Why are men typically stronger and faster than women?
There is a multitude of differences between the male and female anatomy that account for strength, power, and endurance differences. However, where most people like to attribute these differences to gender alone, the main reason for these discrepancies is due to hormones and muscle mass distribution. Meaning, a female, and male with similar hormonal responses and muscle mass would thus have very similar training outcomes.
Hormonal Impact on Strength
Testosterone is the main hormone that has become synonymous with doping in the professional sports world. Testosterone levels benefit the athlete by increases bone mass, improving fat distribution, muscles size, and strength, and increasing red blood cell production. If the best athletes in the world are seeking ways of increasing testosterone then it should be obvious that it is one of the most important hormones to strength and power. Pre-puberty. testosterone levels in both males and females are fairly similar thus there are very few differences observed in strength and power output amongst young athletes. However, post-puberty, males can produce anywhere from 10-20 times the testosterone in women.
How much of a difference is there?
Post-puberty, once hormonal changes begin to make an impact on an athletes physique, the true differences between males and females begin to emerge.
On average, females have less muscle mass than males. As a side note, this means they are more susceptible to reconditioning. This susceptibility means that in-season training is imperative to females because they will lose muscle mass quicker than males. Women will have 2/3 the overall muscle mass of men; 1/2 of the upper body muscle mass and 3/4 of the lower body mass. For example, a male will on average have 80% of their leg be muscle whereas a female will have 60% of their leg be muscle. With this being said, when adjusting for fat-free weight and fat-free cross-sectional area, one study reported that all sex differences in strength were eliminated when looking at the lower half (1).
Speed and Power
Men have a tendency to be faster because of three main reasons: body composition, hematocrit levels, and heart and lung size. Due to hormone sensitivity and production, males have a tendency to be leaner and carry less fat mass. Typically, a leaner body mass will equate on average to a faster runner. Hematocrit is the volume of red blood cells in proportion to total red blood cells. The higher levels of testosterone in the male system account for a higher red blood cell count. More red blood cells lead to an improved ability to exchange O2 and CO2 within the cell thus a higher power output when training. Lastly, males on average have larger heart and lung sizes. A larger heart would equate to a higher stroke volume again affording the ability to generate more power over a sustained period of time. Additionally, the wider hip angle of a female puts them at a biomechanical disadvantage when sprinting. Meaning, when looking at the force vector applied to the human system when the foot strikes the ground, the wider hip angle can make it more difficult to transmit directly through the female athletes’ center of mass. This would thus require more overall force to create the same power when running than a male. This is yet another reason why a male of the same muscle mass as a female may still run faster.
Despite these differences, it is still impressive that some women are able to compete with their counterpart males in various sports. As for which gender benefits the most from training, the confounding variables contributing to this question seem to stray in too many directions to give a definitive, black and white answer. As a Sports Performance Specialist who has had the opportunity to observe males and females spanning ages 6-30 and across a spectrum of sports, I can tell you the athletes that trained with intent, put the effort in to remain consistent, and truly believed they were going to improve observed the greatest benefits from training. The desire to improve does not favor a gender.
(1) Sex difference in muscular strength in equally-trained men and women
PHILLIP BISHOP, KIRK CURETON & MITCHELL COLLINS
Pages 675-687 | Received 14 Mar 1986, Accepted 29 Oct 1986, Published online: 27 Jul 2007
(2)Gender differences in skeletal muscle substrate metabolism – molecular mechanisms and insulin sensitivity
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