Strength Training for Women
Raphael Brandon explains why strength training is vital for women, but the programme depends on their event, not their gender.
A survey of US schoolchildren in 1985 comprising various motor tests showed that the average 18-year-old girl could perform only one pull-up. It also showed that the sit-up in one-minute score peaked for girls at 14 years, with abdominal strength endurance declining from then on. The standing long jump test also indicated that on average girls peak at 14 years. In comparison, the average boy scored significantly higher on the test and improved until 18 years old.
These statistics merely illustrate what everyone knows, that women naturally develop less strength than men. The differences can be explained by the fact that at puberty, boys have increased testosterone levels which promotes muscle development and bone growth over the next few years. In contrast, girls have increased oestrogen, which promotes quite fast pelvic bone growth and fat storage around the hips and thighs.
After puberty, boys' relative fat mass decreases from 16 to 13%, while girls' relative fat mass increases from 18 to 26%. Indeed, research has shown that most of the differences in strength between men and women can be explained in terms of differences in lean body mass and muscle and fat distribution. Women have smaller arm girth and greater arm skinfold thickness than men, similar leg girth but greater leg skinfold thickness than men. This different distribution of extra fat and smaller muscle mass accounts for much of the disparity in strength between the sexes, women being about 66 to 75% as strong in the legs and 50 to 60% as strong in the arms.
Nevertheless, research has shown that normalising for lean body mass, which takes out the overall differences in muscle and fat, muscle pound to muscle pound women are similar in strength to men.
Can women respond to strength training?
In the past, it was believed that strength training was unsuitable for women because they were "incapable" of improving their strength. But more recent research has put paid to this theory. Wilmore (1974) showed that after a 10-week training programme, women showed a 29% improvement on the bench press and 30% improvement on the leg press, compared to a 17% and 26% improvement from men.
However, while the men showed hypertrophy (enlargement) in the leg and arm muscles, the women did not. Wilmore hypothesised that the reason for the increased strength in women must be due to an increased ability to recruit muscle fibres and coordinate the movements. Later research has shown that women can increase muscle mass significantly. The tentative conclusion must be that in general, most women find it more challenging to gain muscle mass.
Recently an official summary of all the research regarding strength training for women was presented in the US by the Women's Committee of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. They reported that:
What sort of training?
That being said, the next question is, what is the best form of strength training for women? The answer is not a matter of gender but more a case of the particular requirements of the athlete's event, being the same for both men and women. Any athlete must improve her (or his) strength if their profile is less than the strength demands of their event.
To devise the best strength programme based on the event's requirements, we have to analyse the event in terms of muscle use, the type of contractions each muscle uses, the biomechanics of the movement and whether maximum strength or strength endurance is the goal. This kind of "needs analysis" should govern the design of any strength programme. As an illustration of such an analysis, let us look at running the 10K
In the 10K event, the major leg muscles all work dynamically, such as the quadriceps, the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, hip flexors, calf and dorsi flexors. All these muscles are active at some point during the gait cycle, and so it makes sense to strengthen them. However, they must all be strengthened in the right way to maximise 10K performance and injury prevention.
In 10K running, 97% of the energy for muscle contractions comes from aerobic metabolism. Thus, the predominant muscle fibre units recruited at 10K pace will be the aerobic Type 1 and 2a units. The more anaerobic Type 2a and 2b units may only be recruited towards the end of the race as the muscles tire and glycogen is depleted. (Type 2a fibre units can utilise both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism.)
For this reason, the 10K strength programme must have a strength endurance emphasis which targets mainly the Type 1 and Type 2a fibre units. It has been shown that strength athletes who perform a few sets of a few repetitions of very heavy weights, e.g. four sets of five reps, have selective hypertrophy in the Type 2b fibres, which would not necessarily benefit the 10k runner, whereas bodybuilders who perform higher volumes of lighter weights, e.g. six sets of 12 reps, show hypertrophy in the whole range of muscle fibres.
Although 10K athletes do not want to start bodybuilding, it could be argued that for the leg muscles a strength endurance training programme of high repetitions and lighter weights would be the most suitable for a 10K athlete since the Type 1 and 2a fibres will be targeted effectively. To improve strength endurance, 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 20 repetitions with 45 second rest periods are recommended.
