Sugar & Spice?

Strength training for females should not differ from strength training for males, except possibly in the psychology of it.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 12.7, October 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1207/sugarspice.htm

When people ask me about designing a strength-training program for females, I tell them to check out a similar program for males. I get a lot of quizzical stares in return, but the fact is that strength training for women is almost identical to that of men, given the same sport, age group, and conditioning goals.

The guiding principles of a strength-training program for the female athlete should be the same as those for the male athlete: Train core strength before extremity strength, train movements instead of individual muscles, train bodyweight before external resistance, and train strength before strength endurance.

Based on these general principles, a sound strength-training program will also include four essential elements: First, core strength and stability is the foundation of any good strength-training program. Second, the program must incorporate balance and proprioception. Third, all drills and exercises must incorporate multiple joints while preparing the athlete to optimize ground reaction forces. Fourth, the program must also include pulling movements, pressing and pushing movements, and squat movements.

Despite the similarities of male and female strength training, there are a couple subtle differences to consider. To begin with, females mature earlier than males. Therefore, it is important to begin female strength training earlier. Preferably, strength training should start before the athletes reach puberty, which means that girls can begin strength training with external resistance as early as 11 years, while boys should wait until they are 13.

Since females have less muscle mass, on average, than males, they are also more susceptible to deconditioning. Therefore, a female strength-training program should have the athletes continue to train through the competitive season, because the drop-off in strength is more dramatic for females when strength-training is stopped.

Overall, strength training offers female athletes the same benefits that it offers male athletes—plus more. For example, evidence suggests that strength training can have a positive effect on bone density, which can head off osteoporosis later in life. Also, strength-training regimens designed to stabilize the muscles supporting the knee have been shown to be effective in reducing the incidence of ACL injuries.

BULK FEARS
Through the years, I have encountered many female athletes who balked at strength training due to numerous, persistent myths about strength training for girls and women. The biggest complaint concerns gaining too much muscle mass, which would make them look masculine. Therefore, it’s important to educate female athletes on the myths and realities of the topic.

First, let them know that there is a difference in muscle mass distribution between men and women, especially in the upper body. In other words, men will often gain more bulk than women.

Much of this difference in body mass is attributable to hormones, specifically, the difference in testosterone levels in males and females. At rest, men have 10 times the testosterone that females do.

Does this mean men can become stronger than women and more easily? In a relative sense, the answer is no. Men may be able to build larger muscles on their frame, which will be stronger than the female’s in an absolute sense. But when strength is expressed relative to lean body mass, the strength difference will disappear.

The bottom line is that the training effect is the same for men and women who strength train, and the same adaptation and responses will occur in terms of strength acquisition.

The textbook Designing Resistance Training Programs sums up the discussion this way: “ ... there are no differences in the ‘quality’ of muscle between sexes and that the observed differences in absolute muscle strength is simply related to the quantity of muscle mass.”

ONE TEAM’S SUCCESS STORY
Another misconception to get past is that women are severely limited in how much they can lift. The truth is, women can lift heavy weights. The key is preparing them to lift heavy weights. I have proven this many times while working with various female sport teams.

For example, during the 2001-02 academic year, I worked with the Sarasota (Fla.) High School girls’ basketball team. We set out a program that was very systematic and progressive in nature. The program was designed to improve the players’ abilities to be better basketball athletes, not to make them bigger, and this goal was constantly emphasized throughout the program. Did they lift some heavy weights? Absolutely, but it was approached in a very progressive manner.

The girls started their strength-training program in April, but they did not have a bar on their back for squats until the end of July. Yet by October, every girl in the program was able to squat a minimum of four sets of two with 215 pounds, with the strongest athletes squatting four sets of two at 265.

I watched their confidence soar, particularly in their ability to do things they were unable to do when they started the program. They made it to the state semi-finals injury free. They even lifted weights for one workout during the week of the final four. And when it was all over, they liked the way they looked. They felt strong and confident, but didn’t see bulky muscles in the mirror.

The experiences with the girls’ basketball team in Sarasota illustrate my feeling that the single biggest difference between strength training for men and women is not physiological; it is socio-cultural. Specifically, there is an unwarranted fear of putting on too much muscle mass, or looking too masculine. But women can get strong without looking masculine for the physiological reason that, on average, females have smaller muscle fibers than their male counterparts, which does not allow them to add as much muscle mass as men.

SAMPLE PLAN
Below, we present a sample lower-body strength-training program for female high school basketball or volleyball players. For this program, I am assuming that the athletes have a minimal strength-training background, but a good general fitness and activity base.

