Last year, 2019, marked the 30th anniversary of the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA) publication of their position paper on strength training for female athletes (10). Among that paper's conclusions was the recommendation that “males and females should train in the same basic way, employing similar methodologies, programs and types of exercises” (10). Despite the similar physiological adaptations between male athletes and female athletes, the authors identified several barriers, which prevented female athletes from engaging in strength training. Conspicuous among those barriers was the potential of an athlete violating social norms around femininity by engaging in strength training, which has traditionally been regarded as a masculine activity (11). Regardless of the sociocultural taboos, strength training is beneficial for health and improving physical performance in both adult and adolescent populations (5,30). In adolescents, strength training may improve an individual's cardiovascular risk profile, enhance self-esteem, increase the bone mineral density, and improve the body composition (6).
Specific to athletes, strength training can make young athletes more resistant to musculoskeletal injuries and improve motor performance (5). For female athletes, strength training may prove particularly beneficial, whereas boys undergo a “neuromuscular spurt” during puberty in which their increased height is accompanied by increased muscle mass, muscular strength, and power, as well as girls do not (9). In adolescent girls, puberty increases the height and center of mass with no concomitant increase in muscular strength or power. This has been suggested as one reason for the significant difference in the incidence of knee injuries in female versus male athletes. Several authors have speculated that a well-designed strength training program might offset this difference (14,15). In addition, strength training programs with adolescent female athletes have been shown to improve parameters of athletic performance, including muscular strength and power (13).
Based on the available evidence, however, it seems that many female athletes are not training in the same basic way as their male counterparts. A survey of 32 high school coaches from the Boise, Idaho area found that 50% of coaches of male athletes required their athletes to engage in strength training, whereas only 9% of coaches of female athletes shared that requirement (18). Furthermore, 50% of coaches of male athletes incorporated strength training throughout the year, compared with 17% of coaches of female athletes. When female athletes did train, the survey found that the methods used often differed from male athletes, with the former often performing “female preferred” modalities, such as yoga or Pilates. Similarly, a survey of athletes in 4 NCAA Division III programs found that coaches of male athletes were more likely to require their athletes to lift than were coaches of female athletes (16) and those male athletes were significantly more confident in their proficiency in the weight room. One sociological study with a small sample (n = 14) found that NCAA Division I athletes in soccer, volleyball, track, cross country, tennis, and gymnastics reported having little exposure to strength training for sport before college (20). Similarly, an ethnographic study of Division I women's soccer players (n = 21) found that few had engaged in strength training before their collegiate career (8). Among Division I gymnasts and softball players who did train with weights in high school, some women reported being ridiculed by peers because of their weight trained physique (19).
Collegiate strength coaches have also reported a reluctance to lift weights and inexperience in the weight room among incoming female athletes at both Division I and Division III institutions (1,7). Other research has shown that a lack of training experience is not exclusive to female athletes, with Division I strength coaches identifying the Olympic lifting technique and core and lower extremity strength as areas in need of improvement for most incoming athletes (29). Of coaches surveyed in that work, 72% said there was no gender difference in weight room inadequacies. Those who reported a relationship between gender and strength training inadequacies pointed to female athletes lacking hamstring and upper-body strength as well as having poor landing technique when jumping. Some coaches also asserted that female athletes are able to progress faster than male athletes, whereas others commented male athletes had more knowledge of lifting technique.
Unfortunately, little is known about the prevalence or practice of strength training for adolescent female athletes. So little, in fact, that one study examining injuries related to strength training used data on the number of competitive weightlifters as a proxy for the number of subjects in sport-related strength training programs (17). This purpose of this study, then, is to examine the practice of strength training at the high school level. Four research questions guided the study as follows: (a) does the proportion of male versus female athletes who are required to engage in strength training as a component of their sport participation differ?; (b) does the frequency and duration of male versus female athlete strength training differ?; (c) do the type of training performed by male versus female athletes differ?; and (d) do coaches believe strength training programs for male and female athletes should differ?
Experimental Approach to the Problem
Data for this survey were gathered through a Qualtrics (Qualtrics International, Inc., Provo, UT) questionnaire that was emailed to interscholastic sport head coaches in the states of Texas and Wisconsin. These states were chosen because many of the high schools in Texas have a dedicated athletic period during the school day, whereas athletic periods are less common in Wisconsin. In addition to the prevalence of strength training for sport and the modes of training performed, the researchers sought to investigate whether training practices varied between the states. Contact information was gathered from official school websites, and coaches were invited to complete the survey early in the spring semester. After 1 week, a follow-up email was sent to solicit responses from those who had not yet chosen to participate.
