Through the years, female athletes have fallen victim to misinformation and faulty recommendations about strength training. This misinformation, largely emanating from old wives’ tales, suggests that strength training will produce a bulky appearance. As a result, female athletes either avoid strength training altogether or opt for lighter weights, usually in the form of neoprene dumbbells and bands, buying into another misconception—that training with light weights for high reps will help sculpt and tone their muscles.
Unfortunately, celebrity trainers, many of whom lack a background in exercise science, often promote low weight/high rep strategies—despite the fact that no hard evidence supports the theory that highs reps (e.g., 20-25 reps per set) performed with light weight actually sculpts and tones muscles. Subjecting your muscles to so many reps can actually break them down beyond repair.
The truth is that women cannot achieve the same level of muscle development as men, because they produce smaller amounts of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone helps to enable large muscle growth. Studies show that women produce roughly 10 percent of the testosterone that men produce, which greatly diminishes their potential to gain considerable muscle size.
Yet, for women who desire a leaner physique, strength training is a must. Studies have shown that it improves body composition by simultaneously reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass. It also speeds up metabolism, fortifies the immune system and improves other bodily functions.
Women who train inappropriately or who avoid weight room training won’t increase the strength of their muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. In contrast, female athletes who build more muscle with proper strength training will run faster, jump higher, be more flexible and fight off injuries better than their weaker counterparts.
How Should Female Athletes Work Out?
No different from men. That’s right. Female athletes should prioritize getting stronger in their training programs. Women should break free of the mindset of perpetually training with unchallenging weights and progress towards using heavier loads. Women should also ditch the machines in favor of compound, or multi-joint, exercises—like Squats, Bench Presses, Deadlifts, Pull-Ups and Push-Ups—performed with a barbell, dumbbells or bodyweight.
Once you become stronger, you can do more work in each training session, train more intensely and train for muscular power and muscular endurance, attributes that are specific to your sport.
Below is a two-day strength training program for beginners. Beginners should train on non-consecutive days, allowing time for adequate recovery between sessions. Superset “A” and “B” exercises throughout your workout.
A1) Dumbbell RDL — 3×10
B1) Dumbbell or Bodyweight Lunge — 3×10 each leg
A2) Physioball Glute Bridge — 3×10
B2) Physioball Hamstring Curl — 3×10
A3) Med Ball Crunch — 2×20
B3) Side Plank — 2×30 seconds each side
A1) Barbell Bent-Over Row — 3×10
B1) Knee Assisted Push-Up — 3 x10
A2) Inverted Row — 3×10
B2) Dumbbell Incline — 3×10
A3) Barbell Curl — 2×12
B3) Overhead Triceps Extension — 2×12
Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is the head strength and conditioning coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa. He has authored numerous articles on a wide variety of topics, including injury prevention, nutrition and improving athletic performance.