Too Young? Unsafe? No Time? Research Says...Young Female Athletes MUST Strength Train.
By Emily Pappas, MS
Lifting stunts growth! Lifting is dangerous! Lifting is necessary?
With more females engaging in sport than ever, overuse injuries ranging from tendonitis to stress fractures and non-contact ACL tears on the rise.
But research helps us understand although sport is not enough to prepare the youth athlete’s body for sport, she can do something else….
In this article we help explain the current research behind the questions: (total: 10 min read)
Is strength training safe for young female athletes?
What age should female athletes start lifting weights?
What is the best way to train young female athletes?
SPORTS ARE STRESSFUL for Youth Athletes!
Between iPads, SUVs, and all the modern conveniences we have in between...let’s face it. We don’t exactly lead active hunter/gatherer lives.
In fact, there’s never been a time where modern human beings have led more sedentary lives.
That goes for adults and adolescents. Even our athletes included.
While no one would argue that sending a child to school is a huge improvement over working in the field from dawn to dusk...the truth is this: We don’t use our bodies as much as our great-great-grandparents.
Youth sports are on the rise and have never been more popular. Even better? Girls are participating in sports more now- and at a younger age- than ever before!
But here’s the problem. This modern environment? It doesn’t prepare an adolescent athlete’s body for the stressors of her sport.
As more girls sign up for sports- coaches, trainers, and athletes are feeling the all-too-frequent pains of overuse injuries. From severe injuries like non-contact ACL tears, spondylosis, and stress fractures to less severe nags and pains like tendonitis, young female athletes are coming face to face with these at an alarming rate.
Of course, many factors contribute to sport-related injuries. Previous injuries can lead to an athlete being reinjured on the court. Muscle imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, improper footwear...injuries can happen for a variety of reasons.
But today we are speaking specifically about overuse injuries. High rates of overuse injuries show us that aspiring young athletes are simply unprepared for the physical demands of practice and competition.
But does that just mean your athlete needs more time on the field or time playing another sport?
Most coaches and parents have heard that playing multiple sports helps reduce the chance of injury…and, while the thinking that “an athlete needs to develop different movements and skills” is somewhat on the right track, enrolling an athlete in multiple sports isn’t always the way to achieve that goal.
Rather, a recent meta-analysis (12) (think big study of ALL the recent studies) concludes that “sport training without preparatory training does NOT appear to reduce the risk of injury in young athletes.”
That’s right….playing sports alone DOES NOT prepare athletes for the physical stressors of their sport. (Want to know more? (Read on here.)
We know physical preparation plays a primary role in injury prevention. When we combine this with the fact that adolescent female athletes are up to 10x more likely to tear their ACLs over male athletes (14), we have to look at what makes these groups different.
For parents, coaches, and athletes that want to see success in sport, it all comes down to one big question:
What Do We Have To Do To Prepare Our Female Athletes for Sports?
We know poor physical preparation plays a PRIMARY ROLE in overuse injuries like ACL tears and stress fractures (14)
In fact, two things are cited as the underlying determinant of whether a girl is physically prepared for sports:
1. Development of fundamental movement skills and
2. Enhanced confidence and competence to perform these activities (15)
With female athletes suffering from these specific injuries at a higher rate than males, we need to look beyond the myths that pin the blame on hormonal differences and q-angles. Not only are these myths misleading, but they also make it seem like high injury rates in adolescent females are just a fact of life.
Blaming hormones and body structure can limit our girls’ love of sports by implying they aren’t as strong or as capable as their male counterparts. Plus, it doesn’t address the real underlying issue...the way we’re preparing for sport….or failing to prepare…..
How can we prepare the female athlete?
According to research (12), the answer is simple:
“In order to reduce injury risks and enhance performance, research indicates athletes should engage in programs that focus on neuromuscular function, muscular strength and capacity.”
On the surface, this sounds easy. But it can leave parents and coaches with questions like:
Is this safe for growing adolescent bodies?
What is the optimal age to introduce female athletes to physical training?
And...how can we integrate physical training in an already jammed packed sport schedule?
This article is going to
address the three biggest questions that come up when we start to talk about strength training female athletes
And have you understand the biggest areas of focus that are necessary to help females reduce their chances of being sidelined from an overuse injury this season.
#1: “Is Strength Training Safe for Young Female Athletes?”
