Jan 29, 2015
Facing Their Fears

High school female athletes want to train seriously, but many worry that strength training will lead to unwanted bulk. This author has found ways to alleviate those fears and teach girls that the weightroom can help them meet both performance and body goals.

By Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wayzata (Minn.) High School. He is also a frequent blogger at www.Training-Conditioning.com, where you can find his past work by typing “Wayzata” into the article search window. He can be reached at: [email protected].

One of the most positive trends in scholastic athletics over the past generation has been the increased emphasis on girls’ and women’s sports. As participation numbers rise, more and more females are taking sports just as seriously as their male counterparts, and we’ve seen vast improvements in everything from coaching to facilities to training programs.

As a result of this cultural shift, girls’ teams are more competitive than ever, and they’re paying greater attention to conditioning and strength training. While this has paid many dividends for females, the change hasn’t always come easily. Most of us in the high school setting know at least a few girls who don’t want to work hard in the weightroom or would rather avoid it altogether, and their reasoning is often the same: “I’m afraid of bulking up.”

Whether or not this fear is rational, there’s no doubt it’s real. While boys look forward to lifting weights so they can add impressive pounds of muscle to their frame, many girls think working in the weightroom means they’ll inevitably end up looking like the female bodybuilders they’ve seen on TV. For these girls, their fear is just part of being an image-conscious adolescent.

As strength coaches, it’s our job to help female athletes realize that strength training doesn’t mean they’ll start to resemble an offensive lineman or the governor of California. And it’s easier than you might think, if you begin with common-sense education and progress through a strength regimen that helps them meet their performance and body goals without the risk of adding unwanted mass. I’ve managed to do this successfully at Wayzata (Minn.) High School, and with a little planning, you can do the same in your program.


Whenever a female athlete tells me she’s worried about adding bulk through strength training, I begin by laying out some basic facts. While I know the strength programs I design for our girls’ teams won’t create bulky athletes, I don’t talk about sets and reps until after we’ve discussed a little anatomy and biology.

First, I tell her that I understand her concern. She’s no doubt seen male athletes at our school “getting jacked” through strength training, so it’s logical to think that working out in the same weightroom would have a similar effect on her. But I inform her that even if she were performing the same kind of strength regimen as the football team (which of course she won’t be), she’s got two things working in her favor: hormones and body composition.

I explain that males have higher levels of testosterone, making it much more likely their weightlifting will lead to visible muscle growth. In addition, females are biologically predisposed to a higher body fat percentage, which essentially insulates them from the sharp, angular “muscle-bound” look they want to avoid.

I go on to talk about what a female athlete can expect to see from strength training, and it’s all positive. The muscle tone she’ll develop in the weightroom means decreasing body fat and modestly increasing the size of her muscles. That won’t change her overall body size, but it will create a firmer, healthier look. As an example, I ask her if she thinks Michelle Obama would wear all those sleeveless blouses if she had arms that jiggled underneath.

Of course, there are many other benefits to strength training, and because I know the athlete is concerned about aesthetics, I frame the discussion in part around how it can make her look better. For instance, almost everyone has a grandmother or older relative who has struggled with osteoporosis and the “stooped over” appearance it may cause. I explain how some of the exercises we do will load the spine and promote a healthier bone structure, so she’ll be less likely to have that problem later in life.

Aside from the appearance-related concerns, another part of selling girls on strength training is establishing peer support. The fear of bulking up is, at its root, largely a fear of “sticking out” from others, so one of the surest ways to allay these worries and increase motivation is by conducting all training sessions in groups. Athletes working in teams are much more likely to stick to their programs, and they’ll be pleased to notice positive results–and the absence of unwanted ones–in themselves and their teammates.


So what exactly does our non-bulk-inducing program for female athletes look like? It starts with a series of staple lifts we call the Core of Four, and we introduce them in the following order: front squat, overhead squat, Romanian deadlift, and high jump shrug.

We chose these lifts because they provide a safe, basic foundation for a wide variety of training activities that we’ll introduce later on. For beginners, the Core of Four presents an opportunity to learn proper lifting technique, while for more advanced lifters, it serves as an effective dynamic warmup.

To begin, each lift is performed with a five-foot steel rod that’s one inch in diameter and weighs about 13 pounds. This lets us teach good form and basic mechanics of the lifts with a load that’s light enough to offer minimal resistance, and it also reinforces the idea that athletes can make meaningful progress in training without excessive loads.

Another benefit of this approach is that the Core of Four allows for an easy transition into the Olympic lifts and other progressions. Once the athletes have mastered the four exercises, we start to mix in the more tone-oriented lifts targeting the arms, chest, shoulders, and back, such as dumbbell curls and lunges, incline bench work, shoulder presses, and upright rows.

The girls love workouts with some core and abdominal work, or “tummy time” as they call it. We use a series of core exercises with and without weight, including planks, glute/ham movements, and lower back work combined with traditional abdominal strength exercises such as crunches.

Tummy time always leaves the girls feeling great about their workout. Practically all of them want flatter, firmer bellies, and this is a great motivational tool to support the concept that training without heavy loads will build functional strength and promote the healthy look they desire.

When setting goals for our female athletes in the weightroom, I also focus on injury prevention. Many of the girls, especially those who specialize in one sport, suffer from some degree of repetitive movement syndrome: They’ve developed certain muscle groups through sport-specific activities, but a lack of general strength training has created imbalances that increase injury risk.

