Female athletes have made great strides, especially in the area of athletic performance in the past decade. Several factors explain and continue to contribute to these great improvements in athletic performance. Girls are being introduced to sports and are developing athletic skills at a younger age. Sport coaches are more knowledgeable about skills, technique and physical preparation than ever before. Exercise science has come a long way, proving that women can train in the same manner as men do. Women now have the opportunity to work with strength and conditioning coaches to supplement their sport training.
Strength and conditioning specialists use methods such as periodization to design long-term training plans that include resistance training, plyometrics and metabolic conditioning. In addition, sports-specific exercises to improve agility and flexibility are also included. Periodization is the scientific manipulation of training variables over periods within the training year to improve an athlete's overall fitness and performance in a specific sport. The result is the physical and physiological peak an athlete requires for competition. A periodized plan should be individualized for the athlete or team.
When variables of training such as the volume or amount of training, intensity, or focus are purposefully altered over periods, the athlete reduces her chance of overtraining. Training periods also need to be designed in progressive steps. Each period has a training focus that is achieved by altering several variables including volume, intensity, rest and recovery, and mode of training.
Volume is the number of sets and repetitions in a given training session. Repetitions are the number of times an exercise is performed within a set. Usually, rest occurs only after the designated number of repetitions has been completed, not between each repetition. A set refers to the number of times each "bundle" of repetitions is completed. Research suggests that multiple sets (3 to 6) produce the best overall results significant increases in strength in both novice and elite athletes.
Intensity is the amount of work completed during a specific amount of time. Intensity can refer to both strength training and metabolic conditioning. With respect to strength training, intensity is usually indicated by a percentage of the measured or predicted repetition maximum (RM). A percentage of maximal heart rate (HRmax) is most often used to determine intensity during conditioning sessions. Rest and recovery allow the body to adapt to the stresses of training. Using appropriate rest and recovery methods and periods is just as important as the volume and intensity of the training program.
Recovery is the rest period an athlete takes between sets, training sessions, or training periods. A shorter rest period between sets of exercises promotes muscular endurance, higher heart rates, and some cardiovascular enhancement. Longer rest periods, of 2 to 3 minutes, allow for greater recovery, allowing for increased reproduction of ATP, the fuel for muscle actions. If an athlete doesn't allow for adequate recovery between sets and training sessions, the neuromuscular system may not adapt as it should. The recovery period, in addition to proper nutrition and sleep, allows for the body to regenerate and build.
Mode of training refers to the exercises and equipment chosen for the training program. The exercises dictate what the training response will be. Traditional resistance machines like the leg curl, chest and leg press and row strengthen one or more muscle groups in one plane of. These machines are best for training isolated muscle groups and achieving balance between muscle groups. Free weights are considered optimal for training athletes for sports over resistance machines because the movement of the resistance can move through various planes and speeds as it does when the actual sport is performed.
Olympic weightlifting is considered one of the most sport-specific resistance training forms. Exercises such as the power clean and power snatch require strength, speed, coordination, flexibility and balance. Plyometrics are a form of speed training especially good for developing explosiveness. Usually, body weight provides the only resistance. Ballistic movements like jumping and throwing develop quick reaction and response. An athlete or coach must carefully consider the desired outcome before determining the mode of exercise that best achieves the goals of the training program.
Some say that athletes are born, not made. Although it may be true that not everyone can become an Olympic gymnast or volleyball player, anyone can become a good athlete. With a thorough understanding of these training principles, women athletes can benefit from a cutting-edge program that enhances their strength, speed and power while reducing their risk of injury.
David Oliver and Dana Healey are the authors of "Athletic Strength for Women" (Human Kinetics; 2005; $19.95). Oliver is a former strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. women's soccer and basketball teams and Healy serves as department head for strength and conditioning at the United States Olympic Committee. For more information on this book, please visit: www.HumanKinetics.com, or call 1-800-747-4457.