Girl, You Need to TRAIN. Why “Working Out” Doesn’t Work for Female Athletes.
By: Emily R Pappas, MS
Women are weaker than men. It’s just a genetic fact, right?
Yes...but also, HELL NO.
Men have a higher base level of musculature. So, yes, typically they reach a higher level of overall strength.
But here is the kicker:
Both men AND WOMEN show SIMILAR increases in strength when following a resistance training program. (1)
So while female athletes have less muscle, to begin with, we respond just as positively… if not more so…to strength training as men. (1) (Thanks to estrogen’s effect on recovery!! More on that in a bit.)
You’re probably thinking…
“But why does getting stronger matter? And what’s the deal with ‘strength training’…I already work out!”
Sure, you’re already working out. Getting your sweat on during practice and pushing hard on game day. But if you aren’t specifically strength training, you’re missing out on big key to reaching- and maintaining- a high-performance athletic career.
Want to know the difference between just “working out” and training for athletic performance?
In this article, I’m going to break down some common misconceptions like...
Strength training...is it just a GUY THING?
The difference between working out and training
How YOUR BODY responds differently to strength training than a male athlete
How you can train to improve not only your strength but to INCREASE sports performance and REDUCE your risk of injury
Isn’t “STRENGTH TRAINING” a guy thing?
Ladies, let’s talk about why most of us don’t strength train. It just doesn’t make sense why we train our bodies differently than men.
But most of us? We just aren’t exposed to the weight room.
And that’s just so wrong!
We all remember our first walk through the training facility in high school, hearing the guys grunt around in the weight room.
When men sign up for sports, their training immediately includes this resource. But most of us ladies don’t start strength training until we’ve entered the collegiate weight room or are recovering from an injury.
But we need strength training just as much as the guys.
We talked about the history that’s held us back in the past here in “The Paradox of the Female Athlete”
In 1970, Title IX granted females equal opportunity in sport…
1980 NCAA accepted women to play at the national level under their regulation…
1990 more females are competing at high levels, but ACL tears in these athletes is a rapidly growing “epidemic”…
2019…now there’s even distribution of men and women in high school playing sport…
BUT…60% male high school athletes are required to strength train vs 9% of female athletes? (6)
While things are a lot more equal now, history’s slow acceptance of women and sports still has a LOT to do with how women train. At the Relentless Athletics gym, I’ve seen dozens of girls hesitate to begin lifting with us because….
“Isn’t lifting a guy thing?”
“This isn’t going to make me bulky, right??”
Parents and coaches will even ask me if lifting is too dangerous for their athletes!!
But this is really old school thinking.
In 2008 the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness released an updated statement on strength training. And, what do you know, it stated that strength training was not only safe but beneficial for ALL children and adolescents who engage in sport! (3)
So why aren’t more ladies in the weight room?
Why do we still think strength training just equals big muscles….when it actually means more coordinated, powerful athletes?
The fears we have about gaining the bulk are holding us back in our training.
Through science, we KNOW that strength training teaches the body how to move as a unit. Strength training increases body awareness, coordination, power, and speed on the court or field. (4)
In a minute, I’ll cover how we KNOW that BOTH males and females benefit equally from this type of training.
It’s time to get real. What we THINK we know about strength training for women is not the same as the TRUTH behind what our bodies need to perform!
SO what’s the difference between working out and training?
Just “Working Out” Vs. Training Like An Athlete
If you’re an everyday girl trying to stay in good health, exercising is AWESOME!
For most of these women, working out has no long-term specific goal…we just want to get sweaty, burn some calories, and maybe tone up a specific area of our body for the summer.
And this is TOTALLY OK for a female looking to stay healthy and “fit”. After all, when you work out…you just want to stay engaged, have fun, and feel good.
The problem is when most ladies work-out they don’t follow a long-term plan. With workouts, movements like back squats, goblet squats, and lunges are just mixed randomly together primarily to keep people staying engaged, sore, and from losing interest.
