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Strength Training for the Athletic Woman: The Science and Myths Behind Developing the Perfect Body

The age old dilemma that has yet to be proven scientifically goes that “too much” resistance training for women is bad because they get too bulky.

Despite this common belief, research and evidence beg to differ, only directing us to the fact that there are more benefits to resistance training for women than there are cons.

There are several major benefits to strength training for women:

– Enhanced bone modeling to increase bone strength and reduce the risks of osteoporosis
– Enhanced joint integrity
– Increased general strength for daily activity and or sport
– Increased lean body mass and decreased nonfunctional body fat
– Improved confidence and self-esteem
– Increased metabolic rate from increased muscle math and fat decrease

Just like any other specialized strength and conditioning program, training should consists of periodization that rotates between increasing strength, power, increasing lean muscle mass, and burning fat.

Essentially, The myth is that lifting Strength-Training-for-the-Athletic-Womanweights for women causes bulk and too much girth,
when the reality is that strength training REDUCES body fat and increases lean weight.

However, there are 3 trainable effects to focus on when developing an efficient regimen for female athletes and a fitness program for women that is sure to have long lasting results, and they are:

1.) Developing Lean Mass
2.) Max Strength Development
3.) Power Development

Developing Lean Mass

Again, the fear of getting too big and getting too much muscle is not founded on anything. This essentially limits most women to any real development because of the fear of increased resistance.

In women, development of lean muscle mass is important, specifically in regards to the upper body (explaining most looks on faces when I say we have pushups.)

In order for the larger muscles to be stimulated, there needs to be a sufficient amount of motor unit activation. The more resistance applied, the more motor units containing larger muscle fibers are stimulated.

In regards to further stimulating those muscles, proper variation of exercise should be involved, including varying joint angles and the direction of force, or doing different types of exercises to stimulate muscle when necessary.

The most successful method of developing lean mass for women is proven through using a well-planned, periodized training program.

The main takeaway in terms of developing lean mass for women is to activate as many motor units as possible to stimulate real muscles growth through variable resistance.

Developing Max Strength

Creating maximal strength is directly proportional to the resistance loaded schemes used throughout a training program.

Increasing total strength means high loads close to the one rep max (3-5 rep max or >90%). In order to develop the one rep max, women will need heavy resistances just as established science dictates.

The “goal amount” of strength should be dependent on individual wants and needs. However, for female athletes, adding strength is a critical component of increased performance and should be implemented correctly.

The current athletic standards and competition place demands on female athletes that call for the need to develop max strength in order to perform at the highest levels.

The benefit of incorporating max strength training for women’s general fitness includes activating more muscle tissues and the improvement of connective strength and tissue, thus further improving lean mass.

How does this translate to fitness?

More definition and less fat.

Developing Power

Training explosively is another component that makes up a complete regimen.

While strength and lean mass are a big part of developing overall fitness, developing power has a significant impact on performance and functional improvement as well.

While strength in large part deals with developing a high force to move against resistance, power specifically involves the velocity or speed of movement.

This further enhances muscle and neural coordination while also developing quick twitch fiber muscle.

Developing power is a very important aspect for female athletes in terms of being able to generate force rapidly, whether with an external resistance or the athlete’s body weight.

Power exercises for the general fitness population add another dynamic to the fitness program, and should be developed along with true strength training as both power and strength closely interact and need to be addressed.

Research shows that rate of force development (power) is significantly slower for the average woman, than the average man. Thus, training for explosive power is crucial for female athletes to overall improve power performance.

Stop fearing. Physiology Speaks for Itself

So as we mentioned earlier, most women are fixated on the idea that strength training will make them look like a man, when the truth is, without anabolic drugs, there is a very small chance of that.

This is belied by the fact that women have smaller muscle fibers than men.

Though this be the case, untrained women have more of a strength potential than men for lean mass, fat burning, and strength gains if trained properly since research suggests that 75% of untrained women have slow twitch muscle fibers that are bigger than their fast twitch muscles fibers.

It has actually been shown, the responses of muscle fibers are more rapid in women than in men. Research has also proven that in as little as 2 workouts that muscle responses in women develop more rapidly than in men.

Thus, a few guidelines exist to developing the most efficient training program for female athletes OR fitness enthusiast to elicit the best response:

1.) Programs should cycle between developing strength, lean mass, and power at variable intensities to create the most efficient training results.

2.) You should always develop a solid strength base BEFORE developing power in order to generate more force in a short period of time and elicit the intended response. Exercises should be explosive in nature (push press, resisted box jumps, clean pulls etc)

3.) Programs should include multi-planar, multi joint movements, and functional exercises to further enhance intramuscular coordination, proprioception, and balance in order that the transfer is great in sports or in daily life.

4.) Do not be afraid to break barriers and challenge your current physical state.


Regarding the actual training systems, there really is not too big a difference between the structure and science of strength programs for men or women.

The only difference is the strength potential and physiological adaptation that more heavily favor untrained women since they have more untapped strength.

In terms of the elite female athlete, or the serious female fitness enthusiast, partaking in an intricately structured program that utilizes training concepts of strength, muscle gain, and power, performance enhancement is guaranteed whereas increased physical definition is inevitable in reaching your perfect body.