Doug Briggs Author of Built for Strength
Built for Strength by Doug Briggs

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Chapter 10 - Weight Training and Women

Here is a preview of "Built for Strength: A Basic Approach To Weight Training Success for Men and Women" by Doug Briggs.  

Doug Briggs, Ph.D., is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS,*D, RSCC,*D)  with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and a NSCA Fly Solo Mentor.  A leading expert in his field. Doug has a long history of personal weight training, strength and conditioning coaching and competing internationally.

Is There a Difference Between Men and Women? 

Generally, there is no difference between men and women when we speak of muscles. Women are beginning to realize that not only does weight training make them stronger, it can also help them to lose body fat quicker than by dieting or aerobics alone. In fact, aerobics does not preserve fast twitch muscle fiber, which is greatly needed to burn fat. 14 

For women, weight training is the primary way to preserve or add muscle. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn, even when your body is at rest. Muscle  is denser and occupies less space than a similar amount of fat. A pound of fat will occupy approximately 18 percent more space than a pound of muscle, and fat does burn any calories. This is why women should be concerned with the inches they lose in their hips, waist, and so on, and not about the pounds lost. 

Many times when women initially start weight training, they will notice a slight increase in bodyweight and their clothes may fit a little tighter. This is because the muscle grows, it becomes larger and denser, and stores more glycogen. The trade-off here is that the muscle might be slightly larger and clothes slightly tighter, but the body will be burning more calories, which will result in weight loss through a reduction of fat.

In a study done by Westcott in 1996, research indicated that using an eight-week standard program resulted in lean weight gain of 2.4 pounds and a decrease in fat weight of 4.6 pounds.15  As the body loses fat, the muscles will become noticeably toned and visible. In a study done by Bryner et al. in 1999, women who did resistance training for 12 weeks while on an 800 calorie per day diet were able to maintain their fat-free mass (FFM), i.e., bones, muscles, fluids, organs, and so forth and increase their resting metabolic rate (RMR). Women in the same study who consumed 800 calories per day and did aerobics, lost significant amounts of fat-free mass, and also experienced a decrease in RMR.  However, 800 calories per day is a very low amount for women, and should not be tried on your own. 16

The gain in muscle sometimes scares women, because they don't want to get big like men. For the vast majority of women, this will never be a problem, thanks to hormonal influences. Before puberty, boys and girls exhibit similar levels of strength and fitness. Once puberty begins, boys produce increased amounts of the hormone testosterone. which will allow them to become larger and stronger than their female counterparts. Men and women both produce testosterone in their bodies, but the amounts produced by women are so small that it will never allow them to get "big." Women have approximately 15 to 20 times less concentration of testosterone then men. Because of the lower levels of testosterone, women will not build the muscle mass of men, but will instead have a well-defined muscle that is referred to as "toned"; however, they are capable of strength that is proportionate to that of a man. Becoming toned is a combination of increased muscle size and decreased body fat.

Muscle is good. For every pound of muscle you have, you will burn 35 to 50 calories per day. That is why FFM is so good. If you lose even 1/2 Ib. of FFM, you could theoretically have a weight gain of 3 Ibs of fat in one year. In 10 years this would equate to about 30 Ibs of weight! Loss of FFM is one of the reasons that men and women gain fat as we age. A simple addition of only 25 extra calories per day could cause a 2.6 Ibs weight gain in one year!14  Remember that the next time some fast food server asks you "supersize that order?"

Technically, food servers in major restaurants should be called "commissioned salespeople," according to Guy Andrews, M.S. of Exercise ETC. Inc. Their job is to sell you things you don't want in order to increase the price of your ticket, and thus increase the price of their tip and the profit of the restaurant. Many restaurant chains monitor the sales of their staffs to give the best sellers the best shifts. There will be more on the subject of restaurants in Chapter 12.

When women begin weight training, they should concentrate on developing muscular strength and endurance. Most women are significantly weaker in the chest and shoulders than comparably sized men, in part due to the width of their shoulders and the resulting loss of leverage, which in turn leads to a decrease in muscle size. There are any number  of factors that can affect this difference, from genetics to childhood activities and societal influence. Areas of weakness should be addressed and prioritized to bring the body into balance. In this way, a woman may help prevent injury and provide for a lifetime of sports enjoyment.

