Training female athletes

USP - Training female athletes

With the growing emergence and popularity of female footballers and National AFL League starting next year. I thought I’d address some of the common myths, physiological and biomechanics differences and key areas that must be addressed to ensure female athletes reduce their risk of injury and optimise their performance.

USP - Tay Zimmer, USP Athlete winning Gold

I’ve been fortunate enough to train many elite female athletes including world record holder Tayliah Zimmer, Australian Surf Life Saving Team Member Rach Eddy, Coolangatta Gold Iron Woman Champion Courtney Hancock, AFLW Star Georgie Rankin, Australian Swim Champ Storm Nutting, and arguably one of Australia’s best female AFL Footballers Katie Brennan to a name a few!!!

Individualised specific physical preparation has a myriad of benefits for female athletes. 

  • Enhance sports performance and sporting skills
  • Reduce incidence of injury!
  • Improved Confidence and Body Image!
Katie Brennan healthy fit and strong!!
  • Decrease Body Fat/increase lean muscle!
  • Improved overall physical, psychological and emotional health markers

Over the years there has been numerous myths relating to female athletic development and training.

Common Female Training Myths include:

Weight training will make me big and bulky! (Incorrect females actually have 1/10th the testosterone of their male counterparts so this virtually impossible)

Iron Woman Champion Courtney Hancock and Elite Big Bash Cricketer Nick Buchanan training partners working hard and smart at USP Gymnasium!
Coolangatta Gold 4 x Iron Woman Champion

Cardio is the best thing for fat loss! (Women expend 40% less calories or energy expenditure when performing walking same distance as men-so it is an extremely inefficient form of exercise to fat loss).

Machines are safer for females (Wrong, when using machines there is virtually no need to utilise the stabiliser muscles.

Machines work in fixed planes of motion which can lead to pattern overload syndrome and over-use injuries). (Free weight training activates the stabiliser muscles and requires higher levels of neuromuscular control, female athletes can achieve the benefits of resistance training (improved posture, improved joint stability and improved connective tissue strength) that foster optimal development through adolescents).

USP Athlete Rachel Eddy taking Gold at the world titles in the Netherlands!

Multi-joint exercises need to be introduced immediately. Machines are not safer and do little to develop postural and stabiliser muscle groups. Fitness Risk Management research stated that 19 out of 20 injuries in health clubs happen on machines, not free weights!!

Females should use high reps and light weights. (Incorrect you want to train in various rep ranges to develop all physical qualities strength, speed, power, endurance)

Free Weight Exercises are perfect for Woman-check out elite champion iron woman Courtney Hancock Push Up + Weight Vest Technique

There’s no difference between males and females. Females should train like men. (Incorrect females have many physiological, hormonal and biochemical differences that dictate their training should be specific to their individual needs and biochemical physiological and biomechanics make up)

Katie Brennan Strongman Camp 2013 Farmers Walk
Katie Brennan AFLW Premiership 2018

Postural and structural Considerations for females.
Long Hair-loads neck up adversely affecting head position and posture-females have 30-40% less neck extensor muscle mass than males.

Geelong AFLW Star Georgie Rankin developing her neck and trap strength using the iron neck device at the USP Gymnasium-The Iron Neck is specifically designed to strengthen the traps and prevent concussion!

High Heel shoes-shorten the calf muscles which contributes to hyperextension at the knees and hyperlordosis/anterior pelvic tilt which can increase risk of injury and create a dysfunctional abdominal wall.

Females have a wider pelvis to support child bearing; the wider pelvis creates a larger Q angle, and is well associated with increased incidence of orthopaedic pain and dysfunction at the hip, knee, ankle and foot!

Female’s have higher incidence of joint laxity-due to fluctuating hormones of relaxin and calcitonin which can increase risk of injury.

Anatomical differences between male and female femurs

Impact on Training program design.

  • Females should perform body weight and free weight resistance training.
  • Interval training and skill and games based fitness should be used primarily for conditioning and fat loss purposes.
  • Females should utilise free weights to enhance performance and reduce injuries.

Exercise selection should include various compound exercises to target upper body, lower body (glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves).

Various derivatives of Squats, lunges, step ups, deadlifts, good mornings, glute ham raises, hip thrusts, reverse hypers, calf raises are amazing for strengthening the muscles above and below the knee to help stabilise the joint.

Richmond Tigers AFLW Captain Katie Brennan working on her Strength Speed with Trap bar Deadlifts with Chains
Richmond Tigers AFLW Captain Katie Brennan developing her speed and acceleration on the only tredsled in Australia at USP with Joey Hayes during her athletes retreat in November 2017

A concerted focus on target core exercises such as front, back and side bridges for stabilisation, chop and lift drills-anti-rotation drills e.g. pallof press, lateral flexion drills e.g. saxon side bends, anterior core drills e.g. ab roll outs, Hip Flexion drills such as toes to the sky, Medicine Ball Chop-trunk rotation drills. Are all great variations to develop balanced core musculature.
Posterior chain focus erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings,—Back Extensions, Good Mornings, reverse hypers, GHR, Deadlifts etc.
Plyometric/Jump/land training and deceleration training should be incorporated into female training programs so they can minimise risk of knee injuries when landing from marks etc.

Tay Zimmer and Joey Hayes working back at the original PIT Gymnasium circa 2005

Female Training program variables

First of all, females mature earlier than males. Therefore, in general, females can begin strength training earlier than males.

Also, since females have less muscle mass, on average, than males, they are also more susceptible to de-conditioning.

That is why a female strength-training program should have the athlete continue to train during the competitive season. This is because the drop-off in strength is more dramatic for females when strength training is stopped. Females lose strength faster than males. Thus women should continue to train through competitive season using 80-90% 1RM.

Richmond Tigers Captain Katie Brennan working on her posterior chain with reverse hypers at USP Gymnasium.

Due to hormonal fluctuations, the coach should be aware that females will often test better on strength tests 2-3 days after onset of menstruation.

Women need longer development times before exposure to extremely heavy weights due to a lower threshold capacity in their connective and supportive tissues. This may be related to higher levels of relaxin fluctuation of hormonal states in a women body.

Females should be encouraged to strengthen upper body, (e.g. triceps, low back, abdominal and elbow flexors) because women have a much higher incidence of joint laxity (elbow hyperextension), strengthening elbow flexors (biceps) aids in stabilising the joint.

USP Athlete Elite Iron Woman Courtney Hancock working on her trunk stabilisation with TRX Side Bridges

Because of bodyweight increased during menstruation, volume and intensity of plyometric exercises should be monitored carefully during this time period.

The female body is biologically more adept to training for endurance events due to muscle composition favouring a dominance of slow twitch muscle fibres.

Richmond Tigers AFL Star Katie Brennan working on her hand skills at Strongman Camp on 2013


There is a significant difference in eccentric loading capacity between males and females (13). The exercise professional should keep this in mind when developing plyometric programs and/or strength training programs. Should females be expected to perform at the same relative volume/intensity as males, injury is likely!

Be mindful of females dropping body fat below 13% as it can negatively impact the female hormones and cycle.

So in closing females are equal but not the same.

These are the same protocols we have used to successfully train numerous elite females.

Female athletes that undertake individually designed training programs gain the edge and advantage over their competition and reduce their incidence of injuries. Click here to find out how you can take your performance to the next level!

All the best,

Joey Hayes


Equal but not the same. Chek, P.

Training female athletes. Poliquin, C.