Subjects selected for this survey were high school head coaches of 4 boys' sports as follows: football, basketball, soccer, and baseball and 4 girls' sports as follows: volleyball, basketball, soccer, and softball. The sports were chosen because of their prevalence at the high school level in both states and because basketball, soccer, and baseball/softball are similar enough between the sexes that they should lend themselves to similar training requirements.
Lists were compiled of all schools engaged in the interscholastic competition in Texas and Wisconsin. Schools were then stratified by enrollment into 5 groups with student populations of: 2,000+, 1,500–1999, 1,000–1,499, 500–999, and <500. Once stratified, 10 schools were randomly chosen from each enrollment range and from each state, using Excel (Microsoft, Redmond, WA) spreadsheet software. With 5 enrollment ranges and 10 schools from each range, a pool of 50 schools was selected from each state. With schools identified, email addresses for coaches were obtained through school or district directories. By including 8 sports at each school and 100 schools in the pool, there was a potential to survey as many as 800 coaches. Because of some schools not sponsoring one of the sports, soccer, e.g., or not having sufficient contact information for staff, researchers were only able to gather email addresses for 760 coaches.
An email was sent to each coach with a brief description of the survey, assurance of anonymity, and a link to the survey. Those who clicked the link were able to find information about the benefits and risks of participation and provide their consent to participate. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater.
Of the 760 surveys sent out, 109 were completed, producing a response rate of 14.3%.
The emailed survey consisted of 26 questions, including 18 multiple-choice questions, 7 with a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = never to 5 = very frequently), and 1 open-response question. Coaches were asked to identify in which state they lived, their sex (if they chose), sport coached, and describe their own experience with sports and strength training. Following demographic questions, coaches were asked to describe the strength programs they used to prepare their athletes. Programmatic questions included whether or not they required their athletes to strength train, when those athletes trained with respect to the competition season, how frequently they trained, and how long they trained. In addition, coaches were asked about specific lifts, implements, intensities, and program design elements they used in their programs. Finally, coaches were asked whether strength programs should differ for male and female athletes and why or how they should differ, if applicable. An initial email was sent early in the spring semester and was followed by a reminder email 1 week later. After 2 weeks, the survey was closed, and the data were analyzed.
Chi-square (X2 and z with an alpha level of 0.05) tests were completed to identify differences in strength training programs for female and male athletes, as well as differences in strength training backgrounds between coaches of female and male athletes. Independent-samples t-tests (with an alpha level of 0.05) were used to identify mean differences in use frequency of a variety of training exercises, equipment, and other training elements between female and male athletes.
Most coaches who responded were male (79%). Sixty-nine percent (n = 76) of the coaches were from Wisconsin. Over half (54%) of the coaches held a master's degree, with 8% of those holding a master's in physical education or kinesiology. Coaches of all 8 sports participated in the study, with football coaches comprising the largest representation at 22%. Respondents were spread relatively evenly across the school enrollment categories, with the exception of the largest schools, which accounted for only 8% (n = 8) of respondents (Table 1). No differences were found in the proportion of responses from each school enrollment range between the states sampled (X2 = 3.40, df = 4, p = 0.49, V = 0.18), the proportion of coaches of male versus female athletes in each state (X2 = 0.02, df = 1, p = 0.88, V = 0.01), or in coach sex across school enrollments (X2 = 3.09, df = 4, p = 0.54, V = 0.17).
Overall, 85% of coaches (n = 85) reported that they require their athletes to strength train, whereas 15% (n = 15) do not. A greater proportion of coaches in Texas reported requiring strength training (97%) as compared with coaches in Wisconsin (80%, X2 = 4.89, df = 1, p = 0.03, V = 0.22). However, coaches from the 2 states reported very similar strength training practices and perspectives. There was no difference in whether strength training was required based on athlete sex (X2 = 0.16, df = 1, p = 0.69, V = 0.04) or the sex of the coach (X2 = 0.63, df = 1, p = 0.43, V = 0.08). However, the coach sex of female athletes who are required to strength trained is much more balanced (54% female and 46% male coaches, respectively) as compared to the coach sex of female athletes who are not required to strength train (Table 2). A greater proportion of female athletes who are not required to strength train have male coaches as compared with female coaches (71% male and 29% female coaches, respectively, X2 = 39.03, df = 3, p = 0.00, V = 0.63).