In general, women should concentrate on doing sets that do not exceed 12 repetitions for overall fitness and below five repetitions for strength and power development.  Because women have higher concentrations of growth hormone (GH), the number of reps will become a factor in determining size gains. The GH production will be significantly  higher during the menstrual cycle.17 When training with weights, if women train at five reps and below for multiple sets, and take a three minute rest between sets, there will be no increase in growth hormone release. If, however, women train using 10 reps and  multiple sets with a one minute rest between sets, there will be an increase in hormone release. Refer to Chapter 9 for more specific guidelines.

My advice to women: Throwaway your scale and do not ever look at another one.  Be concerned about the inches and not the pounds; exercise and insure that the number of calories  you take in equals the number that go out every day. Fat occupies more space, so it is possible to gain weight and not inches; in fact, most often you will lose inches. Concentrate on lowering your body fat percentage and not losing any fat-free mass.

Women, Boyfriends (or Husbands), and Weight Training

The best weight training classes I have had the opportunity to teach have always been women's weight training classes. Why? Because women work hard, listen to directions, try what is presented to them, and do not come into the class with preconceived notions. Women are open to trying new things and are more in tune with their bodies than men. Men on the other hand, seem to think they are born with the knowledge of how to weight train. Nothing could be further from the truth! The men are the worst to work with because they know everything there is to know about weight training. If you don't believe them, ask their high school football coach who definitely, without a doubt, knows everything there is to know about weight training. Side note here: That is probably why the high school football coaches all look so good in their coach's shorts with their potbellies hanging out! The same thing is generally true of husbands and boyfriends. Most of them think they know what exercises work what muscles and how to train everybody and everything from friends, family, men, women, and children to family pets.

Women however are the biggest cheats in the gym when it comes to counting reps doing the full number of sets that are prescribed. I have never seen so many ways to miscount reps and sets short of all of the accounting scandals currently taking place in the business world. It goes to show that creative accounting isn't just for the accountants! Enough said on this topic; listen, learn, and ask questions.

Women and Bodyfat

Men and women vary in the body fat percentages they carry. See Chapter 14 for information on body fat and body fat testing. It is generally considered optimal for men to carry approximately 10 to 20 percent body fat, while for women body fat is considered optimal at 15 to 25 percent. An athletic range of body fat for women is 14 to 18 percent.  For females, essential fat is considered to be 10 to 12 percent and a female should never drop below this percentage. When dropping below this percentage, women often find that amenorrhea begins to appear. Amenorrhea is the cessation of menstruation. While there are many theories as to why this happens, it appears to be related to the drop below the essential fat range that is the trigger.    

Table 10.1

Classification Women (% Fat) Men (% Fat)
Optimal 15 - 25% 10- 20%
Athletic 14 - 18% 10-14%
Essential 10 - 12% 3%

Body fat in women is distributed in nine regions. 18  The nine regions are:

  1. Buttocks
  2. Lower back
  3. Trochanter or side of the leg, between the front of the thigh and the buttocks.
  4. Between the thighs
  5. Navel
  6. Pubis
  7. Knee
  8. Back of the upper arm
  9. Breasts

Body fat storage can be categorized in three different ways: subcutaneous (under the skin), intra-muscular (within the muscle, kind of like the marbling in steak), and intra-abdominal or visceral.14  While fat distributions are similar in men and women, women of  childbearing age carry more body fat as energy stores in case of a pregnancy. During pregnancy, women will add additional fat to aid in the nourishment and development of the fetus and as a protective mechanism should it be needed. Body fat is a great cushion when it comes to protecting against injuries from impact such as falls and other accidents. It also provides a blanket to help regulate the body temperature and protect the unborn.

On the average, a female has approximately 27 billion fat cells. Many obese women may have as many as 75 billion fat cells.14 Liposuction is one of the only methods to remove fat cells besides dieting and exercise. If a person loses weight and keeps the weight off for one year, the fat cells are disposed of and will not return providing the weight lost is not regained. Typically the fat cells in the body can store 50 to 60,000 kilocalories of energy. Fat is not deposited or removed from the body quickly, and when someone brags about losing 15 Ibs in one week, rest assured that it is not fat but mostly water weight.

