Thursday, May 10, 2007

Coaching Female Athletes: Strength

Coaching The Female Athlete: Specifically in the weight room
By Meg Stone, East Tennessee State University
On several occasions I have been approached to offer advice as to how the female athlete should be coached in the weight room. Several years ago, the attitude of both coach and athlete to weight training would have been my first priority for discussion. However, I believe with the increase in awareness of the benefit of strength and conditioning, attitudes have changed and both coach and athlete welcome and understand the benefits that can be derived from a sound strength and conditioning program.

First, both coach and athlete must understand that the weight room and/or strength and conditioning is simply one piece of a puzzle. Strength and Conditioning, Biomechanics, Physiology, Nutrition, Psychology, Performance Technology, and Sports Medicine are all combined and are crucial parts of an overall training program, none of which should be overlooked. When developing a program questions to be considered are as follows:

What muscle groups are being worked?
What are the time-motion analysis characteristics to be trained? (Understanding this approach will go along way to addressing the energy systems involved in the specific sport)?
What muscle actions are involved (concentric eccentric etc)?
What are the primary sites of injury for that activity?

All of the above discussions can be relevant for either gender. Once some of these issues have been identified then the appropriate training regime in the weight room can be established with respect to exercise selection, volume and intensity etc.

In considering the differences between males and females and their approach to strength work it becomes
apparent that there are more similarities than differences. It is those differences the strength coach needs to address in program design and application. When considering the weight program for the beginning female athlete it would be wise to understand the research done on the potential female athlete, remembering that there is no difference in the distribution of fiber type between males and females, but females have a smaller muscle mass with fewer fibers and a smaller cross section of muscle.

Based on absolute values the average male is 30% - 40% stronger than the average female, this finding is not consistent for all muscle groups. Further research indicates the beginning female athlete is anywhere from 40% to 60% weaker in her upper body than her beginner male counter part, and approximately 25% weaker in the lower body.

However, when strength is expressed relative to lean body mass, in some cases there are no gender differences. The primary reason for differences in upper to lower body strength levels is muscle distribution; the greater proportion of the women’s lean body mass is in the lower body. It must be emphasized that strength and conditioning training is just as beneficial to women as it is to men.

Women can gain strength at the same rate or faster than men with the result being an increase in lean body mass and a decrease in percent body fat, both having implications for the enhancement of performance. In a study done by Hakkinen in 1989, it was noted that women in a heavy strength-gaining program (loads over 80%) tended to plateau after three to five months. Several methods of manipulation within the training program can potentially offset this plateau. For example, variation in the training program is paramount for continued improvement in performance. Variation can be attained in several ways: intensity, volume, exercise selection etc.

It is possible that the female athlete may need more work with 80% or more loadings than her male counterpart, in order to maintain near maximum strength levels and optimum power output throughout the training process. These programs have been referred to as “topping up” programs. These types of programs require the coach to pay close attention to the planning of the program. With the younger female athlete, a return to base level conditioning program with high volume and low intensity exercise loadings may be appropriate to raise their level of fitness for a sport. This could be best done in the weight
room using stage-training methodology with appropriate loading to cause the desired adaptation to the training load.

The skeletal system-the female is generally shorter with a wider pelvis and the thigh slanting inwards towards the knees leading to a marked Q-angle. This position is referred to as a valgus position, or in general terms a knock knee type of position. This position can present a challenge to the strength coach in that squatting technique enquires the knees to turn slightly out tracking in line with the toes which generally speaking are also turned slightly outwards.

The female athletes with this marked Q-angle and valgus position during the squatting movement may need more detailed attention paid to the correct squatting position. This can lead to working and maintaining the athlete with lighter working loads in the squat until the correct position in established. Of course, this position would present the same challenge in the squat clean and squat snatch, particularly in the recovery phase of the lift, and any other exercise where a full squatting movement is required.

In producing a program for the female athlete, it is interesting to note that in the USA, research shows that the female athlete is six times more likely to tear an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) than her male counterpart competing in the same sport. This would suggest the need for additional preparation.
There is probably no single factor, but rather a number of contributing factors such as anatomical, environmental, hormonal and biomechanical. Generally, these injuries occur in non-contact situations in activities such as cutting, pivoting, and deceleration. There a several potential causes which are worthy of attention.

First, the female athlete may generally lack of strength in the lower body both absolutely and relatively due to a relatively untrained status compared to men. Secondly the female athlete may take longer to develop the same relative force level as her male counter part (Rate of Force development is slower than the male). Thirdly, hamstring co-activation maybe important in the maintenance of the integrity of the knee.

A quadriceps dominant knee can lead to a greater anterior translation and therefore more susceptible to injury. Lastly, women do not position themselves during single leg squatting movements the same as men, there is a greater ankle-dorsiflexion, and the hip externally rotates, both of these issues maybe contributory factors in ACL injuries.

Observation of several strength programs suggests that women (and perhaps men) tend to drop or reduce their strength and conditioning programs during the competitive season. This reduction is often justified by a reduction in the loading because of tapering or peaking considerations. The strength and conditioning coach may have a challenge convincing the coach that a calculated reduction is desirable, but if the strength and conditioning program is not carefully planned all the way into the minor and major competitions, then there is a detraining result that can lead to a reduction in performance and an increase in injury potential. Other conditioning factors can contribute to injury such as poor running technique, invariably caused by neglecting a sound strengthening protocol.

Again, generally the limbs of the female are shorter and the shoulders narrower. The strength coach is dealing with a lighter body frame and a lower center of gravity. All of the above can have implications for running and lifting and mechanics both key element of a sound strength and conditioning program.

The strength coach should also look for a marked carrying angle at the elbow another factor to consider when trying to strength the upper body This structural issue may require extra attention to strengthen the ligaments and tendons surrounding the wrist, elbow and shoulder particularly as a prerequisite for overhead lifts such as the snatch, commonly used in many sports to strength overhead movements.

Shoulders size in comparison with the wide pelvis can lead to a marked rotation of the upper body as seen in some young female sprinters. This can be somewhat rectified by emphasizing upper body strengthening exercises early in the development of the female sprinter, during the first general preparation phase of training. Hypertrophy and strengthening work can help alleviate the problem of over- rotation of the upper body and enhance good sprints mechanics. Many female athletes tend to perform a high volume of work with fewer calories than would be expected. This restricted calorie intake results in reduced intake of essential nutrients important for optimal performance. The strength and conditioning coach should carefully observe and monitor the behavior of the athlete for signs of fatigue in general but directly related to restricted calorie intake and refer the athlete for nutritional counseling.

Hormonal Considerations- The menstrual cycle of the female athlete has not been well studied for various reasons primarily because of the variation in the structure of the cycle. Conflicting reports have placed the optimum time for strength gains at various time lines through both the luteal and follicular phases. What we do know is that there is a spike in the release of testosterone during ovulation between these two phases but how to use this increase in testosterone in strength development is as yet uncertain.

The training program of the female should consist of the following elements:
Olympic Lift to enhance explosiveness – taught safely and correctly
Multi-set structure to the workout
Predominant use of free weight machine used in supplementary work
Over head or free body weight exercise to enhance trunk strengthening work
All program should involve the three key elements of a training program:
Specificity, Variation and Overload

In summary, there should be few differences in the weight programs for women compared to men. Individual differences are more determined by sport specific training than gender. The beginning female athlete may need a longer general preparation period to elevate fitness levels. It maybe necessary to conduct more upper body strength work with the female athlete. Variation does play a key part in the continued improvement of the female athlete. Much more study is needed in order to understand the potential benefits and pitfalls of the menstrual cycle in the female athlete.

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