Strength training for women athletes

Many women athletes are often unaware of the benefits or, if not, are unsure of how to begin and how they could be guided by the best professionals over a period of time.

The length of the ‘foundation training’ depends on the age of the athlete, general training background, and on the volume and intensity of workouts. This usually lasts three-four years.   -  B. Jothi Ramalingam

Strength training is an alien and uncomfortable concept for many women athletes, especially in India. In recent times, women athletes have embarked on this process well and with great success. Still, there are many questions on the topic.

Many women athletes are often unaware of the benefits or, if not, are unsure of how to begin and how they could be guided by the best professionals over a period of time.

The first thing to know is that women and men respond to strength training in very similar ways from their individual pre-training.

Women can hit it just as hard as men during exercise, but a few tweaks in their regime can get the best out of them.

On average, women have smaller bodies than men, and less absolute muscle mass and smaller individual muscle fibres, and women display approximately two-thirds of the absolute overall strength and power of men.

There is no evidence that women should train differently from men, but training programmes should be tailored for each individual taking into consideration various aspects of strength training.

Scientific proof is available for everyone to see how strength and power training has increased performance over the last few decades in many sports. And that strength gain potential is nearly identical between males and females.

The significant point here is that it’s unfair to compare male and female athletes in terms of absolute strength (i.e., the total amount of weight they are able to lift in a given strength movement). Rather, their relative strength capabilities should be taken into account, which are based upon identical cross-sectional areas of muscle tissue.

Why strength training and its benefits

When playing at a higher level of sport, the physical performance parameters such as aerobic power, speed, strength, vertical jumping and lateral movement ability are likely to be tested and incorporated. However, being a natural athlete has its own limitations at the higher level performance domain. All the parameters of fitness are tested to the maximum limit.

Injury prevention

This is a huge factor in taking up strength training. When an athlete is doing the same movement over and over again, it causes overuse and make the stabilising muscles weak. Training for stronger core muscles and functional muscles in different planes of motion produces better results, and form in skill sets and performance also show considerable increments.

Women 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. This may be linked to strength and flexibility imbalances in the lower limbs, both of which can be addressed through correct training.

Increase in muscle mass and decrease in body fat composition

Having bigger muscles increases the metabolism and strength component, which in turn transfers to a power output increase in bone density in prevention of osteoporosis.

A decrease in body fat due to increased metabolism has a direct impact on performance in any field. Each sport has ideal body fat percentage recommendations. Each athlete has to work towards that goal along with good nutrition in place.

Improve power generation efficiency in movement

This helps in the athletes becoming faster, reaching further and going higher in their respective skills, whether one is training the fast twitch/slow twitch or combination muscles. Each has desired benefits through strength training.

Elite athletes embark on strength training from a young age and progress into a powerful lifting process.

How?

The best recommended solution for long-term benefits is a four-six month general preparation programme, which can serve as the perfect module for the desired results.

Many male athletes have a conditioning background, and whether this is correct or not, they usually see the benefits of strength training for their sport. 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.

The length of the ‘foundation training’ depends on the age of the athlete, general training background, and on the volume and intensity of workouts. This usually lasts three-four years.

It’s important to realise that there are no shortcuts. For example, a 16-year-old female athlete who has no prior training experience should not be doing the same work as a 15-year-old female athlete who has two years’ training experience. Instead, she should 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 in the prep phase.

Concerns in the strength training module

  • Designing the schedule without proper assessment
  • Too much loading at every stage without proper movement analysis and form
  • Improper form of exercise by the athlete
  • Not addressing stability issues before progression
  • Wrong choice of exercise – It must be sports- and skill-specific
  • Not addressing different types of strength according to each sport
  • A more generic workout than specific
  • Treating women athletes like male athletes on loading patterns
  • A lack of progression and knowledge among strength-and-conditioning coaches in execution of a periodised regime
  • Lack of monitoring protocols
  • Same schedule for all sports at every stage
  • Copying workouts from elite athletes for an amateur athlete
  • Comparison between fellow athletes on load and reps is an appetite for destruction
  • Cannot be in a group training module
  • Expecting and promising results too fast too soon
  • A lack of space to train complex movement patterns
  • Making women athletes understand the purpose behind the workout schedule
  • Improper nutritional guidance before, during and after workout
  • A lack of rest and recovery protocols
  • Pushing through a heavy load/intensity during the period cycle

Remedies

Use a periodised regime for long-term athletic development

Progression is the key for best results

Simple to complex movement patterns

Simple jumping and landing techniques to be taught initially

Teaching body-weight exercises with good form and balance

Use a variety of exercise using bands, tubes, medicine balls, etc.

Use multiple sets with progressive loading

Stability incorporated into the strength system

Technical lifts on multi-jointed complex exercises like snatch or power cleans need to be executed carefully

An individualised regime is a must

Finally, educate women athletes that they will not gain muscle mass like men

Use a wide variety of exercise protocols with sets, load, reps, tempo, etc.

Proper individualised nutritional guidance for better strength gains

Incorporate rest and recovery protocols into the system for injury prevention and cure

Counselling women athletes on menstrual issues through a medical professional is very important