Frederic Delavier, in Women's Strength Training Anatomy makes an interesting observation concerning women and body fat. I have seen similar descriptions and I think they are worth repeating here. He observes that women in hot climates will carry :bodyfat differently than women in cold c1imates.18   Specifically, women in hot climates carry body fat primarily in one of three places:

  1. Buttocks - black Africans
  2. Hips - Mediterraneans
  3. Navel - Asians

The logic is this: since fat is an insulating mechanism, for women of hot countries is carried  in one primary area, but for women of colder countries, it is spread uniformly around the body for warmth, kind of like wearing a pair of long-johns.

At birth,  infants are typically 13% body fat.19  This changes rapidly increasing to 20 - 25% by one year of age. After one year of age, body fat will typically decline until the age five or six and then it is again approximately 13%.  After the age of five or six, body fat will rise slowly until the beginning of puberty. At puberty the rise will continue in girls, but fall slightly in males.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE)20  gives a little different breakdown of body fat.  Their recommendations are as follows:

Table 10.2

Classification Women (% Fat) Men (% Fat)
Essential Fat 10 - 12% 2 - 4%
Athletes 14 - 20% 6 - 13%
Fitness 21 - 24% 14 - 17%
Acceptable 25 - 31% 18 - 25%
Obese 32% plus 25% plus

The goal here is to maintain a "natural weight." The goal is a weight you can comfortably stay at by eating for hunger (physiological need rather than psychological) and while exercising on a regular basis.14   If you eat when you are hungry, that is physiological. If you eat because you are depressed, having a bad day, see food that you just have to have, because of peers, or any of a hundred other reasons, that is psychological and should be addressed. Losing weight and body fat is more than just a diet or working out; it is a change in lifestyle, and unless you address all the components, you will be doomed to repeated failures. If you are fat, you did not get that way overnight, and no diet in the world or wonder drug is going to get you thin again without a commitment to a change in diet and good exercise routing.  

Women who are sedentary and untrained (not working out) burn approximately 50 percent carbohydrate and 50 percent fat while at rest and they take approximately 20 to 30 minutes to mobilize fat from fat stores during physical activity. Women who are active and trained will burn approximately 70 percent fat at rest, thus sparing the glycogen stores for other activities. This is important, because trained women will burn a higher percentage of fat then untrained women, and the trained women will be able to tap into the fat deposits faster.17

Women and Cellulite

Men and women can get cellulite. Cellulite is more predominant in women and is sometimes called "cottage cheese" or "orange peels". It accumulates on the thighs and buttocks. Anytime the body consumes more calories than it expends, the excess calories are deposited somewhere on the body as "fat". Since the fibrous tissues in these areas are inelastic, the fat deposits subcutaneously in pockets that are similar to a "honeycomb" pattern or like that of a net or quilt. Hormones, particularly estrogen, can cause water retention, which can also add to this phenomenon. As the water and fat retention increase, this can cause a compression of lymphatic and blood vessels, thus slowing down circulation and making it harder for the body to utilize these energy stores of fat. After all the other fat on a woman's body is reduced, it is still possible to retain the fat in these areas and leave her with "cottage cheese thighs".3  

One final point, spot reducing is a myth. The closest you may come to spot reducing would be liposuction and even then the fat will return if you don't alter your eating and exercising habits.

Women, Aerobics, and Protein Consumption

The myth that aerobics are better than weight training has been reported and believed for entirely too long. I have had many aerobics instructors working for me who, in a period of five to six years, never increased muscle mass or tone. A gym member of average fitness can burn approximately five to seven kilocalories per minute doing aerobic exercise and five to eight kilocalories per minute doing strength training.17 Why s this better? Because strength training will maintain or increase lean muscle mass, and this in turn increases the metabolic rate, which will increase the amount of fat burned even when you are at rest.  

