Weight training for women

Weight training for women: Why women avoid weight training - and how coaches can change their minds

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Weight training women: Female athletes are less likely to perceive weight training as beneficial to their sport than their male counterparts, according to a recent study. This may not seem like much of a problem, but weight training for women can be highly significant, not just because it helps improve sporting performance but also because it helps ward off osteoporosis by enhancing bone mineral density (BMD).

Coaches and athletes need to be aware of the benefits of weight training for women as well as the social/cultural barriers that may discourage women from participating in weight training. This article will begin to address these issues as well as offering practical advice on training.

The study referred to above involved 139 male and 165 female student athletes from four US colleges(1). The students, who participated in a total of 11 different sports, including soccer, athletics, lacrosse and basketball, completed two questionnaires:

  • The Training Information Survey (TIS), including questions on weight training practice and perception, as well as other sports training and conditioning;
  • The Sport Orientation Questionnaire (SOQ), which measures competitiveness, win orientation (where the performer is focussed on an objective outcome, eg a race result) and goal orientation (focus on personal achievement)(2).

The authors were seeking to identify gender differences in weight training perception as well as differences between more competitive and less competitive athletes.

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The key findings were as follows:

  • Female athletes perceived weight training to be less important than their male counterparts, while their coaches considered weight training to be less essential for women than for men;
  • The athletes who participated most in weight training activities were those who considered it essential to their sport. Participation was not linked with competitiveness, goal or win orientation;
  • Female athletes were less confident about weight training than male athletes;
  • The SOQ confirmed previous research that male athletes were more competitive and win orientated than women while female athletes were more goal orientated than men;
  • In both groups of athletes, those who were goal orientated and competitive considered weight training equally important for male and female athletes, while those who were win orientated thought weight training was a masculine activity, important only for male athletes.

Leaving aside for the moment the differences between competitive, goal and win orientated athletes, the three main issues highlighted by this study were the perception of weight training as a masculine activity, the finding that participation in weight training is linked to the perception of sport specific relevance and the fact that female athletes are less confident about weight training than males.

Unfortunately, coaches did not appear to be helping matters. And the researchers conclude that coaches need specific education and support in order to promote weight training appropriately to female athletes.

Sportswomen seem to have an adverse perception of weight training, perhaps because they link it in their minds with the image of muscle-bound, testosterone-fuelled bodybuilders. Coaches need to help them overcome this cultural barrier. But in order to do so, they will also have to overcome their own barriers to seeing weight training as essential for female athletes. As is apparent from this US study, women will weight train if they see it as essential to their sport. So what research supports the sport specific relevance of weight training?

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Football training and gender

Let’s take football as an example. The physiological requirements of the game are similar for men and women: speed, power and the ability to perform repeated high-intensity sprints, with limited recovery time, over a period of 90 minutes(3). It follows, then, that training should be similar for both sexes, varying only in accordance with training age, fitness level and the demands of competition.

A recent US study of female high school soccer players sought to evaluate the impact of strength training on various parameters of fitness(4). One group completed a 10-week inseason programme of twice-weekly training sessions, including 30 minutes of strength training and 15 minutes of plyometrics, while a control group simply carried on with soccerrelated activities.

By comparison with controls, the strength training students showed significant increases in their anaerobic power (as demonstrated in an abridged version of the multi–stage fitness test) and fat-free body mass, together with reductions in body fat. These improvements may have been influenced by the untrained status of the players, but the study does demonstrate that a relatively limited intervention, involving 90 minutes of additional training per week, can lead to real improvements.

Gymnastics provides another useful example of the relevance of weight training to women. This is a challenging and difficult sport, since participants need power to tumble and strength to hold positions, but are also marked on form and grace, which call for a suitable body shape.

In a three-year longitudinal study, 20 US college-level gymnasts were tracked as they worked through a periodised resistance training programme. The programme initially worked on baseline strength levels and introduction of techniques, but then progressed to high-velocity movements with the goal of boosting power without increasing body mass. The movements included in the strength training sessions were designed to be as sport specific as possible, as well as linking in with the participants’ skill training and competition cycle.

Analysis of the results showed year-on-year increases in power and fat-free mass, with a simultaneous reduction in body fat, keeping overall weight constant. Unfortunately, because the authors did not use a non-weight training control group, it is impossible to determine how much of these improvements were down to the strength training programme as opposed to normal gymnastic training. However, it would be difficult to find a control group of similar elite level athletes who did not perform some sort of supplementary training for three years.

The observation that strength training increases fat-free mass while reducing fat mass has particularly significant implications for female athletes in terms of their risk of the bone thinning disease osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis affects as many as 25 million people in the USA alone and, of these, 80% are women(5). The condition has been linked with a lack of load-bearing physical activity in youth(6) as well as other risk factors, including calcium insufficiency, smoking and use of oral contraceptives.

Sporting participation at high school level as well as current activity levels and percentage of lean body tissue have been shown to be predictors of low bone mineral density (BMD), an independent risk factor for osteoporosis, in a study of 18-39 year old women(7). In fact, women who did not participate in high school sports were seven times more likely to have low BMD than their sportier counterparts.

