Strength and Fitness Standards For Women

By Chris Carlsen

Strength and Fitness Standards for Women

            There exists a misconception in today’s society concerning physical standards for girls and women.  We live within a culture that encourages females to be extremely thin, an ideal that is enforced by the mainstream media.  Aside from the well-researched and documented implications of this standard (women developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia and a host of other eating or exercise related disorders), there is one that is rarely touched upon: the impact it exerts on women’s strength and fitness levels.  It follows that women refrain from lifting weights because they think they will “bulk up,” become too big or muscular and lose their feminine elegance.  They have been conditioned to believe that steady-state cardio, aerobic training or very light weight lifting for higher repetitions is the only efficacious protocol for obtaining a petite, toned body. This mindset not only deters women from achieving the body type they truly desire, but it also places them at a high risk for physical injury by impeding their functional performance in daily life.  In essence, when women avoid strength training or lifting heavier weights, they do not develop lean muscle mass, which is the key to a fast metabolism and low body fat.  Muscle mass also signifies that a woman is strong and fit, and will enable the performance of various real world activities. Women do not have to worry about looking manly. Hormones and larger sectional area of muscle fibers will prevent this. 

Research indicates that when the level of one’s strength is compared to the cross-sectional area of one’s muscles, no significant difference exists between genders.  Thus, muscle quality is not sex specific and it is a pervasive fallacy to believe that men should be stronger than women simply by virtue of their gender. However, there is a difference in absolute strength and size between men and women, which can be attributed to the larger (or greater quantity of)cross-sectional area of muscle fibers. Practically speaking, this finding carries important implications for the development of a woman’s strength-to-weight ratio, or simply the measure of one’s physical strength divided by their weight. If females do not become active and develop an adequate strength-to-weight ratio, then they are misusing their body and avoid its intended purpose: movement. When the musculoskeletal system is not stimulated through movement, and when human beings become sedentary, the body decays.

A sedentary lifestyle will cause dysfunction and poor motor movement, leading to the inability to perform various exercises and bodyweight activities (which are discussed later on.) If women don't perform a certain volume general physical tasks, they may experience a functional detriment lasting for the rest of their lives. Movement must be thought of as a necessary skill for all women, and must serve as the foundation of their training. This should start as early as age 10, as the negative effects of a strength paucity can be apparent in young girls and female athletes.  For instance, knee injuries are the most common cause of permanent disability in female high school basketball players, accounting for up to 91% of season-ending injuries and 94% of injuries requiring surgery.[1]  In the United States, 20,000 to 80,000 high school female athletes experience ACL injuries each year, with most occurring in soccer and basketball.[1]Recent studies also reveal that young female athletes are 4 to 6 times more likely than boys to suffer a serious non-contact ACL injury.[2]  Furthermore, consider the following statistics:


Overall, girls are 8 times more likely to suffer an ACL injury than boys.[3] 
  As many as 70% of ACL injuries involve little or no contact with the other player.[3] 

  At the age of 14 years, girls have 5 times higher rates of ACL tears than boys.[4]

 What causes these phenomena?  Common theory points to the roles of female hormones and a wider pelvis (Q-Angle), which cause greater knock-knee alignment. While these are relevant factors, they are not the glaring problem. The problem can be traced to several other factors, including weak hips (glutes, hamstrings), a weak core and a limited foundation in strength as well as the ability and know-how to land and change direction properly. When the glutes, hamstrings and core are not strong enough to decelerate, which is a pivotal component of most sports, women transfer that stress onto their ligaments. A general strength base enables women to perform any physical activity more or less successfully.  Remember, the weight room is a controlled environment and sports are uncontrolled. Ladies, develop and master your strength in a controlled ecology and you will be extremely prepared for the uncontrollable activities on the court or field.  Yet this begs the question: what does female strength look like from a quantitative perspective?  How much weight should women be able to lift, and to what degree should they master their own bodies?

As was earlier noted, maintaining an optimal strength-to-weight ratio is essential for sound athletic performance, as well as the accomplishment of daily functional tasks (especially as one ages.)  A good assessment of strength-to-weight ratio is how well an individual can do bodyweight activities (pull-ups, push-ups, jumps, sprints, etc.), as well as weight-related activities such as deadlifts, squats, swings and Turkish Get-Ups..

In terms of the deadlift, which is one of the pivotal strength training exercises, the average women should be able to deadlift her own body weight for five repetitions. This will engender the capacity for lifting beyond one’s body weight in the future and will instill a strength reserve within women to combat fatigue.   Without meeting this criterion, females will depend too much on the wrong areas (lower back, knees, neck) when they tire. Case in point, if a 140-pound woman’s maximum deadlift is 200 pounds, she will always be able to lift 140 pounds, even when exhausted.

In the realm of body weight exercises, women should be able to do 5 solid push-ups, 1 pull-up, swing a 30-pound kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes (which promotes both cardiovascular and hip endurance) and perform a Turkish-Get-Up with a 25-pound bell. In order to be strong, women must be able to conquer their body weight.  These exercises, along with the deadlift, encompass myriad qualities of athletic performance and will keep women fit for life.

Over the last 10 years, I have trained countless women of all ages. I have also worked with some women post-ACL surgery. They all lacked a base of strength, especially in their hips. But as you can see from the videos above, this is no longer the case. Instilling strength within women is one of the most fulfilling components of my career, and is something every woman should embrace. To preserve their bodies, minds and movement, strength training should be an essential facet of any woman’s exercise program.

 

If you are interested in learning more about female strength training, or you’re a female athlete or woman looking to acquire a base of strength, feel free to reach out to my team at Info@IronLionPerformance.com, or leave a comment below.



1.  LaBella CR, Huxford MR, Grissom J, et. al. Effect of Neuromuscular Warm-Up on Injuries in Female Soccer and Basketball Athletes in Urban Public High Schools. Arch Ped & Adolesc Med. 2011;165(11):1033-1040.

2. Barber-Westin SD, Noyes FR, Galloway M. Jump-land characteristics and muscle-strength development in young athletes: a gender comparison of 1140 athletes 9 to 17 years of age.  Am J Sprts Med. 2006;34(3):375-384.

3. National Institutes of Health Medicine Plus. 
An Athlete's Nightmare: Tearing the ACL. Accessed August 7, 2013

4. Shea KG, et al. Anterior cruciate ligament injury in pediatric and adolescent soccer players: An analysis of insurance data. J Pediatr Orthop 2004;24(6):623-628.