Fitness training for female athletes

Female game players need high fitness levels as well as technical and tactical skills in order to reach the top

RunnerTraditional gym training to build strength power and speed can be a turn off for many female games players. But according to James Marshall, there is another approach – skills based fitness training…

Like their male counterparts, female game players need high fitness levels (strength, power, endurance, agility etc.) in order to reach the top, as well as technical and tactical skills. With limited time to train all these attributes, combining skills and fitness training is not only time-efficient, but also tends to find favour among the players themselves, mainly because many female games players are less comfortable performing traditional strength work in the gym environment and also because skills-based fitness training is often regarded as more ‘fun’.

However, many female games players can still benefit from strength training; for example, studies have shown that (due to the differing biomechanics of the female body) the incidence of knee injury in female athletes is 2-8 times greater than in male athletes1-4.

Warm-ups and injury prevention

Ideally, games players should warm-up in a manner that closely reflects the demands of the activities to follow – ie a sport that involves jumping should include jumping in the warm-up, ball games players should use a ball and so on. The warm-up should also be a good time to include a routine that helps improves landing mechanics, thereby reducing the risk of knee injury, because players are fresh. But what is the evidence for this approach?

A recent 8-week US study investigated the effects of a warm-up routine to improve landing mechanics in female soccer players5. Compared to soccer player who did no warm-up routine, those on the Warm-up for Injury Prevention and Performance program (WIPP), showed no additional gains in vertical jump performance or landing mechanics. However, the subjects were very young (average age 10), so it’s hard to draw conclusions from this single study.

Balance, plyometrics and injury prevention

Another approach is to use balance and plyometrics training to enhance lower limb mechanics. A study on female volleyball players compared 7 weeks of balance training to 7 weeks of plyometrics training to see the effect on lower limb mechanics (vertical jump, hamstrings-quadriceps strength ratio and knee stability)6. The plyometrics group performed maximum effort exercises reflecting the demands of volleyball (jumping and landing, turning, sudden changes of directions etc.) while the balance group used cushioned landings with knee flexion, avoided lateral movements but progressed to landings on more and more unstable surfaces.

Both groups showed significant improvements in their lower limb mechanics, but the balance group showed additional gains in single leg landing (reduced impact at the knee). In my own experience, I have found that the ideal combination is to use combined balance/plyometrics exercises in conjunction with some traditional strength training. Examples of combined balance/plyometrics exercises include deep holds, line jumps, BOSU deep holds, BOSU jumps and landing, wall jumps, tuck jumps and lunge jumps.

BOSU ball training

BOSU balls are widely used in the commercial gym environment, but there’s evidence they can help in sports conditioning too. A recent 4-week study showed that BOSU training helped improve not only balance, but also reduced the time required to complete a multi-directional shuttle run7. Two weeks later however, while improved balance was still evident, the shuttle run time had increased again indicating that BOSU ball use may need to be on-going if it is to benefit sprint/running performance. An ideal way to do this is to include it into a warm-up routine.

Using ‘small’ games to build skill and conditioning

Many coaches regard skills and fitness training as two completely separate entities. However the best coaches are able to combine the two into drills and small games that are not only effective, but are also generally regarded as much more ‘fun’ by female games players! There’s also good scientific evidence that this approach is effective in practice.

An Australian study on junior volleyball players investigated the effects of skills-only sessions on physical fitness over an 8-week period, including passing, serving, setting and spiking8. The results indicated that skills had improved, but while there were modest improvements in speed and agility, aerobic power and vertical jumping ability had remained unchanged. But rather than adding separate bouts of physical training as the study’s authors recommended, what if you could combine drills into small games to build both skills and fitness simultaneously?

Studies in this area have come up with encouraging results. One such study on soccer players used heart rate monitors to look at the relationship between heart rate (HR), player numbers and pitch size9. Playing 2-a-side on smaller pitches (30m x 20m) averaging 2 minutes of play interspersed with 2 minutes rest, average HR was 90-95% maximum – ideal for improving maximum aerobic capacity. 5-a-side to 8-a-side games on larger pitches produced HRs of 85-90% max (ideal for raising lactate threshold).

Meanwhile, a study on rugby league players and speed, power and agility compared traditional running routines (without a ball) to various ‘small games’ training methods (including 2-a-side and unequal defence vs. attack games)10. Although both methods produced improvements in 10m speed and maximal aerobic power, only the small games group improved 20 and 40m times and their vertical jump heights. Moreover, while the win-loss games tally was the same for both groups, compared to the traditionally trained players, the small games conditioned players scored more points and amassed a greater points differential.


Female games player coaches who have limited time might be better to ask themselves not whether their team is fit or not, but instead what two or three performance variables are key to success on the pitch and then set about designing some small games to improve them. By combing these with effective warm-up drills that replicate the demands of the game, coaches can maximise the time spent with the team and make the training much more fun for the players!


1.    Am J Sports Med (1995) 23, 694-701
2.    Am J Sports Med (1994) 22, 364-371
3.    Am J Sports Med (1982) 10, 297-299
4.    Clin Sports Med (2000) 287-302
5.    JSCR (2006) 20 (2), 331-335.
6.    JSCR (2006) 20 (2), 345-353.
7.    JSCR (2006) 20 (2), 422-428.
8.    JSCR (2006) 20 (1), 29-35.
9.    JSCR (2006) 20 (2), 316-319.
10.    JSCR (2006) 20 (2), 309-315

Original article by James Marshall
Summary by Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons MRSC ACSM

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