better, my female athletes will come back in the summer weaker, slower, and jumping less. Women need heavy resistances in order to develop maximum strength, and they should occasionally perform their exercises at or near their max. Light weight more reps will enhance local muscular endurance with little or no carryover to absolute strength. People are so into the type of gyms that are popping up all over the country and the latest fad on TV. The popular things may produce aesthetic results of the average non-competitive athlete, but will have limited value to the serious athlete. The aim of the popularity stuff is general fitness and does not take in account the different qualities of strength and the effects of neuromuscular performance.
Strength training for female athletes is extremely important! An effective training program can prepare a females body for the physical demands of sport while preventing injury. The fear of getting big should be put to rest. Females have smaller muscle fibers and do not have the levels of testosterone to build large muscle mass. The training programs should be designed to improve the performance of the muscles regardless of sex. As with men, progress and fine-tuning of the strength program is needed for continued progress. The popularity of fitness trends are aimed to sell not improve.
Baechle, Thomas, R. Earle, W. Roger. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.
Wilmore, Jack H, David L. Costill. Physiology of sport and Exercise. 2004.
Zatsiorsky M. Vladimir, Kraemer, W. J. Science and Practice of Strength Training (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2005.