Resistance Training for Girls

As the new academic year commences I am starting an exciting and challenging new role at Sherborne Girls. Recently I was asked, “What will you do differently when coaching girls?” This is a valid question as there are some who still believe that the female body cannot withstand the stress of “resistance training”. This would be true if the loadings were too great (as it would be for anyone) but if the correct level of progressive physical conditioning, including technical training, has taken place, then there should be no problems.

Unlike their male counterparts, resistance training has not been offered to, nor readily accepted by young female athletes in the past. The challenge is helping the girls to better understand that resistance training will not cause a large gain in muscle mass and that there are both performance and health related benefits.

Strength and conditioning is not all about big hulking rugby players, it’s about preparing the body physically for sport and reducing injury risk. Unfortunately research has shown that females have a 2-8 times higher risk of lower-limb injuries than males. The integration of some simple jumping and landing technique work into a warm-up or as part of a circuit, developing specific strength, has been proven to improve landing mechanics and assist in preventing knee and ankle injuries.

Studies have shown that the general female population experiences a decline in overall physical activity after the age of 16, so packaging resistance training in such a way that it is attractive is important if we are to maintain, or even increase participation rates. A poor self-image can contribute to the decline in participation as girls go through puberty; so anything that can be done to help promote a positive self-image is important.

Research has shown that a well-structured resistance training programme which offers a large variety of exercises, utilising basic equipment such as bodyweight exercises, medicine-balls, resistance bands through to simple benches and playground equipment, can be enjoyable and have a positive impact on self-image.

Providing a structured programme which addresses the participant’s wants and needs is important if long-term adherence is to be achieved. None of us want to waste our time doing something that doesn’t meet our needs? For this reason we need to understand our athletes’ goals and what they need to do to achieve them.

We need to be creative in matching their wants to their actual needs. An example of this could be helping the girls to understand that an alternative to doing side leg raises to improve hip strength and tone, could be to do kettlebell or dumbbell squats or lunges which would target a larger portion of the hip and trunk muscles – providing more return for the effort.
Resistance training programmes will result in some increase in muscle mass and tone but the hormonal environment required to produce large gains in muscle mass does not exist in the female body so, unless there is an abnormally high level of testosterone present, this cannot happen.

We are fortunate that the female attitude to resistance training is changing. Partly driven by the emergence of “Cross-Fit” and also by the increased media exposure to female athletes and role models. The “Strong is the New Skinny” and “Athletes Eat and Train, They Don’t Diet and Exercise” slogans are becoming more acceptable.

Not everyone wants to look like an Olympic athlete but on the back of the Rio Olympics and the growing acceptance of a more athletic body, we have an opportunity to really champion the health related benefits of resistance training to all girls.

Getting back to the original question, “What will you do differently when coaching girls?” Apart from some minor adaptations, very little. The female body is perfectly capable of undertaking a resistance training programme, as long as it is progressive and well-structured, and addresses the technical, physical, emotional and motivational needs of the participants.

Mark Spivey is Director of Sport at Sherborne Girls

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