Explained: When Young Girls Should Start Strength Training

by HAC Personal Trainer, Rachel Evans

Female strength training seems to be a hot topic regardless of age. Recently, controversy surrounding the men’s and women’s weight areas at an NCAA tournament has brought disparities between male and female athletes to light. This controversy is indirectly but significantly related to the hot topic of youth strength training for girls. It’s been culturally acceptable to assume it isn’t appropriate for young girls to receive strength training based on a range of misconceptions. As our culture begins to change its tune, the question becomes not if, but when is it time for young girls to start training safely? What kind of training is appropriate? The reasonable solution would be to offer the same strength training opportunities to young girls at the same time and rate as they are offered to young boys. Let’s talk about why.

Strength Training
Strength training involves exercising a muscle or several muscles against external resistance (force). This can be done using free weights, machines, resistance bands, body weight, and many other means. The process of strength training increases muscular strength, power, and endurance while improving bone health and overall body composition.

Myth: Strength training will stunt girls’ growth.
There is no evidence that strength training stunts girls’ (or any children’s) growth. There is evidence, however, that strength training does improve bone density, coordination, balance, and focus.

Myth: Strength training will make girls “bulky.”
Strength training alone will not make girls or women “bulky.” First, any prepubescent child, male or female, will not experience muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle mass). Prepubescent children who strength train will increase their strength by improving their muscle fiber recruitment/activation and neuromuscular control. In simpler terms, children become stronger as their muscles become more coordinated on the cellular level. They do not gain mass because they do not have the associated hormone levels required for mass gain.

Second, basic resistance training will not make women “bulky” either. A “muscular” body type is largely a product of genetics. If a woman is muscular or easily becomes muscular with training, that’s just how her body is made and there is nothing wrong with that. If a woman doesn’t naturally have a muscular body type, it will require A LOT of eating, consuming the proper nutrients, and lifting A LOT of weight OFTEN in order to become “bulky.” And again, there is nothing wrong with looking and being strong. Embrace the state in which your body feels at its best.

Neuromuscular Control: The unconscious response of muscles to movement. It is especially important for joint stability in the lower extremities, particularly the knees and ankles.

Myth: It is dangerous for girls to strength train.
Just like with adults, youth strength training is safe with proper education, technique, and programming.

Myth: Girls don’t need strength training.
There are plenty of good reasons for girls to strength train at an early age. Read on to learn about just a few.

Fact: women are 2 – 8x more likely to tear their ACL.

Girls are more at risk of ACL injuries. Why? Research is still being done, but there are a few theories.

The most commonly accepted theory is inadequate neuromuscular control. This would mean females have muscle cell units that don’t respond quickly enough/innately enough to make quick changes in direction and quick stops. How do you improve neuromuscular control? Strength training. Earlier training yields better results. This intervention would also help solve the theory of inadequate core stability.

ACL- Anterior Cruciate Ligament: The ACL is the anterior (front) ligament of the knee, and it is responsible for stabilizing the knee joint. It is most commonly torn during sudden stops/changes in direction and is a common injury in basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, and tennis players.

Another theory is that females have larger Q-angles, which create unstable knee joints and can increase risk of injury. Women seem to have larger Q-angles due to their hips widening during puberty. While the jury is still out on this theory, what’s a simple solution to an unstable knee joint? Strength training. More importantly, strength training before that angle becomes larger, therefore, before puberty.

Q-Angle: Angle between quadriceps muscle (front of thigh) and the patella tendon (knee cap).

– Average Male Q-angle: 14°
– Average Female Q-angle: 17°

A third explanation could be hormonal differences between men and women, but there isn’t enough evidence to support this theory.

Ultimately, if lack of neuromuscular control and core stability are the driving factors of increased ACL injuries in females, it would infer that males receive adequate strength training which increases neuromuscular control and core stability, thus decreasing their risk of injuries. Females would see similar benefits from basic strength training at an earlier age – their muscles would activate better and quicker for improved coordination, they would land after jumping/changing direction better, and their core stability and strength would be improved.

Fact: Women are more at risk for developing osteoporosis.
Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis later in life. One highly effective way to decrease the risk of osteoporosis is consistent resistance training, especially once bones reach their peak mass and maturation. Which leads us to…

Osteoporosis: A medical condition in which bone loses density, becomes brittle and fragile, and is more likely to fracture.

Fact: Girls reach peak bone mass and maturation at a younger age than boys.
Girls reach bone maturity before boys, which means their bones are done growing at an earlier age. Once bones are done growing, resistance training provides a way for bones to maintain/improve their density. Therefore, if female bones finish growing at an earlier age, they will benefit from resistance training to keep their bones strong and healthy at an earlier age.

Fact: Women are less likely to participate in strength training activities.
A prevalent reason for this is a lack of knowledge. Generally, many women do not feel comfortable using a weight room because they don’t know how to use the various pieces of equipment. Teaching young girls proper strength training techniques in an age-appropriate and engaging manner would be an easy solution to this. This would also allow girls to carry those skills into adulthood and live healthier, stronger, and more confident lives. Strength training is important to maintain a healthy body composition, decrease disease risk, increase immune health, increase bone health, decrease injury risk, improve mental health and increase overall self-confidence, so the more people we can encourage to engage in this form of training, the better.

Ask yourself: What could potentially result if girls are provided basic strength training?

  • Decreased ACL injuries in females?
  • Decreased total injuries in female athletes?
  • Increased sports performance in females?
  • Decreased impact of biological differences between male and female athletes on athletic performance?
  • Increased cognitive function and focus?
  • Decreased prevalence of osteoporosis?
  • Decreased number of falls and fractures among post-menopausal women?
  • Decreased prevalence of metabolic diseases in women?

So, when should young girls start strength training? The answer is probably yesterday.

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