In girls’ soccer, for example, it’s common for players to acquire very strong quads from all the starting and stopping they do on the field. If their hamstrings are weak by comparison, the resulting forces on the ACL leave them susceptible to non-contact injuries such as ligament tears. Hamstring exercises in the weightroom, such as glute/ham stands and single-leg hip raises (thrusters) with or without benches, can function as prehab, providing important performance and injury-reducing benefits while not adding any significant girth to the legs–something the girls typically want to avoid.

Using the Core of Four and our other high-priority lifts and exercises, the athletes get a solid introduction to strength training and make noticeable gains. Once they “get their feet wet” with this type of training, they begin to love the look and feel of being toned, they lose their concern over bulking up, and we can progress to greater challenges.


The intro-level activities provide a base of general physical preparedness while assuring our girls that getting stronger doesn’t have to mean getting bigger. As the predictable effects of delayed-onset muscle fatigue and soreness that accompany the start of a strength program subside–with help from recovery methods such as stretching and foam rollers–we take our training to the next level.

In my experience, working with female athletes is easier than working with males in some respects, because if properly educated about the goals of a program, females tend to care more about total-body conditioning. Males want to focus on what they see in the mirror, and on one-upping each other in single-rep max during lifts.

With this in mind, we design a typical strength training program for our girls’ teams around an eight-week cycle, with every week emphasizing a different priority. Since the athletes know the focus for each week, they understand that our primary goal is to give them an opportunity to improve fitness in all key areas of sport performance.

The eight weeks usually break down as follows: Week One: Core of Four, basic lifting Week Two: Olympic progressions Week Three: Speed/agility/quickness (SAQ) training and plyometrics Week Four: Dynamic and explosive lifting Week Five: Metabolic requirements Week Six: Contrast training (pairing lifts and plyos) Week Seven: Advanced plyometrics (shock plyos) Week Eight: Testing and estimating of one-rep max.

Our school terms are eight weeks long, so progressing through this schedule takes us through one complete term.

Some teams and groups of athletes progress more quickly than others, so we make adjustments when needed, but I have found this general framework extremely effective in training female athletes. The progressive nature allows them to master each level and build on the new strength and skills they develop from week to week, so they’re never overwhelmed. They feel a sense of accomplishment along the way as they move from one focus area to the next, and the workouts never get stale.

Saving testing for the final week of the cycle keeps them from worrying too much about one-rep max, which I’ve found scares many girls more than anything else we do in the weightroom. The combination of a heavy load and the fear of failure is very intimidating to some, so we don’t want them to become preoccupied with it throughout the training cycle. By the time we test at the end of a cycle, they’ve made great progress and are at their most confident, so rather than being intimidated, they usually come to see the test as a powerful motivator.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to optimal training methods for female athletes. But I do have a system that’s been very successful for the girls in our setting, and one that addresses some of the biggest obstacles in working with teenage female student-athletes. An approach rooted in education, gradual adaptation, and carefully chosen training goals can put your girls’ teams on the road to better and better performance–and more importantly, help them become confident and self-assured in the weightroom and beyond.


When female athletes express fear of the weightroom because they don’t want to “bulk up,” part of the problem is that they don’t understand the large role nutrition plays in muscle growth. The big, rippling muscles they see on male athletes and female bodybuilders are achieved not just through strength training, but often through ultra-high-protein diets and various types of supplements. If my female athletes are eating a balanced diet, that’s one more reason they don’t have to fear becoming muscle-bound.

When talking to female athletes about nutrition, it’s especially important to send a positive message and avoid statements that can be misunderstood. Anytime you’re discussing body fat, tone, and body image, there’s a chance they’ll interpret your words as subtle pressure to engage in unhealthy eating habits, which can start them down a dangerous path.

The best way to avoid this problem and strike the right tone when addressing nutrition is to couch your advice in terms of specific health and performance benefits. For example, I love to recommend chocolate milk to our female athletes as a recovery beverage–it allows me to talk about the value of replenishing carbohydrates and protein immediately after workouts, and also to bring up the importance of calcium for protecting bone density.

It’s critical to watch for indicators that suggest an athlete has developed unhealthy eating habits, an unrealistic sense of body image, or a desire to overwork herself to change her body size. Besides undermining performance goals, these signs may indicate a serious mental health issue, such as an eating disorder, that requires medical attention.


In our training program for female athletes at Wayzata (Minn.) High School, we frequently use planned progressions for specific categories of exercises and lifts. This approach allows the athletes to benefit from several variations of a movement in close succession, moving from basic activities to more advanced challenges.

Five examples of our progression plans are listed below. The sets, reps, and resistance vary based on individual needs, time of year, conditioning level, and each athlete’s sport.


Front squat Muscle clean Muscle clean drop to front squat High jump shrugs Quick clean Hang clean Power clean Clean and jerk


Squat jump Tuck jump Pike jump Box jump Vertical power jump Split squat jump Cycled split squat jump Squat jump with pause Speed skater for distance Power step-up Single-leg vertical power jump Single-leg tuck jump Referee start box jump Depth drop Depth drop box jump


Rebound ready hold Rebound ready bounce Jump squat with pause Box jump Box squat Counter-movement jump squat Reactive jump squat Drop jumps


Med ball push-up Alternate-arm med ball push-up Clap push-up Med ball pass Balance board push-up Single-arm med ball push-up Drop push-up


Push-up with pause Box drop push-up Box drop and pop push-up Floor bench press Bench drop Bench drop and press Bench throw


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