This type of activity is totally cool for the non-athlete.
But female athletes who “just workout” are shortchanging the time and energy they spend in the gym…as well as their future athletic performance.
As an athlete, you have specific, performance-driven goals. You want to move faster, jump higher, or increase your stamina during gameplay. Working out without a systemized plan really puts a LIMIT on the goals you are capable of achieving. Workouts that are not programmed within this long term plan keep you sweaty & feel like you are putting in work, but they don’t direct you to any long term goal.
Athletes shouldn’t be “working out”. They should be TRAINING.
TRAINING is a deliberate system created to PROGRESS an athlete towards her goal.
Think of it: your physical abilities over the lifetime of your career should IMPROVE. A high school freshman should be performing A LOT differently once she hits her senior year. But this improvement does not happen by accident!
It all comes down to following a program made up of three things:
Progressive exercise stressors
That are ordered in a directed manner
And coordinated with a specific backoff period.
In the world of sports science, this is called “periodization” and it allows for SYSTEMATIC IMPROVEMENTS in your athleticism (4).
With this approach to TRAINING, athletes can BUILD on their existing foundation by challenging their current abilities and ADAPTING to those higher challenges.
The human body is AMAZING in that it can ADAPT to stressors you apply to it…..but it ONLY happens if those stressors are applied systematically.
This is what we call the overload principle.
The overload principle states this: in order for you to improve, you must increase the stressor and “push” your limits to stimulate your body to adjust (aka adapt) to the higher load (2).
Think of it this way: if you only use a 25lb KB when you do goblet squats, how will your body ever understand that you want to get stronger? You need to progressively add more weight!
But, there’s a balance. Without rest and recovery, your body can’t recover from the stressor and build strength. This is why you also need programmed “back off” periods in your training.
When we think of training, we need to think about stress, recovery, and “supercompensation”
Supercompensation is another sport physiology principle that explains adaptation. When an athlete is exposed to an increasing physiological stressor and allowed time to recover from that stressor, her body will SUPERCOMPENSATE or ADAPT to the previous stressor and IMPROVE (2).
What does that look like in real time?
A simple squat program, where the goal is to improve your lower body strength, might look like this for the first month:
Week 1: 4 sets of 5 at 75lbs
Week 2: 4 sets of 5 @ 80lbs
Week 3: 4 sets of 5 @ 85 lbs
Week 4: 3 sets of 3 at 75lbs (recovery period)
Each week you progressively add more weight to tell your body, HEY WE GOTTA GET STRONGER!!
Week 3 should be HARD….the goal is to break your body down!
Week 4 is an easy or DELOAD WEEK. This is the period that allows your body to recover from the 3 weeks of progressively increased stress.
Come week 5, your body will have SUPERCOMPENSATED for the stress and is ready to kick some squat butt!
But here is the kicker: without subsequent exposure to similar stress, the body just goes back to baseline (2).
So if you decide to take 3 weeks off from training after that overload cycle, those gains you previously achieved are lost.
The old saying is true: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
For a dedicated athlete, week 5 would be the start of another phase of training. Another growth period that exposes additional stress to her body, allowing her to tolerate higher volumes and intensity.
What happens when we keep repeating the process? SUSTAINED PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT(2)! AKA sustained sport performance improvements!!!
So, you’re thinking…
“Does that mean I should I always be working to over-stress my body?”
The principle of OVERLOAD is disruptive! Overload training causes STRESS and fatigue to the body in the form of energy depletion (bye bye glycogen stores) and the accumulation of microtrauma (1).
Without necessary periods of recovery, your body will never be capable of ADAPTING.
This means you’re doing A LOT OF HARD WORK and not getting the BENEFITS!
Athletes who constantly overload their training without recovery periods are at high risk of OVERTRAINING.
“Overtraining” (or arguably “under-recovering”) happens when you have long periods of performance maladaptation (2).