Runners and gymnasts

That study was concerned with general sports participation, but others have been more specific in their attention. In a study comparing the BMD of female cross country runners and gymnasts, the latter were found to have significantly higher BMD(8). The researchers surmised that this was due to the greater levels of mechanical loading involved in gymnastics, as compared with running.

As well as being affected by particular sports, BMD is influenced by particular types of resistance training. In a study of young women, overloading eccentric contractions performed at 125% of 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM) were shown to be less effective in boosting BMD than submaximal eccentric resistance training at 75% of 1RM(9). The overload group performed three sets of six repetitions of their load, while the submaximal group performed three sets of 10 of theirs.

The researchers were surprised by their results because they had assumed that the higher mechanical loading of the overload group would be most conducive to improving BMD. However, because of the high loading, they avoided loadbearing exercises like the squat in favour of machine-based exercises, which may have affected the response. They concluded that the greater number of reps performed by the submaximal group was the key factor in their enhanced response. This study shows that significant results can be gained without excessive training, allowing for continued sports training and competition.

So, if we accept that strength training leads to improved fitness parameters that help sporting performance, an increase in fat-free mass, a decrease in fat mass and an increase in BMD that will help prevent osteoporosis, what can coaches do to promote participation by female athletes?

How coaches can help

Remember the findings of the first study mentioned in this article – that female athletes need to understand the benefits of strength training for health and sporting purposes, that they tend to be goal orientated and are likely to lack confidence when performing weight training activities?

Coaches can use this information to educate their athletes, provide them with short-, mediumand long-term goals, and create a positive, supportive atmosphere in the weight training facility that helps build confidence.

How can this be achieved? Goal setting has been covered in depth in the sporting literature, including Peak Performance (see PP 195, April 2004), but coaches need to be aware that this key tool should be applied to conditioning as well as sport specific training and lifestyle.

Role models have been shown to be important in increasing participation by women in sport(10). And if coaches can involve other female athletes, even from different sports, in implementing and demonstrating weight-training techniques, their own athletes may be more likely to respond.

Coaching in small groups of up to six athletes is also beneficial in that it allows for more individual tuition and creates a less intimidating atmosphere in which to facilitate learning. In my experience, groups of more than six beginners are difficult to coach in the gym, in terms of health and safety as well as technique. People are left either lifting unsupervised or with too much recovery between exercises so that they get cold or bored.

It may be wise to book out the gym for a women-only hour (or even afternoon) for the first five or six sessions, as this will reduce distractions and allow the athletes to lift weights without an audience.

A balance needs to be struck between repetition (to promote familiarity and confidence) and variety (to stimulate minds and bodies). One way to do this is by varying the training environment. For example, aqua-based plyometrics can be used as an alternative to landbased exercises.

This will provide a fresh physical and mental stimulus, may be perceived as fun, and is less likely to result in muscle soreness than landbased training(11). Follow this up with 10 minutes of water polo or water sprints and you will have created a session that your athletes really look forward to!

I would suggest developing a core set of 4-6 exercises that you consider essential for your sport, then varying supplementary exercises around the core in each session. This will provide both the familiarity and the variety that your athletes need.

Within your core group of exercises, you can then introduce minor variations every 2-3 weeks. For example, in Rugby Union you could use two cycles over a two-month period, with the four core exercises changing slightly, as shown in table 1, below. Within each cycle you may have 10-12 individual sessions in which the supplementary exercises would change each time. Within that overall structure, you would then periodise the load, sets and reps, allowing for delivery of 20-24 different sessions.

Table 1: two monthly weight training cycles for Rugby Union
Type of exercise Cycle 1 Cycle 2
Core Clean and jerk Clean and push press
Core Snatch Dumbbell snatch
Core Squat Front squat
Core Bench press Dumbbell press
Supplementary Lunge 1 leg squats
Supplementary Russian boxers Tomahawks
Supplementary Cheat rows Pullovers

In summary, by educating themselves and then their athletes, coaches can start to communicate the benefits of weight training for female athletes. By means of goal setting, individual coaching and good session planning, coaches can encourage, help and stimulate their athletes and then look forward to corresponding improvements in both fitness parameters and sporting performance.

James Marshall

Female Athletes - Training for Success is a brand new workbook from Peak Performance, available now at a 33% discount.


  1. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (JSCR) 18, 1, p108-114 (2004)
  2. Research Quarterly 59, p191- 202, (1988)
  3. Canadian Journal of Sport Science 16, p110-116 (1991)
  4. JSCR, 17,2, p379-387 (2003)
  5. Journal of American Diet Association, 94, p 668-671 (1994)
  6. Journal of American Medical Association, 268, p2403-2408. (1992)
  7. JSCR, 18, 3, p 405-409 (2004)
  8. JSCR, 18, 2, p220-226 (2004)
  9. JSCR, 18, 2, p227-235 (2004)
  10. JSCR, 18, 2, p242- 251 (2004)
  11. JSCR, 18, 1, p84-91 (2004)

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