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Women & bone mineral density: sport differences

by A. Manolova | 16 February 2021

sport, health, bone mineral density, weightlifting, powerlifting, soccer, women, age, impact, strength, speed, lifting olympic, resistance training, science, prevention

As we have already discussed in previous articles (here, there and also here), the aging process of the human body (and increasing levels of physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyle) is accompanied by loss of muscle mass and decrease in bone mineral density. These phenomena appear without distinction in men and women. However, the disruption of the endocrine system linked to menopause causes in women an even more marked decrease in their bone capital, which can lead to osteoporosis (-2.5 standard deviations from the mean taken for reference, that is, healthy subjects of the same age and sex). Of course, this is not inevitable and physical activity remains the best solution to strengthen your bone density thanks to the mechanical stresses that are applied to our skeleton during efforts.

But several questions then arise : what is the best type of exercise for an optimal strengthening of its bone mineral density and which zone(s) is(are) better targeted by each sport? Because like muscle, bone reacts locally depending on the stresses undergone. Thus, not only will the intensity, rate of application, direction and frequency of the mechanical stress be important, but also the location of application of this stress. Many disciplines have already been the subject of studies to understand their impact on the strengthening of the bone structure. Weightlifting and powerlifting have already been compared to other disciplines and to sedentary people. But which of these two sports is better for improving bone mineral density at strategic sites like the lumbar spine or the femoral neck ? And in comparison to another sport such as soccer ? And compared to sedentary people ?

The Study

To answer these questions, a team of American researchers measured lumbar spine, femoral neck and total bone mineral density by a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) in healthy young women. In addition to these bone densitometry data, total body composition was assessed. Thus, they recruited 37 healthy women : 8 weightlifters, 10 powerlifters, 8 soccer players and 11 sedentary women. All female athletic participants were at an amateur competitive level and had been training at least 3 times per week for at least 9 months. All the characteristics of the participants are presented in the table below.

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that all women athletes had a significantly greater total bone mineral density than sedentary women. Weightlifters have the highest overall bone mineral density among the 3 athlete groups, although the difference is significant only with powerlifters. In the lumbar spine region, only weightlifters and powerlifters have a higher bone mineral density than sedentary women, but there is no difference with soccer players. Finally, concerning the femoral neck, only weightlifters and soccer players have a greater bone mineral density than sedentary women. And soccer players have significantly higher bone mineral density at the femoral neck than powerlifters.

Weightlifting and powerlifting have a very strong impact on the bone mineral density of the lumbar spine. This is due to the high stresses that apply to the upper body when high loads are "carried" in exercises such as the clean jerk and snatch in weightlifting and during the squat and deadlift in powerlifting.

However, a difference exists between these two disciplines and this difference seems to be expressed through the results of bone mineral density at the level of the femoral neck. In weightlifting, the movements are not only performed with relatively high loads but the speed of execution of the movements is also very high. Conversely, powerlifting aims to lift the heaviest weights possible, but the speed of execution is therefore relatively slow. Moreover, it has already been shown in the scientific literature that the speed of execution has a primordial role in the stimulation of bone mass. And several studies have shown no improvement in femoral neck bone mineral density in powerlifters. So soccer players, even if they do not move heavy loads, combine a stimulation of speed of execution, repeated shocks linked to acceleration and deceleration with sudden changes of direction. This combination of stimuli appears to positively affect bone mineral density at the femoral neck.

Practical Applications

These results confirm what the scientific literature has been exploring for many years : intense efforts in terms of load and loading speed induce a stimulation strong enough to improve bone mineral density. However, certain nuances should be made since all the activities which meet these criteria do not necessarily have the same impact on all the body sites. So, the femoral neck would require a high magnitude stress but also a high tension speed and different spatial application of this stress. The lumbar spine is stimulated correctly with the carried loads, regardless of the speed of execution.

Weightlifting is a very interesting discipline in more ways than one (see our discussion of the full squat and its link to weightlifting). It is a major prevention tool. Indeed, in the first third of our life, the activities with load bearing make it possible to create a significant bone capital which will create a better prevention during aging. Epidemiological studies have also shown that postmenopausal women who had a history of weightlifting or powerlifting had a higher bone mineral density than sedentary women of the same age.

Of course, weightlifting is not the only activity that can bring benefits. Any resistance training combined with relatively intense activities with changes of direction (tennis, squash, football, HIIT, etc.) can benefit to the bone mineral density of the whole body. And of course, whatever the practice, it must be adapted to the physical condition at the moment and follow a structured progression and be supervised by a professional.


  1. Jeon W, Harrison JM, Stanforth PR and Griffin L. Bone mineral density differences across female olympic lifters, power lifters, and soccer players. J Strength Cond Res, 2021.

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