GoodSport interviewed our partner, Emily Pappas of Relentless Athletics to explore the myths and misconceptions of strength training for girls.
Emily Pappas is the owner of Relentless Athletics, a Pennsylvania training facility that specializes in female athlete development. She is also an adjunct professor at Temple University who teaches a course on female athlete development. Relentless aims to act as a platform that helps women and girls everywhere understand the importance of strength training while encouraging coaches to understand the importance of strength training for females.
When is the right time to begin strength training?
There’s a huge myth that strength training stunts growth. It doesn’t. Instead, it teaches athletes the importance of how to move with their body, and to develop awareness and movement quality. We then can strengthen those movement qualities so that our bodies improve their capacity to handle these stressors they are getting exposed to on the field. When an athlete runs, they can get exposed, runs are down so they can get exposed to almost six times their body weight and ground reaction forces. They don’t get exposed to nearly that amount of load in the gym. But they do get exposed to an awareness of how do I move my body, how do I position myself and then how do I develop strength in those positions that then carry over on the field to help reduce these trances of injuries that are pulling girls away from sport at such a young age.
In 2007, The National Academy of Medicine said strength training is necessary for athletes and it is not dangerous. My favorite saying is in the book Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes and it says that if a female is ready to participate in competitive sport, she is ready for a type of strength and conditioning program. They should be one and the same. Sport is more dangerous than training if you think of just the amount of force that that athlete is going to be exposed to. So if an athlete is ready to engage in any type of competitive sports, she is then also ready to prepare her body for that sport.
Is strength training an antidote for high sports drop-out rates, especially among girls?
There is a high dropout rate for female athletes, especially young female athletes in sport. A big reason could definitely be because there’s such a high rate of injuries in that population. I think more females and coaches need to understand that you can’t play the sport to prepare your body for the sport. In sport, you learn the technical skills of kicking a soccer ball, shooting a three or learning where to be when performing a certain play. But it doesn’t provide the physical stressors necessary to improve the body so that it has a decreased chance of getting injured.
All injuries result because you expose your body to more stress than it has the capacity to handle, so we have to improve our body’s capacity to handle stress. Unfortunately by just playing the sport, there is no overload when you’re just running the same plays and doing the same things. Your body’s only going to get to a certain level and there’s no increase in stimulus. It’s not going to improve the physical capacity. We need more youth athletes, their parents and coaches to understand that strength training is not for young girls.
Why do you require your staff to have master’s degrees?
Because my background is so strong in science. I am a huge advocate that our coaches here also need to have that background. In this world of physical education and sport science, there’s a lot of myths and misconceptions when it comes to how you improve performance. We want to operate as a platform that helps educate parents, coaches and other athletes on the science behind improving your athletic performance and reducing injuries and when’s the time to train and when’s the time to compete. When does a coach ever sit down with parents and say, “Hey, your athlete cannot be competing year-round and expect her to improve her performance.”
LeBron James is a freak athlete, and growing up he didn’t train year-round. He had times to perform and times to improve. And that’s where science comes along. So every head coach here at Relentless has their master’s degree in either exercise physiology or sports science as well as either a USAW certification and a CSCS. Not only do we understand the science, but we have experience in applying it at the individualized level.
What are you hearing about strength training from your girls that go off to college?
Having Relentless for four years now, I’ve had awesome opportunities to send girls to multiple Division 1 schools. What I have found most disheartening is that there is such variability in the exposure to strength training or even just understanding the importance of it at the Division 1 level. In 2020, I still have girls that are playing a D1 sport and they may not be strength training in-season, or they have no progressive overload in their off-season and their strength coach is not the same caliber as the football strength coach. How do you expect a girl to understand why she needs to do strength training if it’s not even being provided? That is at some of the highest NCAA levels, but I can’t say “all” because there are some amazing programs out there that do provide training that is based in research to females, but it’s not everywhere.
That’s where things are very frustrating because we’ll send girls off and they say, “We just do band stuff. We’re not even allowed to grab the barbell and the guys are, and that’s not fair.” It’s cool for the girls here at Relentless because they understand that’s not right and they’re competent. They’ll say “Can I lift outside of here because this is not enough for me?” But it’s hard for other girls that haven’t had this opportunity in their high school levels to understand – you’re an athlete, you need to get stronger, and you need to prepare your body for your sport. I think that’s where we need to see a change at the university level – having more athletic directors and making sure that we are hiring strength coaches at both male and female levels. Both female and male sports teams need to understand the essential tool strength training provides to improve performance and reduce injury risks.
Obviously not everyone can get to Hatfield, PA to work with your incredible staff. So others can start thinking this way, what is your process for developing your athletes?
At Relentless, every athlete and one of her parents are required to meet with us for an initial assessment. This is a journey. You don’t just get stronger by lifting weights two times a week when you feel like it. Muscle adapts, but also it de-trains. So if you don’t make this a commitment, the adaptations go away. So we sit down with each girl and we get to know her. We want her to tell us what are her strengths, what are her weaknesses, what are her goals? We explain that there’s a time to work and there’s a time to compete. But if we’re trying to do both, we’re burning the candle at both ends.
And then we’re going to put her through a movement assessment right in the office. And that’s really just exposing her to the main movement patterns such as a squat, a hinge, a press, a pull etc. What does it mean to stabilize? What does a split-squat or her balance look like? Or some relative strength, like lowering herself down in a pushup. And that shows us what her baseline movement qualities look like. And then most importantly, how does she learn? Because moving is a skill and it’s going to be acquired at a very individualized rate. So some athletes are going to be more visual, they need to see me doing it and then they’re going to do it. Some are more verbal and need to hear me explain things. Some are more tactical, you literally have to put her in those positions, and then she gets it. But that’s important because every athlete is going to learn very differently. Every program is completely individualized. They are going to be learning very different things based on their starting points, their goals, and their individual sports.
We let her know if you have a goal for your season or your club or you want to be seen by a scout so you can get that Division 1 scholarship, we’re going to help you get there, but you’re the one that’s putting in the work. We want her to understand that this is a commitment. So we’re going to say, okay, during your off-season you should be here three to four times a week. We’re going to write your program for that but as your season approaches, we’re going to drop down to three times and then two times and then one time. And now she understands in her mind, Oh, this is how I reach my goals, maintain those goals, and then come next season, new goals. And that’s really our, our approach to female athlete development.
More on Emily and Relentless Athletics here.