Most of us over the age of 30 were taught this: Hitting the weight room is dangerous for young athletes.
It seems to make sense. Bones and muscles are still growing. Who would want to risk damaging a growing body by putting too much stress on it? Won’t heavy lifts stunt growth??
If this is your initial impression regarding youth athletes and the weightroom, it might surprise you to learn this:
The US Department of Health and Services (17) SUPPORTS the implementation of resistance training for youth athletes.
“ In an effort to more comprehensively and effectively address health and fitness promotion for children and adolescents, current public health objectives now aim to increase the number of youth aged 6 and older who regularly participate in “muscle strengthening” and “bone strengthening” activities”
6 and older? We know, to some that may seem really young. This may leave many coaches and parents still questioning “is it really safe to introduce growing bodies to heavier loading in movements like resistance training?
In short: YES.
Because if athletes are playing sports, they are already under heavier loading!!
We have to remember that SPORT IS STRESSFUL.
The truth is...Most female athletes experience FAR more load on the field than they will in the weight room. In sports like soccer and basketball, female athletes expose their bodies to ground reaction forces reaching five to seven times their own body mass!!! (12)
So when we consider strength training, we must remember when done appropriately, athletes are often exposed to FAR LESS LOAD than they are on the field or court.
In fact, “Integrative neuromuscular training protocols” pose LESS loading to children and adolescents than traditional recreational and competitive sport activities. (12)
That’s right- playing sport is commonly higher loading than strength training.
So let’s talk safety:
When children and adolescents are appropriately supervised and the training program is consistent with individual needs and abilities, the risk of injury can be much less than in other sports and recreational activities in which children and adolescents regularly participate. (3, 16,18)
Even better: training methods that require the acquisition of skills influence neuromuscular adaptations in youth leading to improved coordination, muscular control, improved biomechanics, and decreased injury rates, especially in the lower extremity of female athletes. (11)
In fact: “regular participation in integrative neuromuscular training programs that include weightlifting exercises (cleans, snatches, pulls) with qualified instruction and sensible progression have been found to enhance functional biomechanics and abilities and decrease the chance of sports-related injuries in young athletes (7,10,11,14).
Here’s the truth:
When this type of training program is created and executed under the supervision of a professional, it’s not just safe- it’s essential for decreasing a female athlete’s risk of getting injured.
#2. So, how young is TOO YOUNG for a female athlete to train?
We’ve already covered that the typical daily routine of a female athlete who is sitting in class, typing papers on a laptop, and playing games on her phone is NOT helping her body prepare for the physical challenges of sports.
Our modern lifestyles just don’t give us the same strength and agility as our hunter/gatherer ancestors.
But that doesn’t mean that females are not built to compete. It just means she has to train her body and PREPARE for the level of stress experienced in competitive sport.
So when should the weight room become a part of a female athlete’s training?
According to the authors of Strength and Conditioning for the Female Athlete (14), “once a female is ready to participate in sport, she is ready for a type of strength and conditioning program.”
For many female athletes, this level of competitive play begins in youth & pre-adolescence. It’s not unusual for girls to begin soccer as young as 7 years old!
Keep in mind, “pre-adolescent” athletes are those girls who have not yet developed secondary sex characteristics. When they hit adolescence (typically 12-18 years) both males and females are exposed to not only physical maturation, but neurological as well. (16)
Here’s what that means: pre-adolescence? The period before physical and neurological maturation? This may be the optimal time to develop life-long, fundamental movement skills through strength and resistance training.
In a developing athlete, this time is the highest point for motor plasticity and the potential for learning dynamic movement patterns. These movements are fundamental. They can range from movements we do every day (think squatting, hinging or picking something up, pressing or placing something overhead, and lunging), and to the more complex motor skills that we value in athletics (like sprinting, jumping, kicking, and throwing.)
For adolescent athletes, learning how to hinge with control at her core is going to carry over to a more efficient sprint up the soccer field!!
It has been proposed that
the high degree of plasticity in neuromuscular development in preadolescents
the implementation and progression of integrative neuromuscular training
strengthened physical, mental, and social development that favorably contributes to athleticism during adolescence and adulthood (12)
Meaning female athletes who develop motor skills NOW will always be better athletes in their future!!!
To answer the question, “How Young is Too Young?”... pre adolescence is the best time for female athletes to get started in a strength training program.