Most of the women I have had as students and clients did not get enough protein. Why?   I don't really know, but I have an idea that it is because they typically consume diets very high in carbohydrates. Women who are doing aerobics and weight training --could consume at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

Osteoporosis

Weight training helps females prevent osteoporosis. Degeneration of bone tissue is called osteoporosis. Many studies have shown that weight-bearing exercises develop more bone density. Lack of bone density is a major problem for many women in the United States. While there are many factors in the onset of osteoporosis and the exact mechanism  is unknown, it is somehow related to menopause and the body's utilization of calcium.

Weight Training Programs

Weight training programs do not need to be any different for women than men. The goal of the individual is the determining factor in the type of weight training program that is utilized.   This goes back to the "training is specific" principle discussed in the previous chapter.   Decide what the desired goal is, whether it is muscle gain, weight loss, or physical endurance or even a combination, and design the program based on the need of the  individual. Incorporate the time element into it, keep it new, and success will come naturally. Most of all make it fun!

A Word of Caution

Women need to be careful if they are trying to lose size in the thighs, particularly the upper thighs. Common exercises I see women doing endlessly are the adduction/abduction exercises. These exercises, if not done correctly, can actually add size to the thighs, because the muscles will grow. This will make your pants fit very tight and give you the impression that you are not losing size or weight. This is particularly true of the tensor fascia latae, since it crosses over the hip joint. I would limit these exercises to no more than five repetition and three sets, if you do them. Personally, I prefer walking lunges.

Women and High Heels

While walking, working, and dancing in high heels may be sexy and appealing, the downside is that it can cause shorter calf muscles, shorter Achilles tendons, and more stress on the knees. In a study done in Boston19 researchers using special camera and sensors, found that high heels, those at least two inches high and higher, increased the torque (twisting force) at the knee and that this force placed additional strain behind the kneecaps and inner knee joint. For women consistently working in high heels, this force could cause a permanent degenerative change by wearing down and destroying the cartilage that cushions the knee. This wear and tear could ultimately lead to osteoarthritis. Also, 87% of foot surgery is performed on women and two times as many women as men suffer from osteoarthritis.  

While high heels have a slimming effect on the legs by elevating the heel and causing the woman to walk in plantar flexion, the price you pay later in life may not be worth the attention you receive when you are younger. If you wear high heels, stretch your calves regularly, even daily and on days you workout, stretch them before and after working out. Another good idea would to be to wear low heels or tennis shoes as often as possible when working or after work.

Women and Make-up

Ladies, let's get real here. You are in the gym to workout, not participate in a Victoria's Secret fashion show. Between the overdone make-up that leaves a mark on every piece of equipment you use and the absolutely, totally inappropriate dress, I often wonder if I'm in a gym or a nightclub. Save the pore clogging, sweat inhibiting, make-up for your night out. Oops, my mistake. Doesn't the old saying go something like "ladies glisten, men perspire, and horses sweat" or is that "horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glisten"? Either way, carry that towel and sweat away, sweating is good for you.

Women and Perfume in the Gym

Many people are allergic to perfume and it can be especially annoying in a confined space where people are inhaling and exhaling deeply. Perfume is not much better than B.O. (body odor) when it comes to working out. Neither is desirable. While I personally like perfume on women and find it makes them very appealing, in the gym it is nothing short of environmental pollution. Workout sans the perfume!

Women and Rep Ranges

Use the following guidelines when deciding what you want to accomplish with your training program:

Table 10.3

Training Goal Muscular Endurance Muscular Hypertrophy Strength Power
Load as a % of IRM
≤ 67%
67 - 85%
≥ 85%
Single effort, 80 - 90%
Repetitions
≥ 12
6 - 12 ≤ 6 Single effort, 1-2
Multiple effort, 3 - 5
Sets 2 - 3 3 - 6 2 - 6 3 - 5
Rest between sets 30 sec or less 30 sec to 90 sec 2 - 5 min 2 - 5 min

Information extracted from Chapter 18, Essentials of Strength Training and Condition, Human Kinetics, (2000).

If one repetition max (1RM) testing is not possible, the 1RM may be calculated using tables  providing data and predictions for a given weight lifted and the number of times the weight was lifted. This same chart should also be able to tell you how many times you can  lift a weight based on a desired percentage of the 1RM. The 1RM chart is available in  Chapter 9.

