Our society has come a long way from the days where women were held back from athletic endeavors and the feminine ideal was soft and weak; power and strength in a female were essentially frowned upon. The times have changed however; shirts with the slogan “strong is the new beautiful” demonstrate a shift towards embracing strong as a positive (often even sought after) quality for the female population. Nevertheless, many women and girls still shy away from that which requires a heavy implement or spurs muscle growth. Even female athletes tend to specialize in the technical qualities of their sport while neglecting the preparation of their most precious and useful tool – their bodies.
All athletes should have a solid foundation of physical strength; strength is what other athletic qualities rely upon to function at a high level. Female athletes should train for the same reasons a male would with primarily the same basic training principles. Start with body weight and body control exercises. Begin to apply progressive overload principles with body weight then with external resistance. Do not neglect core training (which is more than just the abdominal muscles). Use multi-joint exercises more often than not: exercises that isolate muscle groups are less beneficial for either gender. Train posterior more than anterior: prioritize upper back, lumbar, glutes, and hamstrings over chest, quads, biceps, triceps.
Current research has revealed what has long been suspected: females are more susceptible to certain injuries, specifically ones involving the Anterior Cruciate Ligament. If training is done right, athletes who strength train can significantly decrease their chances of injury. Related (but much less discussed) is a girl’s susceptibility to osteoporosis, which causes weakened bones and poor bone density, two things that strength training has been shown to help prevent or even improve upon. Girls who develop compromised bone density jeopardize their athletic careers by predisposing themselves to injury. As much as 90% of a girl’s peak bone mass is acquired by the age of 18. This means both dietary and lifestyle choices can significantly impact the predisposition of osteoporosis in females. If a young female does not establish an appropriate level of bone mass during adolescence it can negatively affect her later in life.
When exactly should a female athlete train? Short answer: the beginning of adolescence and all year round. Girls generally mature earlier (both physically and mentally) and thereby have the ability to begin strength training at an earlier age than their male counterparts. If a female wants to retain those off-season gains with the ability to use them through the entire season, she must train during the season as well. Girls have less muscle mass and will decondition at a faster rate, making it imperative that they train during the competitive season to maintain muscle mass and combat atrophy.
Most misconceptions about the importance, benefits, and results of female strength training are due to a lack of education. With proper instruction, both informative and kinesthetic, young females can begin to acquire the benefits of strength training. If we can demonstrate how they can obtain confidence, reduce injuries, and ward off osteoporosis, perhaps we can dispel the negative preconceived notions about females in the weight room. With increased confidence hopefully more girls will remain involved in sporting activities and maintain a healthy level of self-perception. If female athletes begin to consistently strength train they will notice a difference physically as well as mentally/emotionally. The teenage years have more challenges today than perhaps ever; strength training has a plethora of residual effects that affect athletic endeavors as well as the individual as a whole.