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The benefits of strength training for young female athletes

Strength training is sometimes an uncomfortable concept for many junior female athletes who are often unaware of the benefits or are unsure how to begin. A possible solution is a six-month preparation programme (GPP).

The higher the level at which a sport is played, the better the physical performance parameters such as aerobic power, speed, strength, and vertical jumping ability are likely to be (Gabbett & Georgieff 2007)[1] (Baker 2002)[2]. However, are the higher fitness levels due to natural athleticism, or is it due to better access to fitness advice and facilities? Would a better fitness level at a younger age help an athlete improve their playing skills and progress them to a higher playing level earlier?

At elite levels, physical fitness is crucial because (as studies on elite Australian female rugby league players have shown (Gabbett 2007)[3] poor physical capacity limits the ability to play at a higher level. Ideally, athletes should be selected at a young age then given correct coaching in skills and tactics, as well as a progressive conditioning programme to enable them to perform at high intensities throughout matches. Unfortunately, limited funding and accessibility usually mean that this type of support only becomes available once the player has already broken into a squad or team at a representative level.

Many male athletes have some conditioning background, and whether this is correct or not, they usually see the benefits of strength training for their sport (Poiss et al. 2204)[4]. However, this is not the case for younger female athletes; by not starting a strength programme early enough, these athletes may not only increase their chance of injury but also reduce their ability to play as hard as they otherwise could.

In this article, we will look specifically at junior female athletes aged 14-18 years old. Research shows that once female athletes begin resistance training (RT), they not only enjoy it, but it also may help promote their self-image (Ahmed et al. 2002)[6]. Indeed, this may be of wider significance for all young females, as their overall physical activity tends to decline after the age of 16, and starting an RT programme that enhances body image may be useful in preventing this (Poiss et al. 2204)[4].

Benefits of strength training

Why should junior female athlete's strength train? Is just being fit and healthy, and playing sport sufficient? Unfortunately, this is not the case. The two major reasons for RT in junior female athletes are injury prevention and playing performance. Female athletes appear to have a higher incidence of lower-limb injuries than male athletes with studies showing that they are two to eight times more likely to suffer knee injuries (Areendt & Dick 1995)[6] (John et al. 1982)[7] (Kimberly et al. 2000)[8]. This may be linked to strength and flexibility imbalances in the lower limb, both of which can be addressed through correct training.

One study from 1991 used a pre-season screening test in female college athletes from a variety of sports and showed that 40% of the 138 athletes studied suffered an injury that season (Joseph et al. 1991)[9]. The authors also found that there was a trend for higher injury rates to be associated with knee flexor or hip extensor imbalances of 15% or more on either side of the body. What coach can afford to lose nearly half of their players through injury in a season? If even only a portion of those injuries could be prevented through correct training, surely that would help the team or squad?

Getting started

In his book Track and Field, Gerhardt Schmolinsky states that the length of the 'foundation training' depends on the age of the athlete, general training background, and the volume and intensity of workouts. It usually lasts three to four years. 'Build up training' usually starts at the age of 13 or 14, takes about four to six years, and should not be completed before the age of 17 or after 22 (Schmolinsky 2006)[10].

It is important to realise that there are no shortcuts. A 17-year-old female athlete who has no prior RT experience should not be doing the same work as a 16-year-old female athlete who has two years' RT experience. Instead, she should again start from the beginning with a foundation programme.

All athletes should ideally have a pre-training musculoskeletal assessment to assess flexibility and strength levels. The major area to look at is possible imbalances between limbs and between muscle groups in flexibility and strength. Strength testing has to be done carefully with novice trainers; setting a lesser weight and then asking the athlete to lift that as many times as possible is safer than and equally as effective as maximal 1-repetition tests (Horvat et al. 2007)[12]. For example, rather than attempt a 1-rep max, you might ask your athlete to back squat with just a 10kg or 20kg bar on the shoulders and see how many times they can do that with good form.

Body Weight Circuits

The general preparation phase (GPP) is important to help introduce the athlete to the training environment, develop core and limb strength, teach safe and effective techniques, and also introduce the training habit. One of the simplest ways of developing strength is to use the athlete's body weight.

