STRENGTH TRAINING FOR FEMALE ATHLETES.
Both scenarios are unjustified.
Most of the problem lies in a mythology steeped in hand-me down misinformation, gender stereotypes, and unfounded fears about losing flexibility, gaining too much bulk, and developing masculine features.
The muscle magazines' depictions of female bodybuilders -- showing bodies that could be the products of chemical enhancement -- only exacerbate the fabrications. As does the antiquated concept of strength training as a strictly male endeavor.
Facts on Females
Scientific studies dating back to the '60s prove that women gain strength without the hypertrophy (muscular size) growth experienced by men. Meaning that the vast majority of women do not have to worry about developing thick, unfeminine muscles.
The studies also indicate that women can lose body fat while increasing muscle size, much like their male counterparts. End result: a trimmer, firmer physique, with either a slight or no change in body weight, but considerably less muscular hypertrophy than by men.
1. Women tend to have lower muscle-to-body fat ratios than men.
Several factors account for this:
2. Women have only about one-tenth of the testosterone (muscle-building hormone) of men.
3. Women are smaller than men.
All of which means that they carry less overall muscle weight and possess shorter muscle bellies.
Absolute vs. Relative Strength
Simply put: Since women inherit less muscle tissue than men, they may not have as much absolute strength as men, but can compare favorably in terms of relative strength.
In absolute terms (i.e., total weight lifted), the average woman is about two-thirds as strong as the average man.
In relative terms (i.e., based upon identical areas of cross-sectional muscle), the strength-gain potential between women and men is identical.
Women tend to be weaker than men in the chest, shoulders, and arms because they have less overall muscle tissue in these areas. But, the imparity is not as pronounced in the lower body.
Interestingly, Wilmore (1974) found (through leg-press testing) that women surpass men in relative strength.
Coaches must understand that female and male muscle tissue is uniform, indicating that the ability of muscle tissue to gain strength and produce power is independent of gender. In short, many women are capable of becoming proportionally as strong as many men.
The increased strength gives them a better chance of performing their sport at an optimal level while reducing the risk of injury -- which is strength training's most prominent selling point.
Both scientific and popular literature have been doing quite a bit of speculating on the more pronounced pelvic width and inward femur angle, or "Q-angle," of women and its relationship to knee injuries.
The literature has also postulated that women have more lax muscles and joints than men, which suggests a tendency for hyperflexibility and instability.
However, there is no scientific data to validate these suppositions.
What is alarming is the high incidence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in women's athletics. The Big Ten, PAC Ten, and ACC have presented data indicating that women basketball players are eight times more likely than men to sustain an ACL tear.
Similar data in The American Journal of Sports Medicine indicates that women soccer players are incurring ACL injuries two to five times more frequently than men.
In light of these findings there is no question that the knee complex deserves special attention in the training of female athletes. There appears to be some solid scientific evidence that the hamstrings (posterior thigh), abductors (lateral thigh/hip), and adductors (medial thigh/hip) require specific training.
The Michigan State leg/hip-strengthening program encompasses exercises -- both multi-joint and single-joint -- which address this concern. (Note: Many of these exercises were described in the September issue.)
Multi-joint movements such as leg presses, squats, deadlifts, and lunges should be staples in the female strength-training regimen.
Single-joint exercises should include leg curls, leg extensions, adduction, abduction, hip flexion, hip extension, calf raises, and dorsi-flexion (upward flexion of the front of the foot).
Special attention should be given to leg curls, due to the previously mentioned deficit that women females seem to have in this area. This can be accomplished with higher rep sets (12-15) on this exercise, or by adhering to a 2:1 ratio of leg curl to leg extension sets.
This comprehensive approach will not only strengthen the muscles and connective tissue of the knee complex itself, but also the proximal and distal compartments that support it.
Running, Jumping, and Landing
Women should also engage in a variety of movement drills performed in the "athletic position," a position that necessitates good bend at the ankles, knees, and hips, with a relatively flat back.
Sport-specific and/or position-specific agility drills from this position should be enacted on a regular basis. Appropriate cues (visual or verbal) should be included to initiate the applicable sensory and neural responses.
When running, cutting, and stopping, women should be instructed to keep their feet under their hips on contact and take short, choppy steps. These techniques will aid in averting two identified causes of ACL injuries -- externally rotated legs and hyperextended knees.
Women athletes who are involved in jumping sports (e.g., basketball, volleyball, hurdling, field events, etc.) must practice good jumping and landing techniques.
When jumping, the chest should be aligned over the knees and the knees over the balls of the feet.
During landings, the knees should be flexed and in alignment between the first and second toes.
When the legs are adducted (bowed inward) and/or straightened upon landing, there is an increased likelihood of knee-ligament strain and hyperextension -- a common cause of serious connective tissue and meniscus (cartilage) injuries.
We teach our athletes to land in a neutral knee position (flexed with knees aligned between the first and second toes) with a toe-to-heel "soft-rocker" foot placement.
The shoulder area also merits accentuation, as most women have a wider carrying angle from the upper to lower arm (i.e., the lower arm has a more pronounced outward angle than it has in males). It is believed that this inherent anatomical variable can lead to an increased incidence of shoulder injuries.
Although some of these concerns are still speculative, we advise a comprehensive shoulder program that involves the anterior, posterior, medial, and intrinsic rotator cuff musculature.
This can be accomplished with a variety of forward, lateral, and posterior arm raises, along with internal and external cuff rotations. Seated military and/or incline presses should also be performed, unless they are contraindicated due to joint pain or the residues of past injuries. (Note: Many of these exercises are described in the August issue.)
One other special consideration deserving mention is the onset of menstrual cycle disruptions.
Irregular menstrual cycles (oligomenorrhea), or the cessation of menses (amenorrhea), can lead to more serious problems. Amenorrheic athletes are more prone to musculoskelatal injuries (e.g., stress fractures) due to reduced estrogen (female hormone) levels, which weakens bones.
Women athletes must be counseled on these conditions and urged to seek medical advice from their gynecologist should either one surface.
Though there is no significant scientific data indicating that the onset of a normal menstrual period negatively affects training or athletic performance, any time an athlete experiences as adverse physical problem during her premenstrual cycles, she should seek medical counsel.
At Michigan State, our women athletes are just as intense, hard-working, and committed to strength training as the men. They are coached aggressively in the weight room and they perform the same extensive strength-training exercises and routines we have described in previous articles.
Since they do not come into the program with the same extensive strength-training background as the men, we place special emphasis on quality reps and exercise technique in the early stages of their orientation.
Once they learn the program specifics, they can, on any given day, be observed training alongside the men with determination in their eyes and an unrelenting work ethic.
Note: For further information on a comprehensive injury prevention program for female athletes, contact the Cincinnati Sportsmedicine and Orthopaedic Center at (513) 559-2818, email: www cincinnatisportsmed.com
* M. Brzycki, A Practical Approach to Strength Training, Masters Press, Indianapolis, IN 1995
* T. Lambrinides, Strength Training and the Female, High Intensity Training Newsletter, Vol. 4, 1993
* M. Hutchinson, M. L. Ireland, Knee Injuries in Female Athletes, Sports Medicine, 19(4), 1995