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Running good trials and selections

Strength Training for Young Women: The Benefits for Female Athletes 

When most people think of strength training, they imagine bulky men lifting heavy weights in a smelly gym. However, strength training is not just for guys – it can be extremely beneficial for young women as well. In fact, not only does regular strength training provide female athletes with a performance edge, it has been shown to provide a variety of other benefits as well. In this article, we: 

  • Outline the benefits of strength training for young women 
  • Discuss some of the key considerations for people who lead sport programmes and are looking to incorporate strength training for young women into their programmes 

The benefits of strength training 

Whether it’s lifting weights or targeted bodyweight movements, strength training has a number of wellbeing benefits for young women. These benefits include: 

Physical benefits 

  • Increased strength and associated types of fitness (obviously) 
  • Improved movement control 
  • Improved posture 
  • Improved mobility 
  • Injury prevention 

Mental benefits 

  • Increased self-confidence 
  • Increased self-worth 

Strength training for injury prevention in young female athletes 

Before we discuss using strength training for injury prevention in young female athletes, let’s outline some of the factors influencing the increased prevalence and risk of injury in young women. 

Physical factors 

As young women go through puberty, the following musculoskeletal changes cause movement challenges for young women’s bodies: 

  • Females grow taller; however, bones strengthen later  
  • Muscles and tendons do not lengthen at the same rate   
  • Females widen at the hips, develop a bust and may gain excess body fat  
  • Females lack the testosterone of males to gain muscle strength and gender differences in strength become apparent 

Importantly, because of these changes to the musculoskeletal system, particularly changes to hip and pelvis control and landing mechanics, young women become more susceptible to injury compared to their male counterparts playing the same sports. 

Social factors 

Additionally, the timing of puberty for young women typically coincides with the age at which sports begin to increase their programmed load demands on competitive female athletes (i.e. increased training commitments, longer seasons, longer game times, etc.). This creates an additional catalyst for increased injury risk for young female athletes. 

Watch: Webinar replay: The art and science of coaching young women 

On top of all this, the “professionalization” of youth sport environments (not just young women’s) has led to comparatively larger training and competition loads and decreased free play. This too has led to increased injury risk for young athletes, at large. 

Strength training for injury prevention 

Research shows from an injury prevention perspective, appropriate strength training can result in a reduction of major injuries by up to 50% and all injuries by 30%. When we look at the rates and types of injuries in our young women, the reduction in these rates has a real impact on their ability to continue to train and play in the sports they love. 

Some of the common injuries in young women that research has shown can be mitigated by strength training include: 

  • Stress fractures 
  • Low back injuries 
  • Knee ligament sprains or patella tendinopathy 
  • Growth-related pain such as Osgood-Schlatter’s  
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries 
  • Rolled/sprained ankles 
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries 

ACL Injuries 

It’s worth taking a moment to look a bit deeper at ACL injuries, as these are one of the most significant injuries that occur to young women (at a rate far higher than their male counterparts). Additionally, rates of ACL injuries and reconstructions in New Zealand are on the rise in our adolescent female population. 

An ACL injury means 6 – 18 months off sport (with the majority being greater than 12 months due to the reconstruction required for many to return to sport) and all the negative side effects that occur because of this (loss of fitness, loss of confidence, altered peer groups due to no longer being involved in their sport, financial costs, and the long-term health of their knee, etc.). 

With appropriate programming which includes strength training, research shows that we can reduce ACL injuries by up to 70%. 

Overuse injuries 

Overuse injuries are common in young women. Examples of these may be anterior knee pain, shin pain or low back pain. Research has again shown us that 50% of these injuries could be prevented by adequate strength training. 

Good practices for incorporating strength training into sports programmes for young women 

People charged with leading and designing sports programmes for young females, particularly where there is an athlete development focus, whether in schools, clubs or regional communities, should consider how they best incorporate strength training. 

Some key considerations here include: 

1 | Be prepared to address myths about strength training 

If you are introducing strength training into a sports programme for young females, you may encounter queries and pushback from other stakeholders (school management, coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves). Some of the pushbacks may be based on myth. Two common ones are: 

  • Strength training stunts growth in adolescence – there is no evidence to back this up. 
  • Strength training makes women bulky – due to hormone composition, it’s very difficult for women to mass build muscle. Strength training as part of a wider sports programme is unlikely to do this unless this is specifically designed for the training (and still this will take a long time). Furthermore, if the context allows, there’s value in taking the time (through discussion or other means) to unpack gender assumptions about femininity, beauty and strength. Notably, there is a global movement of women—young and old—embracing their strength, without concern regarding societal expectations, including popular catchphrases such as ‘strong is the new beautiful‘. 

Read: Changing how we talk about young women’s bodies 

2 | Balance strength training with sport-specific training 

You will know the context of your athletes and community the best, but consider: 

  • How strength training can be introduced to the sport programme without sacrificing skill and technique development. 
  • Strength training should not add undue training load to athletes already susceptible to higher training and competition loads. 
  • In some circles, when strength training is designed and delivered to young people, this brings up connotations of ‘professionalisation of youth sport’. It’s important that we frame and design strength training for young people with the long-term wellbeing benefits in mind first and foremost (though it will too likely aid sport performance). 

3 | Have qualified and capable people to support the delivery of strength training 

In an age of fitspiration and YouTube Influencers, it’s important to be able to sort good practice from the poor. Ideally, strength training is designed and delivered by qualified staff, with experience and specific knowledge on targeting the adolescent population, movement competency and female health and physiology. Programmes should be designed first and foremost to be around movement competency, and place the well-being of young women (physical, emotional, social and mental) at the forefront. 

Signs of a well-designed strength training programme for young women include: 

  • Young women are supported to feel confident and knowledgeable in a gym environment. 
  • Young women are supported to develop movement and fitness habits in order to aid long-term health and wellbeing. 
  • Connection between young women during the strength training sessions is facilitated. 
  • Increases in volume, intensity and complexity of movement is done in an appropriate and progressed fashion (i.e. for their experience and current levels of fitness). 

*A word on HIIT – HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and interval training forms the basis of many group classes popular with young women and there are many benefits to this type of training. However, designers of strength training programmes should be aware of: 

  • Movement competency of participants – poor movement form leads to injury and this can be exacerbated by HIIT. For young women, with little experience with strength training, improving movement competency should be prioritised over doing a ‘hard workout’. 
  • Acute and chronic workload of athletes – regardless of movement competency, the level of intensity of exercise prescribed should factor in other loading considerations, (e.g. where are the athletes in their season?; what’s their current level of fitness?; are they coming back from injury?; what other training and competition in the past week-to-fortnight has contributed to athlete load?). 

In summary 

Strength training has so many benefits for young women, both in terms of their physical health and their mental wellbeing. Significantly, for people leading sport programmes for competitive young female athletes, strength training should form a key part of injury prevention. 

With the right programming and qualified coaching, strength training can help young women to avoid overuse injuries, stay strong and healthy as they grow, and perform at their best in sport. Let’s normalise strength training for young women and create more opportunities for them to feel confident and competent in the weight room. 

If you’re a parent, coach or leader of sport programmes for young women, encourage strength training as part of their training. If you’re a young woman reading this, don’t be afraid to lift weights – your body will thank you for it! 

Image Source: Canva

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