This maladaptation to excessive training and lack of recovery can create serious medical problems in
metabolic, endocrine, nervous system decrements,
alterations in cellular signaling,
energy substrate utilization,
and growth pathways (2)
You see, working hard is necessary AT CERTAIN PERIODS of your training…to help make sure you are stressing your body towards achieving a specific training goal.
But backing off for periods of your training is also important.
It’s all about BALANCE. Too large of a drop off in your back off from training could lead to POOR performance due to de-training. Not enough back off leads to maladaptation.
So how do we create this balance?
When we create training programs for our athletes at Relentless, this is where the concept of PERIODIZATION comes to play.
The Key To Training Success: Periodization
What is periodization?
Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training (1).
When we create a training program, our goal is to make sure an athlete is at peak condition during the most important competition or SEASON of the year. Basically, we cycle through training to make sure an athlete is growing during off-season and maintaining during seasonal play.
It’s all about creating phases to make sure you are optimizing your body’s growth and recovery throughout the entire year.
Each training phase should have a specific goal based on the season of your sport.
You can definitely see why doing the same workout style year-round might keep you in shape…but it WON’T help you increase your performance output during game time!
For most female athletes with a limited background in the weight room, the main phase of her program will continue improving her overall movement variability and strength.
As strength improves, training is then structured to teach her body how to showcase this strength in terms of POWER and SPEED.
The structuring of specific phases along a training year is known as Phase Potentiation.
Phase potentiation is a fancy sport science term that explains the sequencing of consecutive blocks of training such that the physiological adaptations from one block will facilitate achievement of training objectives in the next block (1).
For an intermediate level female athlete who has been exposed to strength training for around a year, her training may look like this
General Physical Preparedness Phase (GPP):
When: following the end of her sport season
GOAL: PREPARE the athlete for more specific training that will come later in the program
Characteristics: The exercises and movements utilized in this phase will not necessarily replicate movements.
This phase will help the athlete recover from the competitive sports season as well as progressively expose volume to her muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that enable heavier loading in future phases! (1)
Sport Specific Preparation or Transition Period:
WHEN: Prior to the start of her pre-season training into pre-season training
GOAL: more specific energy system and movement training that relates to the sport
CHARACTERISTICS: build upon the work capacity and hypertrophy responses generated into the GPP stage and progress the athlete towards STRENGTH goals
Volume in the lifts begin to drop as intensity (load) begins to rise (1)
WHEN: start of pre-season through competition season
GOAL: maintaining the strength and capacity established in prior phases, and transition the strength built to be expressed as power and speed
CHARACTERISTICS: decrease in volume to allow for dissipation of fatigue and expression of training adaptations
Higher intensities in the lifts to allow for strength maintenance (4)
This phase shifts the emphasis from maximal strength to strength speed (more weightlifting techniques) and speed strength (combined loads and ballistic exercises) (1)
lthough written with specific goals, each training phase is subject to change depending on the amount of stress exposed to the athlete.
What does stress have to do with it? Stress can seriously slow the recovery process.
And I’m not just talking about physical stress, like a hard day on the field or a strained muscle. Remember, stress is stress regardless of the type (physical, psychological, emotional, etc)
FATIGUE in your sport can come from:
Volume loads from strength training
Distances or durations of conditioning activities
Technical and tactical components of sport raining
Physical contacts (tackles, takedowns, etc)
Flexibility and mobility work
Speed and agility training
Competitions (physical and psychological)
AS WELL AS outside factors like home, work, or school (2)
Your body can only handle so much stress within this Stress- Recovery Adaptation curve.
If the stress is TOO large it leads to breakdown. This can mean significant detraining and loss of previous adaptations!
Within each phase, stress must be monitored. We want the majority of stress directed at your body and the desired adaptation…and the other types of stress, “or noise”, diminished.
What does this look like?
