4 Rules for designing effective workouts for the female athlete

Demands for strength, power, speed and intensity at all levels of women’s sports are greater than ever, so it should come as no surprise that strength and conditioning work should prove a vital component of a developing high school athlete’s specific, year-round physical preparation.

Although sports participation among females has grown exponentially in the past 30 years, since Title IX took effect, the issue of strength and conditioning participation and training adherence for female high school athletes remains a topic that has only recently come to the research forefront.

Given the fact that girls represent approximately 50 percent of the estimated 7 million-plus high school athletes in the U.S., it is imperative that focus be turned to high school females especially. High school girls face the same on-field and on-court demands as their male counterparts, yet differences between the genders do in fact significantly influence the effectiveness of strength training, as well as the overall participation of high school girls in organized strength and conditioning programs.

The purpose of this article is to shed light on unique challenges and considerations that need to be made when working with high school females, before practically discussing (in Part 2) ways in which girls can make strength training more accessible to themselves.

The Basics

In a 2012 research study by Reynolds & Colleagues looking at high school strength and conditioning participation among varsity high school athletes in the state of Idaho, the authors concluded that although 84 percent of high school coaches provided some form of strength and conditioning support to their athletes, only 37 percent actually required it for their teams. Additional findings from this study reinforced anecdotal evidence from large numbers of high school strength coaches nationwide that more boys teams are required to participate in strength training programs than girls teams, and that on average, high school male athletes participate more and train more frequently and consistently than female athletes.

In my recent article on strength training for middle school football players, I described strength as being the “One Thing” any young athlete (irrespective of gender) could develop in the off-season to enhance performance while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of injury.

Applying this same concept to girls, certain general considerations do in fact need to be made when trying to develop strength. Specifically, the following not only affect training outcomes, but also rates of participation among high school girls, leading to the alarming paradox of female athletes needing strength training even more than males, yet on average being less willing to participate in it.

1. Females have physiological differences that need to be taken into account, including lesser rates of absolute strength and power and greater degrees of congenital joint laxity.

Female competitors are built differently than male athletes. Although boys and girls share the same physical structures like muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons, the nature of these structures differs between the genders. To illustrate, girls (on average) possess both fewer and smaller muscle fibers than boys. In addition, through differences in hormonal make-up and physiology, girls also possess greater degrees of congenital joint laxity or global hyper-mobility.

These facts provide the proverbial “double-whammy” for females. They have less natural strength to generate power and more unstable joint surfaces to help control their bodies during sporting actions. A classic example can be witnessed on the basketball court, where upon landing, a typical untrained high school female athlete experiences knee valgus—i.e., their knees caves in. The resultant sheering forces on the knee experienced during landing, combined with a general lack of eccentric muscle strength, leads to females being 2-8 times more likely than their male counterparts to experience an ACL tear during their sporting career. Thus, physical differences between high school males and females clearly have drastic implications from both a sports medicine and sports performance standpoint.

RELATED: STUDY: Female Athletes Are at Higher Risk of Overuse Injuries

2. The fear of “bulking up” is unfounded; however, females do have differences in natural hormone concentrations, impacting muscle mass and training gains.

Anyone who has taken high school biology knows that among other things, hormonal make-up plays a large role in the key physiological differences between the genders. Those who have watched ESPN and Major League Baseball in the last 20 years are familiar with the male hormone testosterone, and what high levels of it (especially when artificially synthesized through anabolic steroids) can do in terms of supporting muscle growth and enhancing strength levels. The fact remains, however, that women too naturally possess testosterone, albeit in much lesser concentration levels than males.

