Resistance Training for Female Athletes:

Common Misconceptions

Just like any other training, it is important to properly progress through exercise (simple to advanced) and difficulty (no resistance to resistance). Athletes return to SensorySpeed for our programming of the agility drills and knowledge and care of our coaches.

Resistance training can be very broad. It can mean elastic bands, machines, small dumbells, springs-loaded machines, etc. Those are all great, but at some point, they will build muscle endurance rather than actual strength. As athletes, it is imperative that females lift weights for both power and strength. Everyone should lift weights, but if you’re an athlete and are not lifting heavy, you are holding yourself back against the thousands that do.

What are the benefits?
You’ve all heard it before; benefits include: higher bone density, muscle mass retention, muscle mass development, more strength, more stability in joints, and more coordination due to neuromuscular activation. For athletes, this all translates to more speed, power, and overall athletic performance. So instead, let’s focus more on the top 2 concerns with lifting heavy (heavy for this context is considered above 75% of 1-RM).

“I don’t want to look bulky”
This is probably the number 1 reason our female clients present, so let’s clear it up. Muscle mass development is primarily affected by hormones, one of them being testosterone. In studies where blood was drawn to measure these levels in men and women. Women showed significantly lower levels of testosterone than in men before, during, and after exercise (even during hypertrophy programming). Males actually showed an increase in testosterone during the workouts, whereas women had little to no change. Due to hormones, women will actually have quite a hard time putting on mass. Yes, genetics are different for everyone, so you may still see some females putting on mass easier.
Another reason is their programming. Although the previous studies showed little testosterone and muscle mass change in women during hypertrophy phase, it can still occur. If you do nothing but hypertrophy training for months, then of course you will get bulky. For example, people who are veterans in CrossFit, tend to appear a little more built compared to others because CrossFit follows a hypertrophy model (moderate to high weight, little rest time, high volume). A Strength and Conditioning Coach at one of the WCAL powerhouses suggested never having females on more than 2 weeks of hypertophy; not because it will get them big, but because it can be useless due to low testosterone levels. 

So don’t be afraid. Lift on with an occasional hypertrophy program, but for the most part strength programming to get optimal benefits through other adaptation methods (later explained in another post).

I would rather look “toned”
I hate the word “toned” as much as I hate the word “functional”, but I’m not here to get into that. The other main reason females do not want to lift heavy is just the alternative to being bulky. Here’s  why weights are good for more muscle definition. You may see another guy or girl in the gym that has the nice slim body, but they can hardly lift a 15 pound weight. This is referred to as “skinny-fat”. If you continually do high repetition exercise (running, swimming, bodypump, etc.), you will release cortisol, a hormone which actually breaks down muscle protein. You may lose fat from caloric expenditure, but the definition will not be there if there is no muscle. 

Doing a balanced program of weights, cardio, and other activities will get you the defined body you want, in addition to following a sound nutrition program. Although this article is aimed to encourage more females to weight lift, a balanced program can benefit everyone.

Baechle, T. R. & Earle, R.W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning 3rd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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