I have four sisters who have all participated in sports and stayed active throughout their lives. They have been involved in swimming, volleyball, basketball, skiing, triathlon and more. And as part of their sports training during their athletic careers they would often be at the gym getting stronger, fitter and faster.
I remember one training session in particular with my sister Jacqueline. And she was warming up before doing some squats. And there were some young guys training in a squat rack beside her. As she finished her warm-up and started lifting so began the process of working up to her training load. She started adding plates to make up 95, 135, 185 and up to 205 lbs.
And it’s important to realize these weren’t 1 rep sets but higher volume ones of 8 or 10 reps. Anyways as the young guys training beside her began loading weights they started to take notice that she was training with similar loads. And her technique and range of motion was better.
You could see these guys were trying to do more than they normally would in order to keep pace with what Jacqueline was lifting. Keep in mind that these guys probably weighed 50-70 lbs more than her.
But this is nothing new. Girls have always done better on lower body strength measures compared to upper body. For example, we’ve had a few female athletes that we’ve trained that could deadlift 300+ lbs whereas a strong male athlete might pull 350-405 lbs. In other words the girls could lift as much as 75-85% of their male counterparts.
However when it comes to upper body lifts the gap widens. If a male could bench 275 lbs there are fewer female athletes that could push 75-85% of this or 206-233 lbs. They might be closer to 50% or a bench of 145-150 lbs.
So we know that the girls stay closer to the boys when it comes to lower body strength & power measures. And this serves them well on sports that rely more on the lower body than the upper body.
Take cycling for example. Upper body size and strength doesn’t really help in cycling. It actually can more of a detriment as bigger arms, back or chest won’t help propel the bike but instead become additional mass to move and impairs aerodynamics.
This comes down to something called relative strength or power. How strong or powerful are you for your mass? A bigger athlete may do well on a stationary bike but lose in an actual bike race because of their larger mass. A bigger athlete may shine when they can move an external mass but struggle when moving their own mass. Picture an NFL lineman doing chin-ups compared to a rock climber.
I remember former Tour de France cyclist and Olympic cycling medallist Axel Merckx talking about watts per kilo as being a measure cycling teams would monitor. How much power can you generate for a given mass?
So relative strength and power matter. But what else? Are there any other x-linked advantages?
Well it might be that my sisters would do well in more aerobic, endurance events.
The Trans Am Bike Race goes from Oregon to Virginia covering over 4300 miles. The winner will take at least 18 days to complete the distance. Last year the race was won for the first time by a woman.
Last year at the World’s Toughest Mudder second and third place overall were women.
In a number of open water swims including Manhattan Island and Catalina Chanel swims women have done well, and even won, these events
So what accounts for the success of women in endurance events?
One theory is that a couple of factors that contribute to success in endurance events are central drive and movement economy. Women do better in these areas. The other factors include are heart size, lean mass and VO2 mac where men typically have an advantage.
But looking at central drive this may be related to an evolutionary advantage or a hormonal link. Women have the ability to carry a baby and give birth. Some argue that they have a higher pain tolerance or threshold and can push though more challenging physical stress and for longer.
Movement economy refers to our technique. When we have to do something repeatedly for hours, or even days, on end technique matters. So while women may have smaller engines i.e. less force production, they may be better drivers i.e. better technique.
***Danica Patrick aside this is the only time this rule applies :)***
There is also the possibility that there’s an estrogen-linked connection. Again the theory is that estrogen may bind to a neurotrannsmitter in the brain that signals fatigue. This delays the transmission of this message and thus the body doesn’t feel as tired.
Another possibility is the difference in muscle fiber types between men and women. Men tend to have more type II muscle fibres compared to women who may have more type I fibres. Type II muscles will generate higher levels of force and more quickly but will exhaust more quickly.
Along the long lines of muscle fiber type is the question of substrate, or energy source. When we train intensely we use more carbohydrate and less fat for fuel. When we lower the intensity the opposite is true. Considering how endurance events are less about the sprint and more about sustaining a decent pace and strategy this makes more sense to rely on fat as a fuel source. On average women tend to have body fat levels 5-7% higher than men do and thus may be able to more realdily access this as a fuel source for endurance events.
And while all of the above may be theory and speculation the one that can’t be argued as a contributing factor is the increased participation rate of girls in sport.Title 9 paved the way for girls to receive equal opportunity and access to assistance as male athletes. Case in point, in the early 70s roughly 300,000 girls played high school sports. Today that number grown more than ten-fold to over 3.3 million. So part of the results could come down to increased participation, competition and deeper talent pools.
So what is the answer?
I think it’s a combination of all these factors. Some have more of an impact than others. Some of them can be developed and improved such as technique or movement efficiency. Others, such as an estrogen advantage, are more natural and rise and fall naturally over time. Either way as the proud dad of two young girls it’s exciting to see these gains by female athletes and what they might be capable of one day.