Testosterone is one of the body’s most effective anabolic or “muscle growing” hormones, which can lead to greater strength gains. However, possessing much lower concentrations of these hormones means girls are at a much greater natural disadvantage than boys for attaining muscle mass and subsequent strength gains. This is why the fear of “bulking up” or getting heavy through strength training is so unfounded for girls. The simple truth is that weight training alone will not add tons of pounds to a typical female frame. On the contrary, girls simply do not possess the biochemistry to make sizable gains in lean muscle mass naturally possible. It requires very specific training protocols, nutrition and human biochemistry for girls to attain significant muscle mass (or hypertrophy) gains. Nevertheless, high school coaches point to such unfounded fears as being one of the many reasons high school girls traditionally stay away from the weight room in the first place.

RELATED: Female Athlete’s Guide to Building Muscle And Losing Fat

3. Both upper-body and total-body strength and power must be developed specifically to optimize sporting potential in female athletes.

In addition to having less muscle mass in general, females on average possess less upper-body muscle mass than males. Given the fact that upper-body strength and power are often cited as having one of the most profound impacts upon sports performance skills like spiking a volleyball or shooting a basketball from long range, upper-body strength can be seen as a major limiting factor in performance ability for many females involved in such sports.

In addition, total-body strength deficits have profound performance implications for females involved in all sports. For instance, being able to coordinate the upper and lower extremities when planting or cutting on the field, or transferring power from the ground to overhead (like when serving a tennis ball for example), require total-body power and muscle coordination. Therefore, a lack of upper-body and total-body strength can limit performance dramatically.

4. Females need to train identically to males in the weight room.

Another classic misconception is that girls require entirely different training methodologies to enhance strength and power than boys, such as a greater reliance upon machines or more core work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some clear considerations must be taken into account between the genders, like male athletes, female athletes benefit most from strength and conditioning programs built around ground-based compound movements, like the activities I discuss in one of my earlier “Director’s Cut” Podcasts from this year. The simple fact is that males and females need to train equally hard in the weight room to make performance gains and prevent injury.

In summary, strength training is widely regarded as one of the most effective practices for enhancing sports performance and reducing the likelihood of injury in high school athletics. Although afforded generally equal opportunities in the weight room, girls on average participate significantly less than boys in high school strength and conditioning programs, implying that the estimated 3 million-plus high school girls participating in varsity sports annually represent potentially one of the most underserved training populations within the entire field of strength and conditioning. Many myths, including significant muscle gain from strength training, continue to mislead high school girls, leading in part to sub-optimal participation in organized strength training programs. Given that females require the same strength characteristics as males to prevent injury and succeed on the field, it is imperative that high school coaches fully understand the unique difference and challenges of working with high school female populations.

In the next installment, I will discuss how to avoid intimidation in the weight room, so coaches and athletes alike can do their part in ensuring that high school female competitors benefit equally from organized strength and conditioning programs.


  • Fischer, Donald V. “Strategies for Improving Resistance Training Adherence in Female Athletes.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 27.2 (2005): 62-67. Web.
  • “Managing Laxity in Lifters and Athletes.” Tony Gentilcore Managing Laxity in Lifters and Athletes Part 1 Comments. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 July 2016.
  • “An Athlete’s Nightmare: Tearing the ACL.” An Athlete’s Nightmare: Tearing the ACL. National Institute of Health & The Friends of the National Library of Medicine, 2008. Web. 14 July 2016.
  • Fischer, Donald V. “Strategies for Improving Resistance Training Adherence in Female Athletes.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 27.2 (2005): 62-67. Web.
  • “Managing Laxity in Lifters and Athletes.” Tony Gentilcore Managing Laxity in Lifters and Athletes Part 1 Comments. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 July 2016.
  • “An Athlete’s Nightmare: Tearing the ACL.” An Athlete’s Nightmare: Tearing the ACL. National Institute of Health.
  • Reynolds, Monica L., Lynda B. Ransdell, Shelley M. Lucas, Linda M. Petlichkoff, and Yong Gao. “An Examination of Current Practices and Gender Differences in Strength and Conditioning in a Sample of Varsity High School Athletic Programs.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26.1 (2012): 174-83. Web.
  • Stone, Michael H., Meg Stone, and Bill Sands. Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. Print.
  • Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. Print.