Strength training for female athletes

The benefits of strength training for young female athletes

Strength training is an alien and uncomfortable concept for many junior female athletes who are often unaware of the benefits or, if not, are unsure how to begin. The solution, according to James Marshall, is a six-month general preparation programme, which can serve as the perfect introduction

The higher the level at which a sport is played, the better the physical performance parameters such as aerobic power, speed, strength and vertical jumping ability are likely to be – an association observed in Australian volleyball players and male rugby league players(1,2). However, are the higher fitness levels due to natural athleticism, or is it due to better access to fitness advice and facilities? Would a better fitness level at a younger age help an athlete improve their playing skills and progress them to a higher playing level earlier?

At elite levels, physical fitness is very important because (as studies on elite Australian female rugby league players have shown(3)) poor physical capacity limits the ability to play at a higher level. Ideally, athletes should be selected at a young age then given correct coaching in skills and tactics, as well as a progressive conditioning programme to enable them to perform at high intensities throughout matches. Unfortunately, limited funding and accessibility usually mean that this type of support only becomes available once the player has already broken into a squad or team at a representative level.

Many male athletes have some conditioning background, and whether this is correct or not, they usually see the benefits of strength training for their sport(4). However, this is not the case for younger female athletes; by not starting a strength programme early enough, these athletes may not only increase their chance of injury, but also reduce their ability to play as hard as they otherwise could.

In this article, we’ll look specifically at junior female athletes aged 14-18 years old. Research shows that once female athletes begin resistance training (RT), they not only enjoy it, but it also may help promote their own self-image(5). Indeed, this may be of wider significance for all young females, as their overall physical activity tends to decline after the age of 16, and starting an RT programme that enhances body image may be useful in preventing this(4).

Benefits of strength training

Why should junior female athletes strength train? Isn’t just being fit and healthy, and playing sport sufficient? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The two major reasons for RT in junior female athletes are injury prevention and playing performance. Female athletes appear to have a higher incidence of lower-limb injuries than male athletes with studies showing that they are two to eight times more likely to suffer knee injuries(6-9). This may be linked to strength and flexibility imbalances in the lower limb, both of which can be addressed through correct training.

One study from 1991 used a pre-season screening test in female college athletes from a variety of sports, and showed that 40% of the 138 athletes studied suffered an injury that season(10). The authors also found that there was a trend for higher injury rates to be associated with knee flexor or hip extensor imbalances of 15% or more on either side of the body. What coach can afford to lose nearly half of their players through injury in a season? If even only a portion of those injuries could be prevented through correct training, surely that would help the team or squad?

Getting started

In his book Track and Field, Gerhardt Schmolinsky states that the length of the ‘foundation training’ depends on the age of the athlete, general training background, and on the volume and intensity of workouts. It usually lasts three to four years. ‘Build up training’ usually starts at the age of 13 or 14, takes about four to six years and should not be completed before the age of 17 or after 22(15).

Injury causes and prevention in adolescents

It’s important to realise that there are no shortcuts. A 17-year-old female athlete who has no prior RT experience should not be doing the same work as a 16-year-old female athlete who has two years’ RT experience. Instead, she should again start from the beginning with a foundation programme.

All athletes should ideally have a pre-training musculoskeletal assessment to assess flexibility and strength levels. The major area to look at is possible imbalances between limbs and between muscle groups in flexibility and strength. Strength testing has to be done carefully with novice trainers; setting a lesser weight and then asking the athlete to lift that as many times as possible is safer than and equally as effective as maximal 1-repetition tests(16). For example, rather than attempt a 1-rep max, you might ask your athlete to back squat with just a 10kg or 20kg bar on the shoulders and see how many times they can do that with good form.

Attitudes to resistance training in young females

The general preparation phase (GPP) is important to help introduce the athlete to the training environment, develop core and limb strength, to teach safe and effective techniques and also to introduce the training habit. One of the simplest ways of developing strength is to use the athlete’s own body weight. Two such circuits are shown in table 1:
An example of how to organise these body weight circuits would be to do 20 repetitions of each exercise and then move on to the next one, performing all five exercises in a continuous fashion. After each set, rest one minute then repeat. Do five sets in total.

Table 1

To make the session easier, try fewer repetitions of each exercise, or add 10 seconds rest in between exercises. To make it harder, perform the five sets in a continuous fashion without rest. Even harder would be to do the total repetitions of the first exercise before moving on to doing the total repetitions of the second exercises so 100 press-ups immediately followed by 100 crunches and so on.

One of the important things for junior coaching is making the sessions fun and varied. The use of lots of different exercises, changing the format of circuits, adding medicine balls, elastic bands or household objects such as chairs ensures that the athlete has to constantly adjust and improve.

Once the athlete has become confident in this environment, the coach can start to introduce the use of dumbbells. Dumbbell circuits are popular among high school and college coaches in the US including ex Romanian weightlifter Istvan Javorek, who pioneered the use of dumbbell circuits as part of general athletic preparation and now uses them as a basis for all new athletes entering his program(17). Two such circuits are shown in table 2:

Table 2

These dumbbell circuits are performed in a continuous fashion, with six repetitions of each exercise being performed before moving straight on to the next one. After each set, rest for 90-120 seconds and then repeat. Look to build up to six sets first after which you can look to increase the weight of the dumbbells.

There are literally hundreds of different combinations that can be performed using dumbbells; it’s down to the coach to think about the relevant movement patterns and how to incorporate them. Start by thinking of pushing, pulling, squatting, jumping and rotating. Then think about using one or two dumbbells at a time, seated, standing, one leg, two legs and so on. Changing the exercises each session keeps the athlete interested and means that the body has to adapt to a new stimulus each session.

Jumping and landing techniques

Simple jumping and landing techniques can be introduced at this stage – not as lengthy individual sessions, but as part of the warm-up, or as part of the circuits. Training females on landing techniques has been shown to help landing mechanics, which in turn assist in preventing knee injuries(18).

Concurrently with body weight and dumbbell exercises, you can start to introduce technical barbell work in order to help the athlete gain a sound technique with low loads through repetition over time. This can be done with broom handles or 5, 10 or 20kg bars and should not be fatiguing. It can be done as part of the warm-up or cool-down as a sub-maximal portion of the exercise session.

Training should be performed three to four times a week in the off-season and can be conducted before or after the team training. The sessions should only be 20-30 minutes long, not including the education and demonstration of the exercises. The athletes can do the body circuits and landing techniques at home. I demonstrate and conduct a session with the athletes first, then get them to practice at home, then review it the following week.

The longer term

Once an athlete has been training regularly for six months, skill level, confidence and fitness will be improved. However, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not the time to ‘lift heavy’. Instead, the variety and intensity of the exercises must be developed. Some coaches recommend that an athlete should use strength-specific exercises and exercises with a barbell, such as barbell squats, only after three years of preliminary general preparation(19).

The use of multiple sets can be more effective in developing strength initially, and in female tennis players the use of periodised training routines that vary the load and volume of the weights during the course of the week has been shown to be more beneficial than keeping them the same from session to session(20,21). Technical work is key and the teaching of more complex lifts such as the snatch can be taught throughout the GPP, as long as the load is sub-maximal (unless your sport is weightlifting of course). Keeping the sessions varied, progressive and fun as well as technically correct will enable your female athletes to develop a sound conditioning base that will reduce the chances of injury and help them perform more effectively in competition.

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