Contrary to what some believe, female athletes do not need to train all that much differently from male athletes. Just like males, females need to be strong, jump high and run fast. With this said, there are some unique differences: Some of these are blatantly obvious, others are not. Even with these differences, only subtle modifications are necessary, leaving the bulk of the training program intact.
1. ACL Injuries
Female athletes are 3.5 times more likely to have an ACL injury than their male counterparts (1). There are multiple theories to explain this large discrepancy between the genders, but no definitive cause. Likely, it is a combination of several things. Regardless of the cause, females need to prioritize ACL injury prevention.
Most ACL injuries occur while landing from a jump or cutting. Both of these actions require large amounts of eccentric muscular strength to absorb the force of the athlete. Inadequate strength or improper positioning greatly increases the likelihood of experiencing an injury.
When females perform lower-body exercises, it is crucial they lower their body under control without bouncing out of the bottom position. Doing so strengthens the body to handle force better when they are making a cut or landing from a jump. Another focus needs to be on knee position. Most ACL injuries occur when the athlete’s knee travels inward to the center of the body. To help prevent this, females need to put extra focus on keeping their knees positioned over their feet during training.
2. Iron Deficiency
It is estimated that over a third of post-pubescent female athletes are iron deficient (2). Poor dietary choices and menstruation appear to be likely causes of this.
Symptoms of an iron deficiency may include fatigue, headaches, fast heartbeat and pale skin.
To prevent iron deficiency, it is recommended to use an iron supplement or ingest iron-rich foods such as red meat, beans and leafy greens.
3. Strength Deficit
It comes as no surprise that females are generally weaker than males. On average, females are about 50 percent as strong in the upper body and 70 percent in the lower body (3) compared to males. Upper-body-intensive exercises such as Pull-Ups and Push-Ups will often have to be modified to accommodate these strength differences.
Females are closer to males in lower-body strength than in upper-body strength. Exercises like the Goblet Squat are much more challenging for females because, although their leg strength is adequate, they often lack the upper-body strength to hold heavy dumbbells. For this reason, it may be appropriate to progress females to a barbell sooner than male athletes, or use other means of resistance, such as a weighted vest.
4. Joint Laxity
Hypermobility, commonly known as being “double-jointed,” is a condition in which one or more joints of the body move beyond the normal range for that particular joint. This excessive motion creates “play” in the joint that can increase the chance of injury. For athletes with hypermobility, joint stability is a priority.
Approximately one in three female athletes are hypermobile, compared to only one in 10 males (4). Because there is excessive passive motion in the joint, hypermobile athletes need good dynamic stability. Secondly, it is recommended not to perform static stretching. Again, because there is excessive passive motion in the joint, static stretching will make this situation worse. Instead, static stretching should be replaced with self-myofascial release techniques (i.e., foam rolling) and dynamic mobility exercises.
5. Body Image
A recent study done at Yale University found that three-fourths of female athletes interviewed currently or in the past had issues with how their bodies looked (5). For anyone who has been around female athletics, this is probably no surprise as they are often their own worst critics. This pressure to maintain a certain appearance could potentially lead to unhealthy nutritional habits. If a female feels she is not thin enough, she may reduce her calorie intake, leading to poor energy and performance on the field. For this reason, female athletes should be educated on the importance of eating enough calories to match the energy demands of their sport.