The choice of leg exercises must reflect the biomechanics involved in the running movement. For example, since most thigh muscle activity occurs when one foot is in contact with the ground, single-legged exercises with the foot in contact with the ground or equipment will be most relevant. Single legged leg press, lunges or one-legged squats are all exercises of this nature which target the muscles in the thigh and bum areas. The range of movement of the joints is also relevant.
For example, as the foot strikes the ground, the knee joint is slightly bent (about 20°). Then the knee flexes to absorb the impact (to around 40°) and then extends again before toeing off. The quadriceps muscles act to control the shock-absorbing knee flexion movement. Certain strength exercises should be chosen to focus on this range of movement, e.g. limited range leg press, especially to help prevent the anterior knee pain which women are prone to because of a greater femur Q angle causing more inward rotation of the knee.
Do not overlook the trunk and hips
The other major body part that requires strength training for running is the trunk and hip area. Here the major muscles involved during running are the erector spinae (back), abdominals (stomach), obliques (side) and abductors (top of the bum). These muscles are not so involved with running as the leg muscles, yet nonetheless, serve a vital role in pelvis and trunk stabilisation and posture control. Biomechanical research has shown that for the legs to work effectively in propelling the body, the pelvis and trunk area must be rigid and supported by its muscles. Otherwise, the drive from the legs will be wasted.
These hip and trunk muscles must also be trained for strength endurance for similar reasons. However, since they do not work as dynamically as the leg muscles, the exercises chosen should reflect their more static, supporting role. These muscles are best trained with a combination of isometric or static exercises and slow, controlled dynamic exercises of a small, specific range.
For example, lying on one's front over the end of a bench and extending the arms out into a Superman position and maintaining it is an isometric exercise for the back muscles. Three sets of 10 x 10 seconds holding a straight line from the back to the hands will help maintain an upright posture as the muscles must keep the back and shoulder girdle in a rigid extended position.
An example of a slow and controlled exercise which targets a small range is the reverse curl or reverse crunch exercise for the stomach. This involves lying on one's back with legs fully bent. Then, raise the hips an inch off the floor by pulling with the lower abdominals and lower again, keeping the legs entirely still. Here the abdominal muscles have to work continually to raise the pelvis and then lower it back, even though it is a small range of movement. This kind of exercise is more relevant to posture control than the more conventional sit up. After all, when we run we keep our upper bodies still, so being very strong at flexing the trunk forwards is not necessarily related to efficient running.
In general, the hip and trunk muscles must be trained for strength endurance (low resistance and high volume) using static exercises and exercises with specific ranges of movement for posture control. The choice of exercises must reflect the need to maintain a rigid back with a level pelvis to be able to push off with the legs. Balanced strength in this area also helps prevent lower back and hamstring injuries. In my opinion, the trunk and hip area are vital for 10K strength training programs. Strong legs will only do so much if the trunk is not a well-supported, rigid structure. Would a motor racing team put a Formula engine in a car with a Formula 3 chassis?
Training the upper body
To complete the strength analysis, we must consider the upper body. This area is less important for 10K running, but for an all-body, balanced strength programme, some upper body exercises should be included. Upper body strength will also help with posture and effective, smooth arm action. Once again, I would recommend a strength endurance emphasis.
A practical way to train the upper body without devoting too much time to it would be to cover most of the major upper body muscles in two or three exercises, e.g. seated row together with the bench press, or pull-ups together with dips would target most of the chest, shoulder, upper back and arm muscles.
To summarise the strength training programme for the 10K, all the major muscles involved in running need to be trained with a strength endurance emphasis. The exercises chosen also need to be biomechanically relevant in terms of movement, single-legged and foot fixed, and any important joint ranges of movement. This will improve the power and efficiency of running action and help reduce knee injury risks. Training the trunk muscles for endurance, using static and postural specific exercises will increase efficiency by improving the rigidity and support of the trunk. It will also help reduce low back and hamstring injury risks. Exercises covering the upper body muscles will complete a balanced strength programme that is specifically targeted to the athlete's event.
This kind of analysis can be done for any event or sport. First, the correct muscles and movements have to be pinpointed, and the role they play in the sport determined. From this, the relevant strength training exercise protocols can be designed for the muscles involved. Women athletes should use this method as the starting point for their essential strength training requirements.
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About the Author
Raphael Brandon is a sports fitness specialist from the UK