The overall objective of this plan is to build the athletes’ functional strength. However, the basis of functional strength is a good general strength base, so I included measurable strength goals, which also work to motivate the athlete. In this case, the measurable goal was to build the athletes to a point where they could squat 1 to 1.25 times their bodyweight by the end of the training cycle. This was but one phase of a multi-phase training cycle and each phase had a different strength emphasis.

This sample plan emphasizes lower-extremity work twice weekly. The upper extremity is trained on other days. Note that in weeks one through six there is no external weight added. Instead, resistance is entirely the athlete’s own bodyweight.

The leg circuit in this plan includes bodyweight squats, bodyweight lunges, bodyweight step-ups, and jump squats. The bars mentioned in this sample plan are 45-pound Olympic bars and the sandbags should weigh in at 10 percent of the athlete’s body weight.

For this plan, I create groups of three to four athletes with similar strength levels and experience in training. Workouts are 70 minutes maximum, and are short-focused with a high tempo.

Finally, I must emphasize in the strongest possible terms that athletes should not progress from one week’s exercises to the next until they can perform them in good form and without straining. Therefore, consider this time frame flexible.


TABLE ONE: SAMPLE PLAN
Please see text in main story for some notes about this lower-extremity training program for high school female basketball or volleyball players.

Week #1
Monday
Squat, 2x20
Lunge, 2x20
Step-up, 2x20
Jump squat, 2x5
Thursday
Squat, 3x20
Lunge, 3x20
Step-up, 3x20
Jump squat, 3x5

Week #2
Monday
Squat, 3x20
Lunge, 3x20
Step-up, 3x20
Jump squat, 3x10
Thursday
Squat, 4x20
Lunge, 4x20
Step-up, 4x20
Jump squat, 4x10

Week #3
Monday
Leg circuit, 3x
Thursday
Leg circuit, 3x

Week #4
Monday
Leg circuit, 3x
Thursday
Leg circuit, 4x

Week #5
Monday
Leg circuit, 3x
Thursday
Leg circuit, 4x

Week #6
Monday
Leg circuit, 5x
Thursday
Leg circuit, 5x

Weeks #7 through #12 are transitional weeks. During this time external resistance is gradually added. There is a constant emphasis on good technique with each athlete.

Week #7
Monday
Add sandbag at 10 percent of athlete’s body weight to each exercise listed in Week #1, 2x20 for each exercise. Keep jump squats at 10 reps with no load throughout the program.

Thursday
Each exercise from Week #1, 3x20 with sandbag at 10 percent of athlete’s body weight.

Week #8
Monday
Each exercise from Week #1, 4x20, with sandbag.

Weeks #9 through #11
Mondays and Thursdays
Bar, 3x10

Week #12
Mondays and Thursdays
Bar, 4x10

Weeks #13 through #16 is an application cycle. High-speed and high-force plyometric work is added. The goal here is to transfer some of the strength acquired in the previous two cycles to explosive power. External weight load is added gradually, and is based incrementally on a percentage of bodyweight, which is set by the strength coach. However, that percentage typically falls in the 10 percent to 20 percent range.

Week #13
Monday
Plyos in place
Bar + % of bodyweight, 2x8
Thursday
Bar + % of bodyweight, 4x8

Week #14
Monday
Plyos in place
Bar + % of bodyweight, 2x8
Thursday
Bar + % of bodyweight, 4x6

Week #15
Monday
Plyos in place
Bar + % of bodyweight, 3x6
Thursday
Bar + % of bodyweight, 5x6

Week #16
Monday
Plyos in place
Bar + % of bodyweight, 3x4
Thursday
Bar + % of bodyweight, 5x6

Weeks #17 through #22 are the heaviest weeks of the training year. This is when the goal of squatting with heavy external resistance is achieved. Everything else now leads into the season and is designed to maintain these strength levels and continue raising explosive power.

Week #17
Monday
Squat, 4x5
Thursday
Squat, 3x5

Week #18
Monday
Squat, 5x5
Thursday
Squat, 3x5

Week #19
Monday
Squat, 6x5
Thursday
Squat, 4x5

Week #20
Monday
Squat, 4x4
Thursday
Squat, 3x4

Week #21
Monday
Squat, 4x2
Thursday
Squat, 3x6
Plyos

Week #22
Monday
Squat, 4x2
Thursday
Squat, 3x6
Plyos

In weeks #23 through #26, one day is devoted to elastic equivalent work, which is simply a strength-training exercise followed by a plyometric exercise. This is low-volume, high-intensity work.

Weeks #23 through #26
Mondays
Elastic equivalent (lift and jump)

Thursdays
Pyramid 10,8,6,4

Week #27
Monday and Thursday
Teach new routine: Phase One In-season