Overall, the majority (57%, n = 61) of coaches began strength training as part of a middle or high school sport program, whereas 16% (n = 17) began strength training as a collegiate athlete, and 13% (n = 14) began as a part of the middle or high school physical education curriculum (Table 3). A chi-square test found differences in the sports experience between coaches of female and male athletes (X2 = 11.48, df = 4, p = 0.02, V = 0.34). A greater proportion of coaches of male athletes played the sport they coach at the collegiate level (68%) versus coaches of female athletes (48%). Also, more female athletes have coaches who played sports other than the one they coach at the collegiate level (26 and 7% for coaches of female and male athletes, respectively), and a greater proportion of coaches of female athletes began strength training as collegiate athletes (31 and 7% for coaches of female and male athletes, respectively) (X2 = 13.14, df = 6, p = 0.04, V = 0.36).
Overall, the majority (67%) of teams strength trained once weekly during the season and 21% trained twice weekly. Sixty-two percent of teams trained for 21–40 minutes during the season, whereas 23% trained for 41–60 minutes. In the off-season, only 12% of teams trained once weekly, whereas 44% of teams strength trained 2 times per week and 29% 3 times weekly. Off-season session lengths were also generally longer, with 56% of teams' strength training 41–60 minutes, 15% spending more than one hour per session strength training, and 28% reporting sessions of 21–40 minutes. There were no significant differences between male and female athletes in the strength training frequency (t(90) = −1.6, p = 0.11, d = 0.34) or the session length (t(92) = 0.14, p = 0.89, d = 0.03) during the season. In the off-season, however, male athletes train more frequently (t(91) = −3.4, p = 0.00, d = 0.71) and for longer (t(92) = −2.8, p = 0.01, d = 0.59) (Figure 1).
Coaches were asked to indicate how frequently they use a variety of training exercises, equipment, and other training elements on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 to 5 (1 = never; 5 = every workout). The most common type of lift performed were “bodyweight exercises,” with a mean of 4.27 (Figure 2). Other frequently performed lifts included “dumbbell presses” with a mean of 3.91, bench press at 3.68, back squats at 3.60, and front squats at 3.46. No significant differences between male and female athletes were identified with respect to the frequency of performance of the training exercises surveyed.
With respect to equipment, dumbbells were incorporated most frequently, with an average of 4.51, followed by barbells at 4.47, medicine balls at 3.89, pulleys at 3.17, TRX bands at 3.13, and kettlebells with 3.11 (Figure 3). Two significant differences were observed in the implements used in training female and male athletes, with large tires (t(79) = −2.18, p = 0.03, d = 0.51) and sleds (t(81) = −2.87, p = 0.01, d = 0.66) being used more for male athletes. Neither lift was performed very frequently, with large tires averaging 2.09 and sleds 2.33.
Other program elements that were regularly incorporated include dynamic warm-ups (4.67), plyometrics (3.90), static stretching (3.84), injury prevention exercises (3.83), and agility ladders (3.59). No significant differences were found with respect to the use of other program elements (Figure 4).
In terms of repetition ranges, both female and male athletes trained most commonly at the 4–8 rep and 9–12 rep ranges. The only significant difference in repetition ranges used for female and male athletes was the frequency of training to failure, which was used more for male athletes (t(72) = −3.78, p = 0.00, d = 0.92) and relatively infrequently compared with the other repetition ranges (Figure 5).
When coaches were asked whether programs should be designed differently for female versus male athletes, 70% (n = 64) said that they should be different, whereas 30% (n = 28) responded that they should not differ. Responses to this question were not significantly different between female and male coaches (X2 = 2.31, df = 1, p = 0.13, V = 0.16) or between coaches of female and male athletes (X2 = 2.10, df = 1, p = 0.15, V = 0.16). Subjects were asked to rate the extent of their agreement with several statements about how programs should vary based on the sex of athletes. The most commonly supported statements were related to physiological and anatomical differences, as well as motivational differences between sexes (Figure 6). The survey included the opportunity for subjects to write-in additional ways programs should differ between sexes, and 2 additional responses were provided. They referenced the importance of adapting programs to an individual athletes' needs, regardless of gender (n = 2), and separating athletes by sex to avoid making athletes feel uncomfortable (n = 1).
