First and foremost, properly performed strength training can benefit everyone – regardless of gender, age, or level of activity. Strength training can make it feel easier to perform your activities of daily living, build stronger bones, improve your biomechanics and reduce your risk of injury or falls, enhance your performance in sport, and support your joints in optimal alignment. The basic principle of strength training is the same for everyone: Apply a load to a muscle great enough to elicit adaptations and that will lead to greater strength.
While the basic principles of Overload, Gradual Progression, and Specificity (the specific muscles you train are the ones that get stronger) are universal, there are certain times in a woman’s lifespan when strength training takes on special importance.
Childhood & Adolescence:
Osteoporosis afflicts 3x more women than men and the seeds of this disease are planted in childhood and adolescence. Peak bone mass is achieved by your mid-twenties so inadequate bone growth early in life will manifest itself in fragile, frail bones later in life. Peak bone mineral density has been identified as the single most important factor in the development of osteoporosis. Early adolescence seems to be a particularly important time for bone growth as 40% of total adult bone mass is achieved during puberty.
Strength training is a powerful stimulant for bone growth so it is critical for girls to perform strength training on a regular basis. Females don’t have the hormonal mix necessary for the sort of gains in muscle size that are possible in most males who strength train but significant gains in bone mineral density are certainly possible. Girls and young women who strength train will reap the benefits of stronger bones for the rest of their lives.
Girls as young as 7 years old can perform strength training safely provided they have adequate supervision and instruction, can follow directions, and have adequate balance and control of their bodies to perform exercises with good form. Developing strength and learning proper movement patterns will not only help with bone health but also enhance performance in sports and reduce risk of sports-related injuries such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
Pregnancy and Post-Partum
There is now ample evidence of the many benefits of exercise during pregnancy and the most recent guidelines for exercise during pregnancy specifically recommend a variety of aerobic and resistance training activities including muscle training for the pelvic floor. Pregnancy results in unique demands on the core musculature, the neck, back, and pelvic floor which necessitate adjustments in strength training to address the specific challenges of pregnancy. Certain types of strength training such as abdominal crunches or breath-holding and straining to lift heavy weights could negatively impact a pregnant woman’s musculoskeletal integrity so it is worth seeking guidance from a clinical exercise physiologist or a physical therapist with expertise in this area. A sound strength training plan during pregnancy can help in avoiding many of the common aches and pains associated with pregnancy as well as facilitating a quicker post-partum recovery.
Training in the post-partum period also requires adjustments to account for the lingering effects on the core and pelvic floor. Most women may have a separation in the abdominal muscles (diastasis recti) which should be addressed before returning to pre-pregnancy strength training regimens. The pelvic floor muscles may also require regular training post-partum. An appropriate strength training program during pregnancy and post-partum will not only provide immediate benefits in managing the physical demands of pregnancy but restoring the strength of the core and pelvic floor will lead to lifelong benefits.
Post-menopausal and senior years
You are never too old to get stronger and adequate strength is essential to remain active, to live independently, and avoid falls. Since osteoporosis affects women disproportionally and bone loss accelerates after menopause, it is essential for older women to perform a regular strength training program. This will not only help in maintaining bone mass but also improve quality of life by developing the strength to support aging joints, maintain good posture, lift grandchildren, and continue to participate in any sports or activities that have always been a source of joy. It is always important to get advice on proper form and progression for a strength training program but seeking guidance from a physical therapist or clinical exercise physiologist is recommended if you have osteoporosis, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or any chronic disease that should be taken into account when designing your exercise plan.
Polly de Mille is the Director of Sports Performance at HSS, where she oversees all aspects of performance programming from sport specific analysis to metabolic testing to training clients across the spectrum of age and ability. Her research interests focus on bridging the gap between injury and return to peak performance and she has authored chapters, journal articles, and presented nationally on this topic. Polly has also made numerous appearances in national media serving as an expert on the science behind fitness trends.
Dr. Ellen Casey is a physiatrist at the HSS Women’s Sports Medicine Center. Her practices focus on the conservative treatment of acute sports medicine injuries and spine disorders. Dr. Casey also has expertise in the female athlete, including the female athlete triad, stress fractures and physical activity during and after pregnancy.
Anna Ribaudo PT, DPT, OCS, CAPP-OB, CKTP is the Clinical Supervisor at the HSS Integrative Care Center. She is a certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist and was awarded the Certificate of Achievement in Pregnancy/Postpartum Physical Therapy by the American Physical Therapy Association.