For an athlete who needs to work on her strength so she can run faster on the field, participating in a heavy duty soccer camp full of day-long tournaments during her designated “off-season” definitely will add stress to her system! But unfortunately, this stress will not be directed towards her body adapting towards the desired goal of strength.
If however, an athlete’s weak point in her game is not her strength, but rather her competition experience, participating in that highly stressful camp will undoubtedly stress her towards improving her competition literacy.
I know that’s a LOT to take in. But what we’re talking about, your performance is important!
If you want to do your best on the field, to wins those games and scholarships, it means paying attention to how you work throughout your entire year. If you’re just hitting the gym and doing some cardio in the offseason, you aren’t making the most of your body’s potential.
But if training, specifically strength training, is the key to unlocking your athletic potential…what does that mean for the female athlete?
Is there some special way that women need to train in the weight room?
The Difference Between Males And Females When Training For Strength
Before we talk differences between males and females, you might be thinking….
“Why do I need to get stronger anyway? My sport is all about SPEED and AGILITY!!!”
Well, STRENGTH is the key to unlocking the POWER you need to accomplish those very goals.
But in order to achieve your maximum power output, you need a strong foundation of strength muscular strength FIRST.
It comes down to Newton’s second law: FORCE = MASS x ACCELERATION
AKA YOUR MASS will ACCELERATE based on the amount of force you can produce!
The greater the force that you can generate within a certain period, the greater the acceleration.
Athletes with greater strength have a superior capacity to generate higher rates of force, producing statistically higher external mechanical power outputs. (1)
This means: Stronger athletes can JUMP HIGHER, SPRINT FASTER, and CHANGE DIRECTION QUICKER.
Ok but aren’t females weaker than males? What’s the point of strength training if I will never be as strong as a guy?
Yes, MOST males naturally have higher levels of resting testosterone, which means a higher level of muscle mass.
But, believe it or not, the increases in strength following a resistance training program are SIMILAR IN MALES and FEMALES (1).
Red alert!!! If you’re panicking about getting bulky like the guys do…STOP.
You see, the differences between males and females are not as black and white as we once thought. Rather, hormonal differences and muscle mass lie more on a spectrum than a binary of MEN are muscular and WOMEN are frail.
I don’t know about you, but I have seen PLENTY of guys that are SMALLER and not highly muscular….just like I have seen plenty of guys that are bigger and more muscular before ever touching a weight.
Instead, SOME males are more muscular by nature just as SOME females are more muscular by nature.
Some females that are more muscular do better in sport. Just like some males that are naturally more muscular do better in a sport. WHY? Because MUSCLE allows for LARGER STRENGTH and HIGHER POWER OUTPUTS.
But let’s also remember that strength training for sport is NOT THE SAME AS BODYBUILDING.
Those larger females DO NOT GET THAT WAY BY ACCIDENT.
The nature of their sport is to be bigger (either naturally or with some outside help), and that is totally ok! BUT that is NOT a reason to fear the weight room.
STRENGTH is a necessary component of sports performance.
STRENGTH relies not only on muscle hypertrophy but also on NEUROMUSCULAR adaptations that help your body learn how to activate more muscle fibers (motor unit recruitment) and how to activate those motor units more frequently and FASTER (rate coding & rate of force development). (1)
Rather than considering HOW MUCH MUSCLE do I need, consider HOW MUCH STRENGTH do I need?
So how strong is strong enough?
In a recent review by Haff and Nimphius in 2012, they concluded the minimum requirement for lower body strength to realize superior power outputs require females to squat 2x their body weight (1).
(NOTE: upper body strength is not as easy to create specific requirements because it really depends on your sport…for instance, a softball player will need more upper body strength than a soccer player. BUT both require lower body strength as lower body mechanics correlate specifically to athlete performance in terms of running, jumping, and changing direction.)
Does that mean you may need more muscle mass? Probably!
Does that mean you need to TRAIN your muscles to act in coordination and powerfully? NO DOUBT.
How can you do this?
Stop “working out” and START following a training program!
