God may have created man and woman equal, but they were not created the same. The female body is smaller, including joint structures such as the wrist, shoulder, knee and ankle. Women are more energy-efficient than men are, with men being stronger when calculated pound for pound or by absolute strength (Zachazewski JE et al. Athletic Injuries and Rehabilitation. W.B. Saunders, 1996: 843, 841).
A woman's energy efficiency is likely to be a physiological necessity when you consider that the female body is designed to carry a developing fetus for nine months in what would have been unpredictable times over the span of human development. In fact, Australian researcher Robbie Parker-in the handout for a pre-sentation entitled 'Fat Loss in Pre-Menopausal Women' at the Network New Zealand National Health and Fitness Convention, held in Auckland, NZ, in June, 1998-reported that females use approximately 40 per cent less energy when walking the same distance as males.
A structural byproduct of being designed to bear children is a wider pelvis. The wider female pelvis results in the femur (the long bone of the thigh) angling downward and inward, creating an angle at the knee that is greater than that of a male. This angle is called the 'Q' angle and its greater magnitude in females is associated with the increased prevalence of knee injuries among female athletes. Surgeons also note that, in females, there is less space in the notch through which the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) passes. The ACL is the most commonly injured ligament in the knee, and it passes through the middle of the knee joint. When the condylar notch is small, the ACL is predisposed to unwanted friction, particularly if the legs are not functionally stable.
Many experts clearly indicate the increased incidence of injury to females when compared with males participating in the same sports (Strauts Z. 'Thoracic outlet syndrome', in Muscles-Nerves-Joints, Chicken or Egg, 1989 conference, Vancouver, BC, Canada; Antoniotti T, Rocaobado M. Exercise and Total Well Being for Vertebral and Craniomandibular Disorders. Tucson, AR: IFORC Publications, 1990; Clin Sports Med, 1985; 4: 345-66). Clinical experience reveals that non-athletic females suffer a similar incidence of the same injuries as female athletes relative to that of men.
Aside from alignment factors, increased joint laxity is suspected to be a contributing factor (Clin Sports Med, 1985; 4: 345-66). Joint laxity has also been reported to increase in association with the premenstrual cycle (Daly J, Ey W. Hormones and Female Athletic Performance. Australian Sports Commission, 1996).
Exercise tipsfor a better female body
There is a formula for success with any exercise programme: Flexibility-Stability-Strength-Power. This means that we must first restore adequate flexibility to muscles that are restricting or altering joint motion (Chek P. Scientific Back Training Correspondence Course & Video Series. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1994). As specific flexibility is being improved, women should always seek to choose exercises that improve functional stability, particularly in the core/pelvis region.
By improving stability of the core and pelvis, we are affecting the entire body through the kinetic or mechanical linkage systems that are present. The most important muscle for a woman to restore and maintain at optimal levels of function in is the transverse abdominis (TVA; the so-called 'six-pack' muscles of the abdomen) (Chek P. Scientific Back Training Correspondence Course & Video Series. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1998). The TVA is intimately involved with the breathing apparatus, the paraspinal and deep stabilizer muscles of the spine, the hamstrings, the muscles of the lower leg and foot, and the pelvic floor.
Although seldom appreciated by exercise professionals, incontinence is surpassingly high among exer-cising women. Nygaard et. al. found that 47 per cent of exercising women at an average age of 38.5 years suffered from incontinence (Obstet Gynecol, 1990; 75: 848-51). By exercising the TVA, the exerciser often improves both continence and stability of the spine, pelvis and legs-a double benefit! This is because the TVA is neurologically linked to the muscles of the pelvic floor and the deep stabilizer muscles of the back (Chek P. Scientific Back Training Correspondence Course & Video Series. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1998).
Free weights for a functional body
Another very important step toward improving function in the female body is to minimize the use of machines. Machines are bolted to the floor, have guided resis-tance and most often require that exercises be performed from a seated position.
Such a training environment does not develop the stabilizer or postural mechanisms of the body, leaving the door wide open to injury in the work or sports environments. This is a frequent occurrence even after achieving what would appear to be high levels of fitness using a machine-based programme.
To develop functional stability and strength, start all workouts with the free-weight or free-body exercise that requires the use of the greatest number of muscles and joints-for example, lunges or standing dumbbell presses. Then, if your conditioning level is high, choose another similar, but slightly less challenging, free-weight exercise.
Finally, progress to machine training for an additional two to four exercises. If your condi-tioning level is moderate to low, your goal should be to increase the number of free-weight exer-cises and to reduce the number of machine-based exercises as your fitness level improves.
Women need not be concerned about getting 'big' through addingfree-weight exercises to their pro-gramme, as this is an unfounded fear. Women naturally have higher levels of oestrogen and much lower levels of the muscle-building hor-mone testosterone than do males.
Female body builders spend between three and five hours per day in the gym trying to achieve the size that other women dread. In fact, putting muscle mass on a female is so challenging that many female body builders turn to anabolic steroids for assistance. All you need to do is walk into any body-building gym and yell the word 'oestrogen', and body build-ers will run like a vampire that has just seen the cross!
Power exercises-or high-speed exercises-should only be per-formed after a woman has restored optimal flexibility to all major working joints, as well as achieved adequate levels of functional stability and strength for her work or sports environment. Whenever the amplitude or velocity of an exercise is increased, the forces running through the joints, muscles and connective tissues are also significantly increased. In fact, most sports are won and lost through the performance of 'power movements', which most female athletes are not adequately prepared for-usually because of inadequate stability or strength. The statistically proven result is greater levels of injury.
Tips for female fitness
- The woman wanting the most from her body both functionally and aesthetically will reap significant benefits from restoring function to the TVA, which is frequently dysfunctional after childbearing, caesarean section or hysterectomy.
- By performing Swiss-ball and free-weight exercises at the beginning of an exercise programme, and moving on to machine exercises only when the nervous system is fatigued from the more complex exercises, women will begin to see enhanced functional stability and strength.
- Only after a course of 8-16 weeks of progressive stability- and strength-training exercises should a woman attempt power-training exercises.
In short, the best thing in the world for Jane is Tarzan's exercises.
Paul Chek is an internationally recognized lecturer and consultant in the fields of corrective and performance exercise. He has served as consultant to many elite sports teams internationally, including the Chicago Bulls. For more information on the C.H.E.K Institute, visit the website at www.paulchekseminars.com .
Testing TVA strength and endurance
- Lie prone (face down) on the floor, fully relaxed, then place a blood-pressure cuff under the belly button (Manual Therapy, 1995; 1: 2-10)
- Exhale, then pump the BP cuff to 70 mmHg (a measure of pressure used in reading blood pressure)
- Pull in the umbilicus (belly button) toward the spine. Ensure that you are not pushing down with the shoulders or knees, nor changing the curvatures of the spine
- The pressure on the BP cuff should decrease, optimally by 10 mmHg. Any reading less than 10 mmHg shows a loss of function equal to 10 times the lower reading: for example, if the pressure decreases by 8 mmHg (2 mmHg less than optimal), then this means there's a 20 per cent loss of function
- This test may be used as an exercise by decreasing the pressure in the cuff as much as possible (ideally by at least 10 mmHg), and holding it for bouts of 10 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. Repeat as many times as possible. Once 10 repetitions can be achieved, the rest period between contractions can be cut in half and, finally, eliminated completely when the pressure can be reduced by around 10 mmHg for 100 seconds straight.