Women and Squatting Exercises

Can women squat using bars and weights? The answer is an unequivocal, yes! In fact, it is one of the better exercises for hip, thigh and leg development. The only difference between men and women has to do with hip width and pelvic structure. Typically, women have wider hips to allow for childbirth. Wider hips change the convergence angle of the femur in relation to the knee and thus create more stress on the knee joint.

Another very important point to remember here is that due to the convergence angle,  the patella  (knee cap) in women is forcefully being pulled toward the outside of the knee. The vastus medialis is attached to the patella and pulls it towards the inside of the thigh and leg to overcome this tendency. An easy way to strengthen the vastus medialis is to use the leg extension machine and externally rotate the foot. This will further emphasize the development of the vastus medialis and correct this tendency, in other words, this will properly align the patella in its groove.

When squatting women should start out slowly, gradually building up strength in the lower limbs and paying particular attention to keeping the knees from knocking (moving towards one another). It is a good idea to point the toes outward slightly, which will place more emphasis on the adductors,

It is very important to drive through the heels when squatting rather than through the balls of the feet. The feet should stay firmly planted on the floor throughout the exercise. If necessary, lift your toes up in your shoes to help you learn to drive through your heels. Do not use a board under your heels. This is analogous to squatting in heels, low or high depending on the height of the board. If you can do a squat with no weight and keep your heels firmly on the floor, then you can do a regular squat with a bar and weights.

Many times I have seen women squat using a Smith Machine. I do not recommend this practice for men or women. In the squat, the weight and the bar do not travel in a straight line, as does the weight on the Smith Machine. What is required is flexibility. This machine will do nothing but teach you improper form in the squats. Squats when done in the Smith Machine can also lead to a difference in muscle balance due to the fact that the hamstrings are not worked as effectively as in a regular squat. The trunk muscles will be similarly affected since there is not the same need for stabilization as in a regular squat. Refer to Chapter 6 and how to squat in order to develop picture perfect form.

Again, do not use a board under your feet when squatting. Using a board will be similar to squatting in high heels. If you have to use a board, Starting Position working on the lengthening the Achilles tendon and calf muscle by stretching the calf muscle until you no longer need a board under your heels. Refer to the section on "High Heels" above for more information about this condition and its causes. Another suggestion would be to point your toes up in your shoes when you squat, and drive through your heels. You will be amazed at what happens!

Women and Strength Training

In a position paper titled, "Strength Training for Female Athletes", the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCAl1 published its findings concerning the use of resistance exercise by female athletes. Of particular interest are some of the committee's recommendations for designing training programs:    

1. Female athletes should be exposed to weight training in junior high and high school.    

2. Strength and conditioning personnel need to be sensitive to the individual needs of the female athlete.    

3. It has been found through interviews with strength coaches that strength levels of female athletes diminish quicker than male athletes. Therefore, female athletes should train at higher percent of their max weights for strength maintenance.    

4. Strength and conditioning professionals should explain the concept of "specificity of training" and encourage the female athlete to approach training with a high degree of enthusiasm and arousal.    

5. More multi-joint exercises (power cleans, snatches, etc.) should be introduced to the female athlete sooner in her exposure to weight training.    

6. Female athletes are capable of handling high volume and high intensity workouts and performance standards need to be set and records kept.    

7.  Females should be encouraged to strengthen the entire body, but particular attention should be given to the upper body in general, and the triceps and low back in particular.  

Using these guidelines it will be possible to improve the athletic performance and physiological function of not only the female athlete, but the average woman as well. women have similar physiological responses to exercise that males do, there is no reason to train women any differently.  

The most important thing in training women is the assessment of needs and appropriate training to meet those needs .  

Why is the above list of recommendations included in this book you ask? Because if you take out the terminology of strength and conditioning professional (strength coach) and insert the words, Personal Trainers, you will have a guideline for how a Personal Trainer should be training you or if your are self-trained, how you should design a program that best suits you.

A Recommendation for Further Study

I would highly recommend the book Women's Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier for any ladies serious about weight training and their bodies. This book will give a very clear understanding of the female body and exercises that are unique to it.  Who knows, maybe then you will be able to counteract all that bad advice received from your boyfriend, husband, or self-proclaimed fitness expert!