Understanding this rationale depends on understanding the time frame differences when it comes to development in girls vs. boys.
Adolescent males commonly outperform females in measures of physical performance, and these motor competence measures are related to better health outcomes in adults, compared to females who demonstrate significantly smaller changes throughout puberty. (1,9)
For example, vertical jump height (a measure of whole-body power) increases steadily in males during puberty, but not in females (8, 9, 13,16) Hewett and colleagues demonstrated that as males mature they employ a more efficient strategy for muscular dampening of forces. (5)
Why the difference?
Unlike males who experience a rise in testosterone leading to a neuromuscular spurt upon puberty (defined as the natural adaptation of increased power, strength and coordination that occurs with increasing chronological age and maturational stage in adolescent boys), female athletes do not experience this spurt. (14)
Musculoskeletal growth during puberty, in the absence of sufficient corresponding neuromuscular adaptation, may facilitate the development of abnormal mechanics during certain activities (4, 6,16)
These intrinsic risk factors, if not addressed at the proper time, may continue through adolescence into maturity and predispose female athletes to an increased risk of a variety of musculoskeletal injuries. (5,12)
However through resistance training, an “artificial” neuromuscular spurt can be induced due to the increase in strength, muscle and motor control found in this type of training modality. (14)
For instance, pubertal females (12yo) who self- reported previous participating in resistance training demonstrated a 13.4% improved lower extremity control from the first to the second year of testing. (6)
This increase is HUGE as the control group, who did not train, demonstrated a 21.7% DECREASE in lower extremity control (6)
Ultimately, the athletes who participated in resistance training during earlier stages of development (early maturation, prior to 12 years old) demonstrated the greatest benefits from participation in resistance training as evidence by reduced lower extremity deficits. (6)
In short, if your girl is old enough to start chasing a ball down the field...she’s old enough to start resistance training.
In fact, if she wants to perform and decrease her chance of injury, resistance training is a MUST.
#3. What’s the Best Way to Train Young Female Athletes?
When training young athletes, there are 3 main goals to strive for:
Create strong neuromuscular connections that prepare our athletes for the stress of sport
reduce the high rates of overuse injuries experienced in young female athletes.
Garner a sense of FUN and excitement to continue training
How to do this?
The answer: Neuromuscular training.
With neuromuscular training modalities such as strength training, the first and most important focus is for a young athlete is to develop fundamental motor skills.
“The cornerstone of integrative neuromuscular training is age-appropriate education and instruction by qualified professionals who understand the fundamental principles of pediatric exercise science and genuinely appreciate the physical and psychosocial uniqueness of children and adolescents.” (12)
This type of Integrative training is designed to help youth to master fundamentals, improve movement mechanics, and gain confidence in their physical abilities while participating in a program that includes variety, progression, and proper recovery intervals. (2,14)
Strength training modalities teach athletic movement patterns.
In turn, this improves body awareness, coordination, strength, and power. While this can have awesome results in terms of performance, these enhancements are long-lasting throughout the athlete’s career only if there is an initial priority on acquiring movement skills before we load up the weights for the sake of adding weight.
Regular participation in integrative neuromuscular training programs that include weightlifting exercises (e.g., modified cleans, pulls and presses) with qualified instruction and sensible progression have been found to enhance functional biomechanics and abilities and reduce the number of sport-related injuries in young athletes.(7,10.11)
Some strength coaches may shy away from these movements in the weight room, citing them to be high skill-level movements that take too long for an athlete to learn.
However, it is ESSENTIAL for female athletes to acquire these HIGH SKILL movements. They are the gateway to improving motor skills that translate to more efficient movements and faster acquisition of skills directly relating to their sport.
You see, just like shooting free throws, weightlifting is a SKILL. In learning this skill, an athlete must learn how to position her body around the barbell in order to execute the lift.
The acquisition of this skill is a “motor adaptation” - the athlete must learn how to move her body. As she acquires this skill, she is able to develop both strength and power that translate directly to the biomechanics of her sport.
And she’s never too young to start acquiring these skills.
As pre-adolescent athletes may have a higher degree of plasticity in regards to learning motor skills, childhood may be the ideal time to develop the coordination and skill technique to perform these lifts correctly. (9,10.16)
The high degree of plasticity in neuromuscular development during preadolescent combined with appropriately timed implementation and progression of integrative neuromuscular training (such as weightlifting) may allow for strengthened physical, mental, and social development that contributes favorably to their athleticism during adolescence. (12)
It is also possible that the improved motor competence developed through adolescence facilitates the establishment of desired behaviors and habits that may carry over into adulthood (12)
It must be emphasized, however, unsupervised and poorly performed resistance and plyometric exercises should not be performed under any circumstances. This is where strength and resistance training can become unsafe.