Strength Training: It’s Not A “Guy” Thing…It’s An ATHLETE Thing!
Once it was believed that, because of hormones, men build muscle differently…and faster…than women. Why? Studies showed an increase in testosterone and growth hormone post-training. So people assumed these hormone increases directly caused muscle growth- so everyone thought “Oh! That’s why women build muscle “slower” than men.”
The truth is, if we look at relative strength increases between the sexes, there is no difference in how muscle mass responds to hypertrophy programs (strength training).
Even more, recent evidence in non-athletic males suggests that hypertrophy is NOT related to circulating hormones post exercise. This means, relatively from where they started, both males and females respond to training EXACTLY the same. (1)
The only real difference? The amount of muscle both sexes start with!
But even this isn’t really a good comparison. There is SO MUCH variability in the way our hormones respond to exercise…not just in males vs. females, but HUGE variations between individual athletes of BOTH sexes. Muscle growth isn’t a male or female hormone thing, it’s an athlete thing!
NOT ALL MALES are created the same. Just like NOT ALL FEMALES are created the same. They lie on a SPECTRUM when considering their hormonal profile and response to training.
In an endocrine profile taken within 2 hours post competition in 239 female athletes participating in 11 different sports, 11 of those females had testosterone levels GREATER than the upper limit for the male athlete range. (1)
Studies like this help show MALE and FEMALE differentiating factors are not as BLACK AND WHITE as we previously believed.
It all boils down to this:
SOME females may put on muscle faster than other females. Just as SOME males may put on muscle faster than other females.
If there are gender-specific mechanisms that happen in response to strength training, science hasn’t given us a full understanding of them.
We do know both males and females respond FAVORABLY to strength training.
The fact that females usually have less muscle mass to start with supports the claim that female athletes NEED strength training more than men…….
Want To Spend More Time On The Field? You MUST TRAIN For STRENGTH!
With everything athletic women have faced throughout history, it’s AMAZING that the same number of women as men now participate in sports.
But there is still a HUGE discrepancy between how we train.
And guess what. The rate at which we’re injured shows this, too.
Studies have shown that:
Female athletes have deficits in neuromuscular control of joint stability- which means we are 6x more likely to experience ACL injuries when compared to male athletes (1). Want to know more about ACL injuries? Read more in our article here.
Due to lower level tendon stiffness, female athletes experience a longer latency period between preparatory and reaction muscle activation- this has a HUGE effect on our agility on the field (1)
These differences are not static. Female athletes are not destined to be the “weaker” athlete.
How we train… or, more specifically, how we don’t train is keeping female athletes from hitting their peak performance.
Are you ready to be your best on the field? It’s time to hit the weights.If you are female athlete new to the weightroom, sign up for a movement assessment with us (either at our Hatfield location OR virtually) and lets get stronger for your sport!!!
Barker, Keith, and Debby Sargent. "Strength and Power." Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire: Crowood, 2018. 23-57. Print.
Blumenstein, Borris, et al. “Fatigue, Overreaching, and Overtraining .” Integrated Periodization in Sports Training & Athletic Development: Combining Training Methodology, Sports Psychology, and Nutrition to Optimize Performance, by Tudor O. Bompa, Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2019, pp. 154–176.
McCambridge, TM, and PR Stricker. “Strength Training by Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, vol. 121, no. 4, 2008, pp. 835–840., doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3790.
Michael H. Stone et a. “Physiological Aspects of Resistance Training .” Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Human Kinetics, 2007, pp. 229–237.
Poiss CG, Sullivan PA, Paup DC, and Westerman BJ. Perceived importance of weight training to selected NCAA Division III men and women student athletes. J Strength Cond Res 18: 108-114, 2004
Reynolds ML, Ransdell LB, Lucas SM, Petlichkoff LM, and Gao Y. An examination of current practices and gender differences in strength and conditioning in a sample of varsity high school athletic programs. J Strength Cond Res 26: 174-183, 2012.