Built for Strength: A Basic Approach to Weight Training Success for Men and Women © 2009 by Doug Briggs. All Rights Reserved 

End Notes

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7 "A Position Statement and Literature Review of the Squat Exercise in Athletic Conditioning." Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1992.

8 Anders, M. "New Study Puts the Crunch on Ineffective Ab Exercises." ACE Fitnessmatters, May - June 2001: 9 - 11.

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14 "Lecture." Houston, Texas: Exercise ETC., Inc., February 23,2003.

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16 Bryner, et al. "Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 ca body mass and resting metabolic rate." Journal of American
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17 Burger, M., and T. Burger. "Neuromuscular and hormonal adaptations to resistance training: Implication for strength development in female
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19 "Physical Growth." The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. November 2005. http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec19/ch269/ch269b.html?qt=February 2003 body faat&alt=sh#sec19 - ch269 - ch269b - 306 (accessed September 19, 2008).

20 Anders, M. "New Study Puts the Crunch on Ineffective Ab Exercises." ACE Fitnessmatters, May - June 2001: 9 - 11.

21 "Position Paper: Strength Training for Female Athletes." National Strength and Conditioning Association. Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1990.

22 Marieb, E.N., and J. Mallat. Human Anatomy. 3rd Edition. San Francisco, California: Pearson education, Inc., 2003.

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28 Crary, D. "Pets and Nutrition." Associated Press, February 2000.

29 Odgen, C.L., K.M. Flegal, M.D. Carroll, and C.L. Johnson. "Prevalence and Trends in Overweight Among US Children and Adolescents 1999 - 2000." JAMA, 2002: 1728 -1732.

30 Neufeldt, V. (EIC), and A. (PE) Sparks. Webster's New World Compact School and Office Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 (Updated).

31 "Analyzing Popular Diets." Houston, Texas: Exercises ETC., Inc., 2003.

32 Huff, F. "Roundtable discussion: Low carbohydrate diets and anaerobic athletes." NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal 23, no. 3 (2001): 42 - 61.

33 Forbes _ Ewan, C. "Effect of vegetarian diets on performance in strength sports." June 2002. http://www.sportsci.org/jour/0201/cf-e.htm (accessed September 20,2008).

34 Odgen, C.L., K.M. Flegal, M.D. Carroll, and C.L. Johnson. "Prevalence and Trends in Overweight Among US Children and Adolescents 1999 - 2000."
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35 DeNoon, D. "CDC measures pollution' in Americans." WebMD Health News. January 31,2003.
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36 Dorr, M. B. "Nutritional Supplements." 72nd Men's and 15th Women's World Weightlifting Championships Annual Congress. Warsaw, November 2002.

37 Nutraceuticals International. "Ephedra supplements unsafe at any dose (according to American Association of Poison Control Centers report)." February 1, 2003.

38 Kerrigan, D. C., J. Lelas, and M.E. Karvosky. "Women's shoes and knee osteoarthritis." The Lancet.com. April 7, 2001.
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39 Repinski, K. Face Facts About Sugar - The surprising reason eating too much can cause wrinkles - and 5 steps to ensure that it won't. November 2007.
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40 Chandler, T.J., and M.H. Stone. "The Squat Exercise in Athletic Conditioning: A Review of the Literature." National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal 13, no. 5 (1991): 56.

41 Rouzier, P. The Sports Medicine Patient Advisor. Amherst: SportsMedPress, 1999.

42 Delavier, F. Exercises pour ene belle Iigne (Women's Strength Training Anatomy). Paris: Editions Vigot, 2002.

43 "Be Realistic: Optimal Body Fat Percentages May Vary Up to 10 Percent Among Athletes." March 1, 2001. www.gatech.edu/newsroom/archive/news_releases/bodyfat.html.  

44 Nieman, D.C. Fitness and your health. Palo Alto: Bull Publishing Company, 1993.

45 Rasch, P.J. "Willoughby Symmetrometer." In Weight Training, 76 - 78,82 - 83. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

46 Overturf, R., and L. Kravitz. "Circuit Training vs. Periodized Resistance Training in Women." University of New Mexico - Len Kravitz, Ph.D. Home Page. July 25,2006.
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