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Female Athletes in the Weight Room: Bigger and Bulkier, or Faster and Stronger?

I’ve been throwing and kicking balls around my entire life, so when I was presented with the incredible opportunity to play Divsion I soccer at Northeastern University, I committed whole-heartedly. After sacrificing years to play the sport that I was most passionate about, I was finally being rewarded for all the hours I put into the game that I love. There was just one problem: the thought of weight-training on a weekly basis absolutely terrified me.

Starting my freshman year as a collegiate athlete, I was nervous that I would ‘get big’ from weight training on a weekly basis. In a physically aesthetic-focused society, this concern didn’t seem to be just a personal issue. Numerous teammates, friends, and peers have expressed that they felt uncomfortable in the weight room and don’t like to lift because they think weight-lifting will impact the way their body looks. Some firmly believe that it will make them gain weight. My personal expectation was that working out frequently in the weight room (which at the time I had little to no experience with) would give me a bulky physique. Maybe I would be slower on the soccer pitch, maybe I would start to gain weight instead of losing it, maybe I wouldn’t feel as comfortable in my own skin…

All of my assumptions turned out to be wrong.

The fact is, I wish I had spent more time weight lifting throughout my high school years. I believe that this would have better prepared me for playing at the collegiate level – a level which requires all athletes to achieve and maintain peak fitness year round. Strength, speed, power, agility, flexibility, and endurance: think of them as components of a seesaw. If you have too much of one, the others might go down. It’s a delicate balance. Let’s use soccer players as an example. They must be able to pick up speed on a dime and sprint 10 yards with the ball to beat a defender, but they also need a solid endurance base in order to play a full 90-minute game (and then some with the consideration of overtime). They have to be physically strong enough to stand their ground as they battle through numerous tackles with opponents, and still be agile enough to move their feet in quick, explosive patterns to keep up with the competition.

Dennis Borg, Injury Prevention Specialist at The Micheli Center, explains, “as most people know, athletes get stronger by lifting weights. When I talk with my female athletes, it seems that they’re usually intimidated to go in and squat. Maybe it’s because the guys are around and the girls don’t want to be seen using the squat rack, but we don’t view it like they might think we do. I tell all my female athletes to ask the guys, ‘hey, can I jump in on this set?’ or, ‘can I use that once you’re done?’” Dennis is impressed by female athletes who are willing to use the weight room to their advantage because it will only be beneficial to them in the long run.

It is important to note that my experience with heavy weights has not only improved my game, it’s also proved to me that my body physique would not change the way I initially feared it would. I have also learned that it’s not about the number on the scale; it’s about how you feel, on the field and off. I’ve witnessed my body do some incredible things over the past three years. Without weight lifting, I wouldn’t have made nearly as much progress.

To become a faster, stronger, and better-equipped athlete at a high level, many would argue that lifting is an essential component. It’s important that young female athletes understand how frequent weight-training combined with a balanced workout regimen can actually improve their fitness and overall performance.

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