In contrast to the previous research (18), there was no difference between the coaches of male and female athletes who required their athletes to strength train. Eighty-six percent of coaches of male athletes and 83% of coaches of female athletes indicated that they require their athletes to strength train. Also in contrast to other work (18), the type of strength training performed by male and female athletes differed very little. Coaches of both male and female athletes included a variety of bodyweight, barbell, and dumbbell exercises into their programs. Similarly, coaches of both male and female athletes incorporated a range of intensities, with the most frequent repetition range being 4–8 (75–90% 1RM) followed by 9–12 (65–75% 1 repetition maximum [RM]). The most common repetition ranges used were similar to a survey of high school strength and conditioning coaches (3). Likewise, 95% of the strength coaches in that survey reported that they incorporated dynamic stretching into their programs. In this survey, 94% of sport coaches reported using dynamic warm-ups at least twice weekly, with 81% saying they were incorporated into every session. Coaches in this survey also reported a similar frequency of training at an average of 2.12 days per week during the season and 3.26 days in the off-season, with male athletes training longer and more frequently during the off-season.
Beyond the training frequency and duration in the off-season, the only other significant differences found between the training of male and female athletes were that the programs of male athletes more commonly included large tires and sleds and that male athletes trained to failure more often. Incorporation of tires and sleds in the programs of male athletes may be a reflection of the fact that a greater proportion of the respondents were coaches of football (n = 22) than coaches of any other sport. The flipping, pushing, and pulling of those implements mirrors the elements of blocking and tackling in football to a greater extent than it does the movements commonly performed in volleyball, basketball, soccer, or softball, so the use of those implements by male athletes may be related to training specificity. The finding that male athletes more commonly train to failure may be due to the association between failure and muscular hypertrophy (22). Although male athletes are generally receptive to an increased muscular size as a training goal, female athletes are often hesitant to pursue muscular hypertrophy for its own sake (8,12).
One reason that a significant majority of coaches surveyed require their athletes to strength train is likely their own experience. Fifty-seven percent of coaches were introduced to strength training as part of their own sport involvement in the middle or high school, whereas another 13% began training as a part of the physical education curriculum. Of those who did not begin training as a part of their sport or physical education participation, 16% were introduced while playing college sports, whereas another 6% took up strength training as a part of a college class. Only 2% of coaches indicated that they had never personally participated in strength training, whereas 73% specifically said that they trained as a part of their interscholastic or intercollegiate sport participation. Because most coaches trained as a part of their own experience, it stands to a reason that they would incorporate similar training with their own athletes. This is borne out by responses on a question about sources of information for program design, on which 54% of coaches said they “frequently” or “very frequently” used their own experience. In addition to their own experience, 65% said they used conversations with other coaches “frequently” or “very frequently” as a source of information. It is likely that many of those conversations incorporate elements of those coaches' own training experience. Although this survey found that more coaches of female athletes (31%) than coaches of male athletes (7%) started strength training in college, most coaches of both male and female athletes have some personal experience with strength training to enhance sport performance.
Seventy percent of coaches said that strength training programs should be designed differently for male and female athletes, with 59% of respondents indicating that the reason was “differences between muscle fibers, tendons, bones, etc. between the sexes.” On the open-response question, 31% (n = 11) of elaborations provided pointed to some iteration of “female bodies are built differently” or that the 2 sexes have “different body types.” Forty-six percent of coaches agreed that female programs “should focus more on injury prevention,” with 14% (n = 5) specifically mentioning a higher incidence of knee injuries in female athletes. Interestingly, none of the coaches discussed the higher incidence of concussions in female athletes, relative to their male counterparts playing the same sports and how they might be impacted by strength training (2). Although most coaches agreed with the statement that programs should be designed differently for male and female athletes, 63% of respondents disagreed with the contention that those differences are necessary to account for the lack of training experience in female athletes. Furthermore, 48% disagreed that strength programs for female athletes “should incorporate lower weights and higher repetitions,” whereas 37% agreed with the same. Regarding differences in the program design, one respondent commented, “I was thinking more along the lines of sport-specific lifting,” which was a common theme. Forty-four percent of responses (n = 16) said that the primary consideration in program design should be either the needs of the individual athlete or tailored to their specific sport. Although most coaches said programs should differ between sexes, it seems many were thinking of the type of sport played, not that programs should be tailored primarily based on male versus female athletes.
