10 Reasons Female Athletes Should Train Differently

I recently spent a weekend attending a class about treating the female athlete. The class did a great job
highlighting specific differences between female and male athletes, and I wanted to share my top 10 differences and explain their take home points for you. While some points may seem obvious, there are other points that I feel are often overlooked and could have a BIG impact on the way female athletes train. So, if you are a female athlete and want to train efficiently to maximize your performance and decrease injury…keep reading!

1.) Overall the typical woman’s total body strength represents 63.5% of a man’s strength, but the greatest differences are found in upper body strength with 50% less strength than men compared to the lower body strength being only 20-30% less than men.

A female athlete’s training program should always include upper body strengthening as well as lower body strengthening.

2.) Until puberty, boys maintain about 10% greater muscle strength than girls. However, after age 12, boys continually increase in strength while strength plateaus in girls.

This puts female athletes at an increased risk for injury! Keep reading below to find out exactly what injuries are more prevalent in females and which muscles you should strengthen to prevent them.

3.) Female athletes preferentially recruit their quadriceps first and under-recruit their hamstrings. Male athletes and non-athlete groups recruit the hamstring muscle before the quadriceps.

A female athlete’s training program should include specific hamstring strength training to help prevent knee injuries. 

4.) Women demonstrate decreased activation of their core, hip external rotators, gluteus medius, and hamstring muscles compared to men.

Weakness in these muscles put’s the female athlete at an increased risk for ALC injury due to the altered lower body mechanics. To determine your risk a physical therapist will assess your squatting and jumping mechanics and give you an individualized exercise program. The goal is to reduce hip adduction and internal rotation, knee abduction, and tibial external rotation (the mechanics that tear your ACL!) by strengthening these specific muscles.  Check out our Sports Injuries page to learn more.

5.) Women have greater flexibility with approximately 8 degrees of greater hamstring flexibility throughout the lifespan.

Stretching may not always be indicated for female athletes. In fact, stretching an already loose muscle may lead to decreased force production of the muscle and thus decreased performance. On the flip side, tight muscle may alter your mechanics and put you at an increased risk for injury. If you are not sure which muscles you should or should not be stretching, a physical therapist will be able to evaluate your muscle length and advise you on this topic. 

6.) Females have greater knee laxity than male athletes but less laxity than nonathletic females.

Genu recurvatum, or knee hyperextension, of greater than 10 degrees is associated with overuse knee injuries including tendonitis, patellofemoral syndrome, ITB friction syndrome, and ALC injury. 

7.) Because of their postural alignment, women require more stabilizer strength compared to men.

Female athletes should avoid strength training with machines. Resistance training machines that are typically set up like a circuit at the gym train your muscles in just one plane of motion which can contribute to increased muscle imbalances. These machines also fail to develop your stabilizer muscles since you are often seated and supported during the exercise (your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are not being challenged). Female athletes should instead maximize their time with dynamic strengthening exercises that address their movement patterns and challenge the core stabilizers such as squats, dead lifts, lunges, and kettlebell exercises.

8.) Women begin sweating at higher skin and core temperatures, but show heat tolerance similar to men.

Female athletes handle heat stress more internally than men. Thus, during a workout the female athlete will start sweating after their male counterparts. While it’s nice to not have pit stains until the end of the workout this also decreases the female’s risk for dehydration and heat stroke, a big plus for female endurance athletes!

9.) Women require shorter rest periods between sets than men, but may require longer rest periods between training days than men.

Female athletes can train quicker and harder on strength training days, but it is extra important to have rest days between strength training to prevent overuse injuries and allow for muscle recovery. 

10.) Maximum heart rate for women is less than for men.

You may know the generic equation of:
220 – your age = maximal heart rate
This equation was a male based calculation. A better way to calculate this for females is:
 206 – (age).88 = maximal heart rate

I hope you found this information as interesting and helpful as I did! Information in this blog post was synthesized from the evidenced-based course presented by Brian Lawler, MS, PT, OCS, ATC, CSCS, PES of North American Seminars Inc.

Happy Training!
Dr. Ashley

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