Female strength training: Dissecting misconceptions & evaluating strategies
In my early years as a sports coach, and the subsequent years entering the strength and conditioning field, the mainstream culture viewed strength training as a male endeavor. At the time, the social stigma and paucity of disseminated information fed the misconceptions that ultimately discouraged many female athletes and coaches from implementing strength training programs.
Gender stereotypes tend to die hard, as even today many female athletes are steered away from strength training. In 1972, when Title IX mandated equal access to all educational and athletic programs, it included participation in gross motor skill and strength development activities.The advent of the current fitness boom has reduced some of the negative discourse surrounding female strength training. However, full acceptance needs to be acquired and this can only be accomplished when everyone accepts the facts.
1. Strength training results in bulky, unattractive weight gain. Actually, strength training assists in reducing body fat. There will be an addition of some lean muscle, but the tradeoff in fat for muscle usually evens out. Overall increases in size have been shown to be insignificant in females, and only those with a genetic predisposition for hypertrophy — a very small percentage of the female population — will experience substantial muscle growth and limb girth.
Interestingly enough, lifting heavy weights does not guarantee big muscles in men or women. Both genders must put a great deal of time and effort into making even small gains in this area.
Don’t get caught-up in the “higher-reps-for-tone” quagmire. The unfounded notion here is that exclusively using lighter weight sets of 15 to 20 or more low-intensity reps leads to a “cut” look, while moderate-to-low reps result in bulkier, unfeminine muscles.
It’s advantageous in accruing some solid strength and needed power to perform maximal, or near-maximal, sets of five to 10 reps on occasion.
2. Females should train less often, with different equipment than males. While weight loads vary due to differences in absolute strength, there is no reason why females cannot train on similar schedules as males with regard to frequency and duration. They can use all of the same training tools males use without reservation.
3. Females should avoid high-intensity training. Females are most certainly able and oftentimes willing to train with as much effort and intensity as males. There is absolutely nothing in their physical makeup that would contraindicate challenging, dedicated training procedures.
The bottom line is that all of the above misconceptions have no scientific ground to stand on and have served only to contribute to much of the archaic mentality on female strength training that still prevails in many circles.
‘Gender gap’ facts
Research has indicated that females possess about two-thirds of the absolute strength of males. However, this fosters misconceptions about the strength of women and how they see themselves. Ultimately, it can negatively affect the way they train.
When we look closer, we come to the realization that comparisons in male and female strength should not be viewed in absolute, but rather relative terms. This becomes clearer when you bring into account that absolute differences are not consistent across all muscle groups. Females possess between 40 and 60 percent of the upper body strength and 70 to 75 percent of lower body strength of men. Physiologic factors, hormones and some neuromuscular response time variables all play roles in these differences.
The distribution of muscle fiber types (slow- and fast-twitch) is similar in the two genders, and when the amount of lean body mass is factored into the strength equation, the relative difference between men and women is less appreciable. Based upon strength-to-lean body mass ratio, women are just about equal to men, and when strength is calculated per cross-sectional area of muscle, no significant gender differences exist.
At the cellular level, muscle has force development capabilities independent of gender. And the stronger that muscle tissue becomes, the more apt it is to pay significant dividends in the athletic setting with regard to assisting in the powerful execution of sports skills.
Here are some “muscle facts” that everyone needs to know but should find special meaning with females in terms of dispelling some antiquated myths:
- Skeletal muscle is highly metabolically active, and it assists in burning calories on a constant schedule; even when you are at rest.
- Building firm, solid skeletal muscle fortifies bones, ligaments and tendons. This can be a factor in possibly reducing the incidence of injuries and minimizing their severity.
- Skeletal muscle gives the body its shape or tone. Simply put, you’ll look more fit because you are more fit.
- Your posture is often dictated by the ability to stabilize, fixate and engage the muscles that form a network of connections around its framework of bones. The stronger those muscles are, the more anatomically correct that framework is supported whether you’re sitting, standing, stationary or moving.
- You will combat sarcopenia — the age-related loss of muscle tissue — with strength training. Unfortunately, we lose muscle mass at an alarming rate (upwards of 25 to 35 percent between ages 20 and 70 if we do not train), and menopausal women between 40 and 50 can lose 1 to 2 percent of their muscle mass each year without a training program.
There are also some crucial bone development factors that strength training positively affects. Females must meet the minimal essential “strain” for bone modeling to occur. This strain factor is believed to be approximately 10 times the typical load they bear in daily activities. This takes on special meaning and consideration with females in the prevention of osteoporosis, a condition of decreased bone mass most commonly associated with post-menopausal women. Bone modeling is proportional to the degree of overload (i.e., stress applied beyond the status quo) applied to the musculoskeletal system. A systematic, progressive overload strategy enables bone modeling, which in turn can abate the onset of osteoporosis.
Another concern is disproportionate growth rates between structural tissues, specifically between bone and musculotendon units. During the adolescent growth spurt, bone may grow at an earlier and faster rate than muscle and tendon, which can lead to reduced strength and flexibility in joint areas (Kerssemakers, et al., 2009). In female adolescent athletes, the rapid increases in both body stature and body mass without the concomitant increases in hip and knee strength is an injury risk factor.
Additionally, longitudinal data in adolescent females shows that hamstring-to-quadriceps strength ratios decrease from pre-pubertal to pubertal stages (Quatman-Yates, et al., 2013). This muscle imbalance may result in unfavorable activation of the structures supporting the knee joint, resulting in an ACL injury mechanism. Hence, the implementation of strength training, dynamic flexibility, sports skill accruement, jumping/landing and acceleration/deceleration techniques performed in gradual, progressive increments is imperative. This approach represents a comprehensive neuromuscular development strategy.
Female athletes and their coaches should now understand that female and male muscle tissue is basically uniform. This validates the precept that the ability of muscle tissue to gain strength and produce power is independent of gender. And, when cross sectional muscle tissues are compared from a relative standpoint, research shows that strength gain potential is very close between males and females.
Those of us at the collegiate level still encounter far too many female athletes who were either discouraged from or not afforded the opportunity to participate in organized, expertly-coached strength training programs during their high school careers.
For those of you who coach female athletes, I strongly urge you to place them in well-structured, year-round strength and conditioning programs. They deserve the right to do so, and you have an obligation to make sure they are afforded that right.
Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.
- Bass, SL, The pre-pubertal years: A uniquely opportune stage of growth when the skeleton is most responsive to exercise? Sports Medicine, 30: 73-78, 2000.
- Faigenbaum, AD, Lloyd, RS, and Myer, GD. Youth resistance training: Past practices, new perspectives, and future directions. Pediatric Exercise Science, 25: 591–604, 2013.
- Kerssemakers, SP, Fotiadou, AN, deJonge, MC, Karantanas, AH, and Maas, M. Sports injuries in the pediatric and adolescent patient: A growing problem. Pediatric Radiology, 39: 471—484, 2009.
- Quatman-Yates, CC, Myer, GD, Ford, KR, and Hewett, TE. A longitudinal evaluation of maturational effects on lower extremity strength in female adolescent athletes. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 25: 271—276, 2013.