Not all coaches, however, had sport specificity in mind when they suggested that training protocols should be different for male and female athletes. Three responses pointed to an interest on the part of female athletes in “toning” rather than “building” muscle. One coach wrote, “Most girls do not want to gain any weight, so when they improve athletically by adding lean muscle, they do not like it.” Another asserted, “Females do not need to show big muscles, they need to prevent injuries while getting stronger and toning the muscles.” These responses are consistent with an ethnographic work on adolescent female track athletes who were found to distinguish between acceptable muscle “tone” and unacceptable “bulk” and who expressed concern about developing the latter (12). That work and the coaches' answers indicate an awareness on the part of female athletes of what sociologist Shari Dworkin (4) has called a “glass ceiling” on women's strength and muscularity. Through interviews conducted at fitness centers with recreationally trained women, Dworkin described a model in which women engage in a variety of behaviors to avoid becoming “too big.” The concern among those women was that developing excessive muscularity would undermine their femininity. Behaviors undertaken to limit muscular development included avoiding strength training entirely, not increasing the amount of weight lifted, lifting lighter weights than they could handle (“holding back”), and decreasing the length or frequency of strength training sessions if they felt they had gained too much strength or size (“backing off”). Although Dworkin's work was limited to recreationally trained women, there is some evidence that athletes engage in similar behaviors. A study of Division I women athletes showed that either the subjects themselves or one of their teammates had engaged in “holding back,” limiting resistance to bodyweight or undertaking extra cardio training to limit muscular hypertrophy (20). One coach in this survey wrote “we are trying to get girls to simply show up and many will not when heavier weights are used.” To accommodate their concerns, the coach wrote that, “focusing on lower weights and higher reps will get them in the door until they realize that lower reps will build more strength and functionality.”
Just as muscularity is often associated with masculinity, the facility in which muscles are built can be perceived as being a masculine space (21). As a result, women who enter that space may be uncomfortable and feel as if they are trespassing or that their presence is scrutinized. Even Division I female athletes have expressed discomfort about lifting in a public weight room, indicating that they perceived it as a masculine and therefore intimidating space (20). One coach in this survey pointed to the “stigma of the fitness center/weight room for girls” and indicated that one must tailor the lifts that were included in the workout to motivate female athletes to participate. Another coach described a different environment in the weight room, with regard to music selection and motivational techniques, between male and female teams. As a result, the coach suggested that female athletes were more motivated “when training with other like-minded female athletes.”
Despite concerns among athletes about becoming too muscular and transgressing gender norms, research on perceptions of strength training among female athletes has generally shown that they value such training as an important means to enhance their performance. Athletes recognize that muscular strength and, to some extent, size are necessary to compete at a high level (12,16,19,20). A survey of Division III athletes showed that only 16% of female athletes did not have a desire to be more muscular (25). Of most female athletes who desired more muscularity, the most common reason for that desire was “functionality,” indicating an understanding of the connection between muscularity and performance. One explanation for the common association among female athletes between muscular strength/size and performance is that more are engaging in strength training early in their athletic careers. This study indicates that coaches are as likely to require their female athletes to strength train because they are their male athletes, allowing both to see on-field results from their efforts in the weight room. Furthermore, in the 20th century and earlier, being competitive was itself viewed as a masculine trait (27,28). Coaches and physical educators into the latter part of the century intentionally constrained the intensity of competition among female athletes, fearing it could be physically harmful and regarded as unfeminine. Because the passage of Title IX in 1972, the number of female college athletes has increased six-fold, whereas the number of female high school athletes has increased four-fold (24,26,28). Because more girls and women participated in increasingly high-level sports, the notion that femininity and competitiveness are incompatible has all but disappeared. It stands to reason, then, that there has been a similar shift with regard to the association between femininity and strength training. Because more women have engaged in strength training to enhance their own performance and then moved into the coaching ranks and introduced it to their own athletes, the notion that female athletes should avoid the weight room is similarly endangered.
Thirty years ago, the NSCA's Women's Committee recommended that male and female athletes “should train for strength in the same basic way, using similar methodologies, programs, and types of exercises.” Thirty years later, it seems that high school coaches are closely meeting that recommendation. This survey found no significant differences in whether male or female athletes were required to strength train. Furthermore, no differences were found with respect to the lifts used or the intensity of those lifts. Despite the fact that 70% of coaches indicated that strength programs should differ for male and female athletes, the primary reason they should differ was based on demands of the sport, not the sex of the athlete. The most common explanation for programmatic differences between the sexes was that strength programs need to be tailored to the athlete and specific to their sport. Perhaps, this is to thank the efforts of the NSCA whose program design protocol starts with a needs analysis of both the sport and the athlete when creating a conditioning program (23). Perhaps, this is because of the experience of coaches who increasingly have undertaken sport-specific training of their own before entering the coaching ranks. Regardless of the reason, it seems that interscholastic coaches now largely follow the NSCA's recommendation that male and female athletes are trained in the same basic way.
The authors have no conflicts of interest to report. Trent Rudebeck was compensated for his assistance with data collection through a Research Scholar Award from the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater. The authors thank the coaches who participated in this survey and coaches Brad Gunn and Brad Nelson who provided valuable feedback in the development of our questionnaire.
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