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You can't go wrong with getting STRONG: strength training in our young female athletes

In a sporting environment that has become significantly more “professionalised” over the past decade, training and competition loads have increased, a reduction in free time has resulted and greater specialisation in one sport is common. The interplay between these aspects has resulted in increasing injury rates in young athletes. There are many challenges to this conundrum but one aspect we can control is making our young female athletes stronger and more athletic with improved movement control which we know significantly reduces their injury risk. At the very least, substituting some sports specific training for strength training would be beneficial.

There is only a scattering of athletic development programmes targeting strength training in girls only schools. Often the focus of these programmes is on winning as the primary outcome and the elite athlete population is targeted rather than an approach of conditioning and injury prevention for all. There are many challenges for schools with the implementation of new programmes and the “backing” of these within the greater school community. We know that strength training for females is hugely beneficial, in both our athletic and non-athletic population so are societal norms or ongoing misconceptions still playing a part in this lack of progression for our young female athletes?

Lifting weights and improving strength has significant benefits from a physical and mental health perspective in women, both young and old. Physical benefits such as improved bone density, strength, movement control, posture, and mobility in combination with increasing self-confidence and self-worth along with enhancing long term health are some of the benefits of this type of training in our young women.

When I talk to the public about weight training in the adolescent population it is obvious there are still myths that exist about the negative effects of strength training our youth. I can still vividly remember when I was younger being told that if you lifted weights before you had stopped growing it stunted your growth. There was no research to support this then and there is certainly no research to support it now, but a little like the myth that stretching reduces injuries, it somehow continues to invade our consciousness.

Strength training in athletes is about building capacity so the body can cope with the demands the sport places on it. People often ask at what age their child or athlete can lift weights? What we know is that ideal programmes are not based around age but around movement competency or how well an individual moves, particularly throughout basic movements required in life, such as jumping and landing and lifting movements (i.e., squatting and lunging). There are 13 year olds who are appropriate to have some external load added to their lifting in the gym and there are many 20 year olds who are not, until they learn to move with strategies that are more optimal. Otherwise, many of the benefits are lost and harm may be caused.

What we know from research is that from an injury prevention perspective, appropriate strength training can result in a reduction of major injuries by up to 50% and all injuries by 30%. When we look at the rates and types of injuries in our young women, the reduction in these rates has a real impact on their ability to continue to train and play in the sports they love. If we look at two of the major types of injuries that occur in young women, we can see the impact that this training has. Anterior cruciate ligament rupture (ACL) rates and reconstructions in NZ are on the rise in our adolescent female population. This injury means 6 – 18 months off sport (with the majority being greater than 12 months due to the reconstruction required for many to return to sport) and all the negative side effects that occur because of this such as the mental and physical health consequences, altered peer groups due to no longer being involved in their sport, financial costs, and the long-term health of their knee. With appropriate programming which includes strength training we can reduce these injuries by up to 70%.

At the other end of the spectrum, overuse injuries are common in young women. Examples of these may be anterior knee pain, shin pain or low back pain. Research has again shown us that 50% of these injuries could be prevented by adequate strength training. What we also know is there is a performance impact on having appropriate strength and control and the benefits gained from this in adolescence are maintained throughout their adult sporting life.

There is an unconscious bias that females are not keen to perform weight training because they don’t wish to build significant muscle mass. Education regarding this is hugely important. Unless you are training for several years like a professional athlete, max lifting on a targeted individualised programme and fueling for this appropriately it is very challenging for this to occur. Due to their hormonal make up young women do not typically build muscle like young males do and this largely comes down to levels of testosterone in comparison to the levels of female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Of course, there is variation in young women’s ability to build muscle mass, and a key aspect of any education is to encourage young women to unpack gendered assumptions that may be leading to a fear of adding muscle such as too much muscle may compromise a young woman’s femininity. There is a global movement of women—young and old—embracing their strength, without concern regarding societal expectations, including popular catchphrases such as ‘Strong is the new beautiful’ and ‘Strong is the new skinny’.

Skeletal and physiological changes post puberty result in many young women moving with poorer movement control than their male counterparts. This is a large contributing factor for increasing injury rates at this time. This therefore requires coaching, cueing and encouragement regarding the alterations that need to be made prior to adding external weight. Programmes implemented through school therefore must be designed and run by appropriately qualified staff, preferably with experience and specific knowledge targeting the adolescent population, movement competency and female health and physiology. Ideally, they are based around movement competency rather than age and milestones must be achieved to progress through programmes.

Outside of the school environment, high intensity interval training is the most popular way that young females lift weight. There are many benefits to training in a group environment such as this but what we see is that those with no history of lifting weight often get injured and drop out as a result. Learning appropriate movement competency in their teenage years ensures that if they decide to take up things such as CrossFit in the future or alternative forms of high intensity interval training in a group environment, they will have basic technique awareness and are less likely to get injured and drop out as a result.

Apart from the injury prevention perspective, there are many benefits of strength training on the population of young women. For many it is an alternative to organized traditional sports. For others it provides a motivating environment and a “community” feel that allows you to feel engaged, driven, supported, and encouraged to get or remain active or healthy. There is a freedom and a sense of empowerment that comes with females lifting weights and feeling strong rather than a traditional focus on fitting into societal norms. In addition to these benefits for our young female athletes, they are then less likely to get injured and more likely to be better at their sport. Said like that it is hard to see why our girls only schools haven’t caught on!

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