Just remember these two things:
#1: The role of weightlifting is to teach an athlete the skill of MOVEMENT. Without a coach, the athlete’s chance of learning this movement properly is diminished.
#2: With resistance training, the potential for accidental injury and musculoskeletal overload exists.
The risk of overload or overuse injury increases if the
of training or competition greatly exceeds the individual’s capacity to
tolerate the load,
perform the movements with efficient technique,
and sufficiently recover from prior activity.
This is especially true for an athlete who is also experiencing load outside of the weight room in her sport practices and competition.
All this means: integrative neuromuscular training modalities must be applied at the level of the individual. There’s no “one size fits all.”
How do you know if your athlete’s strength and resistance training is at her level?
For youth athletes, initial volume selection should be low enough to allow the athlete to learn how to perform the movement without fatigue hindering motor skill acquisition.
Volume, resistance, speed, and power can then be increased and more effectively integrated into a progressive program that allows for periodic changes throughout the year in relation to sport competition seasons (ie periodization).
A recent meta-analysis (12) on youth resistance training showed improved muscular strength is dependent on adequate volume to provide sufficient adaptive stimulus.
This means, training 1x per week is going to have less of a benefit than 2x per week.
Remember, training teaches athletes how to move! If your athlete was learning to ride a bike, she’d see results much faster if she practiced 2x per week compared to one time.
But it is also about balance. Doing more? It’s not always better.
Again, the frequency, volume, and intensity of training needs to be programmed at the level of the individual athlete. This is where the expertise of a strength and conditioning professional comes in!
With overuse injuries ranging from tendonitis to stress fractures and ACL tears in the female athlete population on the rise, we MUST understand that SPORT DOES NOT PREPARE THE BODY FOR THE PHYSICAL LOADS OF SPORT.
To reiterate, once a female is ready to compete in sport, she MUST prepare her body for the stressors of that sport! (14)
We no longer live in an era where our daily habits introduced enough stimulus to build the strength, motor capacity, and power to withstand high loading sport activities.
Rather, as our aspiring young female athletes wish to engage in sport, it is the duty of our coaches and parents to ensure our females participate in an integrative neuromuscular training program (such as weightlifting) BEFORE the start of the sport season and continue in a modified program throughout the competitive season.
In doing so, females are able to not only develop the muscular strength needed to handle the forces imposed upon her body of sport. But also, she is able to develop the neuromuscular coordination that enables her to move with greater efficiency, leading to improved biomechanics and decreased injury risks!
If your athlete hasn’t started a strength and resistance program, what’s holding you back?
We know younger athletes primed to turn these training modalities into HUGE athletic advantages...especially when it comes to minimizing the risk of injury throughout their athletic career.
Maybe you agree, but there’s something else that’s keeping you from feeling comfortable about putting your female athletes in the weight room.
At Relentless Athletics, we’re 100% behind training strong, lifelong female athletes. Even if your athlete isn’t training with us, I want you to feel comfortable giving her the tools she needs to develop in her sport.
So, reach out to us here. If you have concerns about your athletic training or want to get a program started in your area that is based on science!, We’d love to hear from you!
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About the Author
Emily holds a M.S. in Exercise Physiology from Temple University and a B.S. in Biological Sciences from Drexel University. Through this education, Emily values her ability to coach athletes with a perspective that is grounded in biomechanics and human physiology. Outside of the classroom, Emily has experience coaching and programming at the Division I Collegiate Level working as an assistant strength coach for an internship with Temple University’s Women’s Rugby team.
In addition, Emily holds her USAW Sport Performance certification and values her ability to coach athletes using “Olympic” Weightlifting. Emily is extremely passionate about the sport of Weightlifting, not only for the competitive nature of the sport, but also for the application of the lifts as a tool in the strength field. Through these lifts, Emily has been able to develop athletes that range from grade school athletes to nationally ranked athletes in sports such as lacrosse, field hockey, and weightlifting.
Emily is also an adjunct at Temple University, instructing a course on the development of female athletes.