For the most part, men and women should train the same way, gradually increasing strength exercises in the five major movement patterns: pushing, pulling, hinging, squatting and carrying.
But there are some differences. Because women typically have a higher lower-to-upper-body strength ratio, female athletes more often have a weak core and under-performing gluteus muscles. This translates into under-expressed lower-body strength, because your core is not available to translate lower-body strength into full-body movement.
Consider the movement of throwing a ball or swinging a bat. You generate most of the force from your hips. But if you lack core strength, you lose the force that could have gone into increasing the speed of your swing or throw—most of it dissipating through a non-solid foundation.
With that in mind, here are four exercises that focus on glute and core strength, and the body awareness to translate that strength into harder swings, throws and jumps. Put simply, these lead to greater athletic performance.
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Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The Single-Leg RDL directly targets the hamstring and glute of your planted leg, while still activating your core and working on balance.
This exercise will do more for preventing ankle and knee sprains than almost anything else. It forces the structures of the knee and ankle to adapt to an unstable load that mimics the forces of sprinting or cutting. Also, having strong tendons and ligaments in the knee and ankle will cushion you if you happen to land wrong or put yourself in harm's way.
This exercise also strengthens sprinting mechanics.
- Start with a dumbbell in your right hand, with your left leg planted on the ground and your left knee "soft" (not bent, but not locked).
- Keep your right leg in line with your body as you bend forward at the waist, until you feel a stretch in your planted leg.
- Pause for a half second at the bottom position, then return to standing.
Sets/Reps: 3-4x10-15 reps at the beginning of the workout, in order to ensure that form is perfect.
Side Plank with Row
I often see female athletes unable to stiffen their core for impact (such as in the instant the ball and bat make contact.) Improving this substantially increases your power output. Former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre credits this skill for his ability to deliver thunderous punches and kicks.
Also, strengthening your side-plank position eliminates a side-to-side imbalance, a common cause of injury.
- Get into a side plank position about 5 feet back from a cable stack.
- Have a straight line from shoulder to ankle, and actively engage your grounded elbow.
- Before you add the row, have a partner put pressure straight down on your top hip to make sure you're in a solid position.
- This can be advanced by "stacking" your feet on top of each other—or regressed by staggering your feet for a more stable base.
- Grab a cable handle, and, keeping your elbow tucked by your side, draw it back and hold for a 1 count.
Sets/Reps: 2-4x8-12 reps.
Focus more on total body tension and control than on finishing the reps. If you start getting tired, feel free to take a five-second break to make sure all the reps are perfect.
The Kettlebell Swing not only helps you run faster and jump higher, it also increases total body awareness and strengthens your lower back—an area where 80 percent of Americans profess to have pain.
A Kettlebell Swing is very simply is a Romanian Deadlift performed explosively. Performing a swing with a lighter load gives you comparable benefits to performing heavier Deadlifts—without the increased load on the spine. In the video player above, strength and conditioning coach Todd Durkin takes us through three Kettlebell Swing variations that are great for female athletes.
- Grab a kettlebell and start with a slow Romanian Deadlift, keeping both knees "soft" and your back flat.
- Add momentum while still keeping your form solid, and squeeze your glutes at the top of the move.
- Make sure your low back doesn't arch (think of "pulling your ribs down" and engaging your abs).
Sets/Reps: 3-5x15-25 at the beginning of a workout as a full body warm-up or at the end of a workout as a finisher.
This is an easy exercise to perform since it does not require much equipment or skill. Simply grab two dumbbells and walk 100-200 feet or for 60 seconds.
This targets the full body, especially areas that many females are lacking, like the upper back, core and grip. It's also one of the greatest "bang-for-your-buck" exercises out there, with tremendous benefit to strength in just a short amount of time. Check out a demonstration of the Farmer's Walk in the video player above.
Learn more upper-body exercises for female athletes.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells, aiming for a combined weight of 50 percent of your body weight—but feel free to start lighter.
- Make sure your posture is perfect, keeping your ribs "pulled down" to keep your core tight.
Sets/Duration: 2-3x60-90 seconds at the end of a workout for best results.
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