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Q&A on female strength training.

Female strength training continues to be clouded with misconceptions and a litany of silly stereotypes. It's extremely unfortunate, since various women's coaches are depriving their athletes of the opportunity to improve their ability and reduce the likelihood of serious injury.

We receive a steady flow of inquiries on the subject, and our response always ends with, "Get your girls started on a strength-training program immediately!"

Let's take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions that cross our desk.

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WHY IS FEMALE STRENGTH TRAINING STILL FROWNED UPON BY SOME COACHES?

Much of the problem emanates from traditional gender stereotypes and antiquated social stigmas. The mainstream weight-lifting/strength training community is erroneously perceived as being for "males only."

Many of the universal myths on strength training for both genders (e.g., loss of flexibility, deterioration of athleticism, and other fairy tales) are taken to an even higher level of absurdity when the discussion turns to females.

If you were to believe some of the nonsense we've heard over the past 30 years, visions of young ladies with dumbbells in their hands mysteriously morphing into Sasquatch-like creatures and dragging their knuckles on the floor would be dancing in your head.

So much for the "advanced" thinking in the new millennium!

WILL STRENGTH TRAINING "DE-FEMINIZE" THE FEMALE ATHLETE?

This continues to be one of the major concerns of coaches, athletes, and their parents.

The answer to this question is a resounding, emphatic, "No!"

Females engaged in strength training will lose body fat and exhibit a slight increase in muscle size--producing a firmer, trimmer physique. The total body weight (scale weight) may fluctuate slightly, but will often remain unaffected.

The slight degree of muscle hypertrophy should make for a much more effective athlete with an enhanced thermoregulatory system for efficient calorie utilization. Just as with males, strength training increases the resting metabolism in females, thus improving the body's proficiency as a calorie-burning machine.

What about big, bulky, unattractive muscles?

Females do not produce enough of the male hormone, testosterone, nor possess the high percentage of the larger, stronger fast-twitch muscle fibers of their male counterparts.

Anatomically, many females are smaller in stature, inherit less overall muscle tissue, and have shorter muscle bellies than males.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, the combination of all of these factors will result in the vast majority of females being unable to generate a high level of muscle mass--no matter how hard they train.

The bottom line on this issue with females:

Will strength training make them trimmer and firmer?

Most likely.

Will it make them bulkier and unfeminine?

Highly unlikely.

CAN FEMALES GAIN AN APPRECIABLE, USEFUL DEGREE OF STRENGTH?

The answer is a resounding, emphatic "Yes!"

When compared to males, absolute (i.e., total weight lifted) strength gains in females may not appear that impressive. On the average, females tend to possess about two-thirds of the absolute strength of males.

However, in relative terms based upon identical areas of cross-sectional muscle tissue, research has shown that females and males exhibit an identical strength-gain potential.

Females are inclined to be weaker than men in the chest, shoulders, and arms. This is due, in large part, to the lesser overall muscle tissue in those areas.

A completely different scenario is apparent in the lower body. In fact, some studies have found females to slightly surpass males in leg strength based upon relative testing indices.

Much of the scientific literature points to women having anywhere from 75-85% of the absolute strength of males in the large muscle compartments of the hips and lower extremities. This high percentage alone is indicative of the much needed strength values that can be accrued via a properly implemented strength-training program.

Female athletes and their coaches must come to the realization that female and male muscle tissue is uniform--which validates the precept that the ability of muscle tissue to gain strength and produce power is independent of gender.

Based upon lean body mass, many women are capable of becoming proportionally as strong as men. The end results are identical in females and males in terms of performing athletic endeavors at an optimal level in reducing the likelihood of injury.

The latter is, of course, strength training's most prominent selling point.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER BENEFITS OF FEMALE STRENGTH TRAINING?

Strength training can increase bone mineral density. Known as bone "modeling," this process increases bone strength and acts as a preventative measure against osteoporosis. Young females may not believe that osteoporosis is a major concern until later in life, but the pro-active steps they take at an earlier age can help stave-off this crippling condition. Strength training in some form should become an on-going lifestyle staple for both men and women for this reason alone.

Stronger muscles, ligaments, and tendons are obvious results of strength training and manifest themselves in the production of more durable athletes.

The firming and trimming benefits of strength training can also improve a female teenager's self-image. Research has even indicated that strength training can be a deterrent to some of the symptoms of depression by providing confidence and higher self-esteem.

Some other benefits--which apply to males, as well--include modest improvements in blood lipid profiles (lowering of LDL, the "bad cholesterol," and increasing HDL, the "good cholesterol"), and an increase in glucose utilization, which may reduce the risk of diabetes.

FINAL REP

At Michigan State, we have found our female athletes to be just as dedicated, hard-working, and committed to strength training as the males.

The young ladies shown in the accompanying photos are members of our regular season Big Ten Co-Champion Basketball Team.

Under the excellent tutelage of two of my assistants, Mike Vorkapich and Tim Wakeham, all of our women's teams strength-train year-round with focus, tenacity, and great intensity.

(Suggested Reading: Westcott, W., Building Strength & Stamina for a Stronger, Leaner, and Fatigue-Resistant Physique (2nd edition), Human Kinetics, Champaign IL, 2003.)

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Special considerations for female strength training--Female athletes have an alarming incidence of ACL injuries due to myriad structural and possible hormonal anomalies.

Some researchers and practitioners recommend an accentuated emphasis on hamstring development, inner/outer thigh strength for stabilization, and distinct technique and teaching cues for planting, jumping, landing, and cutting.

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A detailed analysis and functional teaching/coaching program can be obtained on-line from Sportsmetrics out of Cincinnati, OH. I highly recommend a close look at the implementation of the techniques--especially for jumping--presented in this program. Their web address is www.cincinnatisportsmed.com.

The shoulder area also merits mention, as most females have a wider carrying angle from the upper to lower arm (i.e., the lower arm has a more pronounced outward angle than in males). This inherent anatomical variable can be instrumental in increased predisposition to shoulder injuries. Although still speculative to a degree, we advise a comprehensive shoulder program that envelops the anterior, medial, posterior, and intrinsic rotator cuff muscle compartments.

Finally, females should be counseled on the possible problems with irregular menstrual cycles (oligomenorrhea), or the cessation of menses ((amenorrhea). Amenorrheic athletes are more prone to musculoskeletal injuries (i.e., stress fractures) due to reduced estrogen (female hormone) levels, which can weaken bones. Immediate medical attention should be sought in either case.

--Ken Mannie

By Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University
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Title Annotation:POWERLINE
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:May 1, 2005
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