Most of the older studies done regarding improvements in strength and power have been done on male athletes.
But some studies over the last decade have begun to look at the benefit of changing the weekly structure (called periodization) of weight training for women on strength development over long periods (up to 24 weeks).
The results of the studies show that a type of weekly plan called undulating periodization is more beneficial than a regular circuit style of program and that the increases in strength can be even more dramatic in women than men. Undulating programs involve varying the intensity of your three weekly strength sessions so that one day is very hard, one is moderate intensity and the other is between these two in intensity level. Since women are seeing the benefit of improving their muscle strength on bone health, and reducing risk factors such as diabetes, obesity, arthritis it is even more important to know the best ways to improve strength.
Periodization exercise programs really began about sixty years ago where European coaches, especially eastern-block coaches, were developing some of the world class athletes of that period. The athletes found that once they reached a plateau in fitness, they just couldn’t appreciably improve by simply training harder and harder. So the trainers and coaches experimented with altering their athletes’ training schedules. They methodically had the athlete complete resistance training phases that included high-volume, low-intensity resistance workouts, and then alternated these cycles with low-volume, high-intensity training phases. The positive results in performance that was created turned out to have radical implications on the future of athletic training.
In one of the recent studies done on a group of active young women (average age of 24) the periodized group had a much greater increase for all categories that were tested. Bench press and leg press increased approximately 40% compared to 12% with the circuit group. The periodized group also exhibited higher percent increases for sit-ups performed in one-minute, sprinting peak power, vertical jump power, and time improvement in the 40-yard dash, all improved more than the circuit group. The differences in improvement were up to 42% on the periodized plan vs as low as 4% on the standard program. At the end of the six months, the periodized group also showed a greater decrease in percent body fat (25% vs 10%) and a higher increase in fat-free mass (8% vs 2%) than the circuit group. The muscular performance or body composition of the control group not surprisingly did not show any significant change.
Another study cited in the American Journal of Sports Medicine involved studying periodized strength programs in 24 college tennis players. After four, six and nine months of training, there was no change in body mass, but the periodized group was the only group that increased its muscle mass (and decreased fat mass). The circuit and no-training groups did not increase muscle mass. In addition to their body composition changes, the periodized group significantly increased its strength for bench, shoulder and leg press exercises, and more importantly for tennis players, they increased their serve velocity. The two other test groups did not.
These studies show that a periodized, multiple-set program will positively influence body composition and increase muscular performance in women more than standard weight training programs.
Kerry Senchyna holds a degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in