Contrary to what some believe, female athletes do not need to train all that much different from male athletes. Just like males, females need to be strong, jump high, and run fast. With this said, there are some unique differences – some of these are blatantly obvious, others are not. Even with these differences, only subtle modifications are necessary, while leaving the bulk of the training program intact.
1. ACL Injuries
Female athletes are 3.5x more likely to have an ACL injury than their male counterparts (1). There are multiple theories to explain this large discrepancy between the genders, but no definitive cause. Likely, it is a combination of several things. Regardless of the cause, it is clear female athletes need to prioritize ACL injury prevention in their training programs.
Most ACL injuries occur during landing or cutting. Both of these actions require large amounts of eccentric muscular strength to absorb the force of the athlete. Inadequate strength or improper positioning greatly increases the likelihood of experiencing an injury.
When female athletes are performing lower body exercises, it is crucial that they lower their bodies under control, without bouncing out of the bottom position. Doing so strengthens the body to handle force better when they are making a cut or landing from a jump. Another focus of female athletes needs to be their knee position. Most ACL injuries occur when the athlete’s knee travels inward to the center of the body. To help prevent this, female athletes need to put extra focus on keeping their knees positioned over their feet during training.
2. Iron Deficiency
It is estimated that over 1/3 of post-pubescent female athletes are iron deficient (2). Poor dietary choices and menstruation appear to be likely causes of this.
Symptoms of an iron deficiency may include – fatigue, headaches, fast heartbeat, and pale skin.
To prevent becoming iron deficient, it is recommended to use an iron supplement or ingest iron rich foods such as – red meat, beans, and leafy greens.
3. Strength Deficit
It comes as no surprise that females are generally weaker than males. On average, females are about 50% as strong in the upper body and 70% in the lower body (3). Upper body intensive exercises, such as pull ups and push ups will often have to be modified to accommodate these strength differences.
Another thing to consider is the fact that females are closer to males in their lower body strength than they are in upper body strength. Exercises like the goblet squat are much more challenging for females because their leg strength is adequate, but they often lack the upper body strength to hold heavy dumbbells. For this reason, it may be appropriate to progress females to a barbell sooner than males, or use other means of resistance, such as a weighted vest.
4. Joint Laxity
Hypermobility, commonly known as being “double-jointed,” is a condition in which one or more joints of the body move beyond the normal range for that particular joint. This excessive motion creates “play” in the joint that can increase the chance of injury. For athletes with hypermobility, joint stability needs to be a priority.
Approximately 1 in 3 female athletes are hypermobile, while only 1 in 10 males (4). This relatively high percentage of females requires some modifications in their training. First, because there is excessive passive motion in the joint, hypermobile athletes need good dynamic stability. Secondly, it is recommended not to perform static stretching with these individuals. Again, because there is excessive passive motion in the joint, static stretching will make this situation worse. Instead, static stretching should be replaced with self-myofascial release techniques (i.e. foam rolling) and dynamic mobility exercises.
5. Body Image
A recent study done at Yale University found that ¾ of female athletes interviewed currently or in the past had issues with how their bodies looked (5). For anyone that has been around female athletics, this is probably no surprise as they are often their own worst critics. This pressure to maintain a certain appearance could potentially lead to unhealthy nutritional habits. If a female athlete feels she is not thin enough, she may reduce her calorie intake, leading to poor energy and performance on the field. For this reason, female athletes should be educated on the importance of eating enough calories to match the energy demands of their sport(s).