Two such bodyweight circuit training sessions are as follows:

Circuit 1

  • Press-ups - Lie on the floor face down with your hands next to your shoulders, raise your body off the floor by extending your arms, then lower again.
  • Crunches - Lie with your back on the floor, legs bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your thighs and lift your head and upper back off the floor, sliding your hands up your thighs until they are on your kneecaps. Lower yourself back down again.
  • Squats - Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees and lower your backside towards the floor, keeping your feet flat on the floor. Then stand up straight and repeat.
  • Prone Trunk Extensions - Begin by lying face down on the floor with your legs straight, and your arms extended straight forward (they would be "overhead" if you were standing up). Slowly raise your chest, shoulders, and arms toward the ceiling as high as you can, keeping your toes in contact with the floor at all times. Then, slowly lower your chest, shoulders, and arms down to the floor, but do not rest on the floor - maintain some muscle tension throughout your back for the entire exercise.
  • Bench jumps - Jump up onto a bench and back down again with both feet.

Circuit 2

  • Bench dips - Sit on a bench with legs extended out in front of you, hands by your sides, raise your bum off the bench and onto the floor
  • Half-pikes - Lie on the floor with legs vertical, arms straight above your head. Reach up to your toes and back down again
  • Single-leg squats - On one leg, lower your backside down to a bench and stand back up again without using your hands. Keep your supporting foot flat on the floor
  • Reverse press-ups - Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands back over your head and place your palms flat on the floor. Lift your head and back off the floor by straightening your arms
  • Alternate-leg squat thrusts - Start in a press-up position, bring one foot forward with your knee between your elbows, then return the foot while simultaneously bringing the other foot forward

An example of how to organise these bodyweight circuits would be to do 20 repetitions of each exercise and then move on to the next one, continuously performing all five exercises. After each set, rest for one minute then repeat. Do five sets in total.

To make the session easier, try fewer repetitions of each exercise, or add 10 seconds of rest in between exercises. To make it harder, continuously perform the five sets without rest. Even harder would be to do the total repetitions of the first exercise before moving on to doing the total repetitions of the second exercise, so 100 press-ups immediately followed by 100 crunches and so on.

One of the important things for junior coaching is making the sessions fun and varied. The use of lots of different exercises, changing the format of circuits, adding medicine balls, elastic bands, or household objects such as chairs ensures that the athlete has to adjust and improve continually.

Dumbbell Circuits

Once the athlete has become confident in this environment, the coach can start to introduce the use of dumbbells. Dumbbell circuits are popular among high school and college coaches in the US including ex Romanian weightlifter Istvan Javorek, who pioneered the use of dumbbell circuits as part of the general athletic preparation and now uses them as a basis for all new athletes entering his program (Javorek 2004)[11]. Two such dumbbell circuit training sessions are as follows:

Circuit 1

  • High-pull snatch - Hold the dumbbells level with the middle of your thighs, raise them above your head as though you are pulling your T-shirt up. Come up on to your toes and then lower again.
  • Squat-push press - Hold the dumbbells level with your shoulders, squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then extend your legs, come up onto your toes, and at the same time extend your arms so the dumbbells are above your head. Lower again into the squat position to repeat.
  • Bent-over row - Bend forward from the hips, keeping your back straight until it's parallel with the floor. In this position, raise the dumbbells to your chest and lower them until your arms are straight.
  • Squat jump raise to armpits - Bend both knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor and then jump as high in the air as you can. At the same time bring the dumbbells up to your armpits, then land and let your arms hang down by your sides.
  • Parallel overhead press - Start with the dumbbells level with your shoulders, palms facing towards each other. Extend your arms above your head then lower them.

Circuit 2

  • Inward/outward rotation - Hold the dumbbells out in front of your arms straight and parallel to the floor. Bring them into your chest and then out to the side and then to the front again in a circular motion but keeping them at shoulder height. Reverse this direction after six repetitions.
  • Alternate-leg lunges - Holding the dumbbells by your side, step forward with one leg and bend the front knee and back knees to about 90 degrees, keeping your back straight. Push off the front knee and return to the start position then repeat on the other leg.
  • Upright row - Start with the dumbbells on your upper thighs, palms facing towards you. Pull them up to chest height with your elbows coming higher than your shoulders. Rise on your toes as you do this.
  • Rotational push press - Start with the dumbbells level with your shoulders, palms facing towards each other. Extend your arms above your head, and turn the dumbbells 90 degrees until your palms are facing forwards, then lower them and rotate back to the start position.
  • Lateral raise - Hold the dumbbells by your sides and raise them sideways to the same height as your shoulders, keeping your arms straight. Then lower them.
  • Squat-jump push press - Start with the dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing towards each other. Bend both knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor and then jump as high in the air as you can. At the same time, extend your arms above your head, then land and lower the dumbbells to the start position.

These dumbbell circuits are performed continuously, with six repetitions of each exercise being performed before moving straight on to the next one. After each set, rest for 90-120 seconds and then repeat. Look to build up to six sets first and then you can look to increase the weight of the dumbbells.

