Weightlifting has become increasingly popular over the last few years in the United States, especially among female athletes. Weightlifting is still a relatively new sport when it comes to females, however. The first world championship involving females was in 1987 and women made their Olympic debut in 2000. This article will explain how I program differently for my female lifters, express a few things that I have learned coaching female athletes, and one major point that needs to be considered when coaching female lifters.
First, studies have shown that the strength of the average woman is approximately two thirds of that of the average man. The major difference is due to the larger percentage of lean muscle mass on the male, particularly in the upper body. As a result, the majority of the female strength training volume targets the upper body. It is much more difficult for women to get their upper bodies stronger than their lower bodies. To combat this, I program an abundance of compound movements for the upper body for my female athletes. These movements include strict presses, push presses, bench presses, etc. Secondly, I program a large amount of high rep accessory work for the upper body, to increase hypertrophy. The best way to get a muscle stronger is to get the muscle bigger. Some examples of how to do this would be lateral raises, band pull aparts, etc. Women tend to have a higher percentage of their overall mass in their lower bodies compared to men. The leg strength of female athletes is virtually identical to men when the amount of muscle mass is equal. As a result, the total amount of volume for the lower body is comparable for my female and male lifters.
Second, in my experience I have noticed that female lifters have a much better ability to “grind out” reps than male lifters. Female lifters are able to perform more reps at a given percentage of a 1rm than a male lifter. However, some of the performed reps may be slower and more taxing than I would like. To counteract the slow reps, I program different jumping exercises twice a week at the beginning of each training session as part of the warm up. I’ve found more success programming the jumps at the beginning of the session when the athlete is fresh rather than at the end when the athlete is already tired. The jumping exercises are an excellent way to increase explosiveness and rate of force development. Some examples of jumping exercises would be standing box jumps, seated box jumps, barbell jumps, etc.
Lastly, over the past couple of weeks, I have noticed several of my female athletes “hitting the wall” at times they shouldn’t be. For example, some of my female athletes would be missing lifts at low percentages, would have little or no desire to train, and some would be struggling with maximizing strength output. I eventually realized that all of these struggles were related to the menstrual cycle. The fluctuating hormone levels have a huge impact on female athlete’s strength levels and reaction time. Again, I realized that I would need to structure future training programs around the menstrual cycle which, ideally, would be handled by a female coach. Due to the menstrual cycle, there will be times during each month when every female lifter will struggle or not feel their strongest. For that one week, I would plan a deload where I significantly reduce the volume and slightly reduce the intensity. Once the hormone levels return to normal, strength should return and the female athletes will resume normal training.