Strength Training Female Athletes
My name is Danny Dvorak. I have been a strength coach for 20 years with the most recent 10 being at Laurel School, where I'm the Director of Strength and Conditioning. Laurel is an all girls school, located in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Throughout these past 10 years, I've had the opportunity to train primarily female athletes.
I am often asked what is the biggest difference in working with females compared to training males. While there are a couple of differences, the initial focus here will be on the emotional factor. In working with females, I realized that it was important to shift my focus from prioritizing physical change, to understanding the emotional difference between training females and males. Once I understood this major difference, I was able to modify the mission statement to one of instilling confidence and self-esteem into every girl who enters the fitness center. This became my foundation and goal for training; to motivate every girl (regardless of whether or not they’re an athlete) to become involved with a health-fitness lifestyle. Once confidence and self-esteem are established, physical change will follow.
For example, there are many times when a female will hit a PR (personal record) in all categories and still feel let down, as if each PR is not good enough. Alternately, a male who hits only one PR is extremely proud of himself and wants to share this news with his peers.
Separately from the emotional factor, there are upper and lower body anatomical differences.
Upper Body Anatomical Differences - Females have narrower shoulders and hold more essential body fat. Strength training should be high volume in order to get the upper body muscles to respond. We’re able to see how high volume training affects the girls who are involved in CrossFit and gymnastics. Their shoulders, upper back and arms are stronger and more defined. Upper back, rear delts and posture should be the priority with every upper body workout.
Upper Body Movement Training Differences - Teaching females how to use their shoulders and lats when sprinting can be challenging. We practice sprinting mechanics with their upper extremity as much as with their lower extremity. This is a major difference between females and males; a very low percentage of girls (in sports besides track) know how to use their shoulders to forcefully drive their elbows back.
Lower Body Anatomical Differences - The biggest difference is that females have wider hips, which causes a greater angle to the knees (Q-angle), inward collapse of the ankle (eversion) and lower back pain. In addition, many females develop knee valgus (knocked knees) when jumping and running and most are quad-dominant. According to the National Strength Coaches Association, this is the main reason why females are up to 8 times more likely to have an ACL tear. This has a major impact on the program design for female strength training. We train posterior chain muscles (low back, glutes and hamstrings) twice as much, compared to the anterior muscles.
Lower Body Movement Training Differences - Focusing on movement patterns for knee health is equally as important to strength training. ACL’s are torn when decelerating and landing from a jump. Therefore, we consistently practice jumping mechanics. There are progressions for all of our agility, deceleration and jumping drills.
In addition, the dynamic warm-up is a critical part in preparing female athletes and should be included at the beginning of practice, workouts and prior to gametime. We activate the glute muscles and hamstrings by performing bridges, band walks, RDL’s and a variety of single-leg jumps.
With regards to ankles, most females lack mobility. We test to ensure that each female has a minimum of 40 degrees of dorsiflexion. This can be tested by marking a line 4” from the wall, stand behind it and bend your knee forward until it touches the wall. Do not let your heel come off the ground or let your knee collapse in. (valgus). We do this everyday as part of their dynamic warm up. If they do not have a minimum of 40 degrees dorsiflexion, then they will roll out their calf and achilles before attempting the wall touch exercise. They can also use their hand to push their knee towards the wall.
There are exceptions where females are hyper-mobile and need more strength training, especially if they started in gymnastics or dancing at an early age.
Tightness and general lower back pain are extremely common in female athletes. Most of our core work consists of anti-rotation exercises, such as planks. We follow the guidelines of Dr. Stuart McGill, author of Back Mechanic. The anti-rotation exercises help stabilize and control the body during critical movements such as decelerating, changing directions and landing from a jump.
Similarities between Females and Males - While there are many differences, the fundamentals of strength training remain the same. We follow and train the 7 functional movement patterns; push, pull, carry, squat, lunge, hinge, rotate. In order to progress with higher workloads or new exercises, their form must be 100% perfect. I educate, evaluate, measure, motivate and challenge them with personal goals. I use positive reinforcement and then continue to motivate.
In addition to the fundamental training, there are a couple of similarities with regards to lower body strength gains. Specifically referring to squatting, the progression is the same (overhead squat, body squat, goblet squat, back squat and front squat). The rate of strength progression is also similar between males and females, until they reach the 200 pound mark. At this point, males progress at a quicker rate, compared to females. This is most likely due to males having broader shoulders and their ability to handle heavier workloads.
Another similarity between females and males is with regards to participation. Over the past 5 years, there has been a shift with females becoming more enthusiastic about strength training, which has increased participation. Females are noticing the difference in how they feel about themselves and sharing this with their classmates and friends. The girls have started their own powerlifting club at Laurel School!
In summary, the basic principles of the strength program are the same for females and males; training the 7 functional movement patterns, working towards goals and always using positive reinforcement. The main difference is emotional/mental, where the focus should be on building confidence and self-esteem with every female student whether they are involved with athletics or not.
Since females are at a higher risk for an ACL tear, training movement patterns is just as important as strength training. Perfecting jumping mechanics, strengthening posterior chain, core strength and ankle mobility are the priorities when training female athletes.
ACL prevention is the number one priority for strength coaches working with females. To that point, I’ve created a 7-point evaluation (below) to determine the risk of an ACL tear. This evaluation is shared with parents and coaches so that they are aware of the potential ACL risk for each individual.
How many sports do you participate in (single sport athletes have the highest risk for ACL tears)?
Do you play multiple seasons of your sport over the course of one year? (Example: Playing soccer for high school in the Fall and also playing club soccer in the Winter or Spring)
Do you have less than 40 degrees dorsiflexion in your ankle?
Are you quad dominant?
Do you have a valgus collapse when jumping (landing or taking off)?
Do your knees hyper-extend when standing?
Do you have a dominant leg? (To test: create 2 lines 12” apart and do single leg jumps back and forth for 30 seconds, forward and lateral. Record the number of jumps per leg. The difference should be less than 10%).
Our records indicate that most of the ACL injuries have come from girls who have hyper-extended knees and soccer athletes who play an additional season throughout the year.
Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments.
Director of Strength and Conditioning