There are hundreds of different combinations that can be performed using dumbbells. It is down to the coach to think about the relevant movement patterns and how to incorporate them. Start by thinking of pushing, pulling, squatting, jumping, and rotating. Then think about using one or two dumbbells at a time, seated, standing, one leg, two legs, and so on. Changing the exercises each session keeps the athlete interested and means that the body has to adapt to a new stimulus each session.

Jumping and landing techniques

Simple jumping and landing techniques can be introduced at this stage - not as lengthy individual sessions, but as part of the warm-up, or as part of the circuits. Training females on landing techniques have been shown to help landing mechanics, which in turn assist in preventing knee injuries (Irmischer et al. 2004)[13].

Concurrently with bodyweight and dumbbell exercises, you can start to introduce technical barbell work to help the athlete gain a sound technique with low loads through repetition over time. This can be done with broom handles or 5, 10, or 20kg bars and should not be fatiguing. It can be done as part of the warm-up or cool-down as a sub-maximal portion of the exercise session.

Training should be performed three to four times a week in the off-season and can be conducted before or after the team training. The sessions should only be 20-30 minutes long. The athletes can do body circuits and landing techniques at home.

The longer-term

Once an athlete has been training regularly for six months, skill level, confidence, and fitness will be improved. However, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not the time to 'lift heavy'. Instead, the variety and intensity of the exercises must be developed. Some coaches recommend that an athlete should use strength-specific exercises and exercises with a barbell, such as barbell squats, only after three years of GPP (Zatsiorsky 2006)[14].

The use of multiple sets can be more effective in developing strength initially. In female tennis players, the use of periodised training routines that vary the load and volume of the weights during the week is more beneficial than keeping them the same from session to session (Landin et al. 2007)[15] (Kraemer et al. 2000)[16].

Technical work is key, and the teaching of more complex lifts such as the snatch can be taught throughout the GPP, as long as the load is sub-maximal (unless your sport is weightlifting of course). Keeping the sessions varied, progressive, and fun as well as technically correct will enable your female athletes to develop a sound conditioning base that will reduce the chances of injury and help them perform more effectively in competition.

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Marshall (2008)[17] with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.


  1. GABBETT, T. and GEORGIEFF, B. (2007) Physiological and Anthropometric Characteristics of Australian Junior National, State, and Novice Volleyball Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21 (3), p. 902-908
  2. BAKER, D. (2002) Differences in Strength and Power Among Junior-High, Senior-High, College-Aged, and Elite Professional Rugby League Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 16 (4), p. 581-585
  3. GABBETT, T.J. (2007) Physiological and Anthropometric Characteristics of Elite Women Rugby League Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(3), p. 875-881
  4. POISS, C. et al. (2204) Perceived Importance of Weight Training To Selected Ncaa Division III Men and Women Student-Athletes. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18 (1), p. 108-114
  5. AHMED, C. et al. (2002) Relations of Strength Training to Body Image Among a Sample of Female University Students. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 16 (4), p. 645-648
  6. AREENDT, E. and DICK, R. (1995) Knee injury patterns among men and women in collegiate basketball and soccer. NCAA data and review of literature. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 23, p. 694-701
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  8. KIMBERLY, G. et al. (2000) Gender differences in noncontact anterior cruciate ligaent injuries. Clinical Sports Medicine, 19 (2), p. 287-302
  9. JOSEPH, J. et al. (1991) Preseason strength and flexibility imbalances associated with athletic injuries in female collegiate athletes. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, p. 76-81
  10. SCHMOLINSKY, G. (2006) Track and Field: The East German Textbook. Sport Books Publisher, p. 104
  11. JAVOREK, I. (2004) Javorek Complex Conditioning
  12. HORVAT, M. et al. (2007) Predicting Strength in High School Women Athletes. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21 (4), p. 1018-1022
  13. IRMISCHER, B. et al. (2004) Effects of A Knee Ligament Injury Prevention Exercise Program on Impact Forces in Women. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18 (4), p. 703-770
  14. ZATSIORSKY, V. (2006) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics
  15. LANDIN, D. et al. (2007) Early Phase Strength Development: A Four-Week Training Comparison of Different Programs. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21 (4), p. 1113-1116
  16. KRAEMER, W.J. et al. (2000) Influence of resistance training volume and periodisation on physiological and performance adaptions in college women tennis players. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 28, p. 626-633
  17. MARSHALL, J. (2008) Girl Power is good for young sportswomen. Peak Performance, 258, p. 8-11

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MARSHALL, J. (2008) The benefits of strength training for young female athletes [WWW] Available from: [Accessed