It’s a common perception that men are better athletes than women – but is that always true? In most sports, women play on their own teams based on the idea that women can’t compete with men. How much of this is social and cultural bias and how much is based on true differences in athletic ability and body composition?
Strength, Speed, and Power
Men are typically bigger than women and have a higher proportion of muscle relative to fat. Men are also, in general, stronger than women. However, strength discrepancies between men and women are more pronounced in the upper body than the lower. How do we know this?
In one study, researchers compared strength and muscle size between men and women in the elbow flexors and knee extensors. What they found was women are about 52% as strong as men in the upper body and 66% as strong in the lower body. The results showed that women also have less muscle mass in the upper and lower body relative to men. Again, the discrepancy was greatest in the upper body. Women had 45% and 41% less muscle tissue in the biceps and elbow flexors and 30% and 25% less muscle mass in the vastus lateralis in the thigh and total knee extensors.
The researchers concluded that women have a lower relative amount of muscle tissue in their upper body compared to men and this partially explains why there are significant discrepancies in upper body strength. Men also have larger muscle fibers, although a study showed individual muscle fibers are similar in strength between men and women.
These differences give men an advantage when it comes to sports that require strength and power. However, gender isn’t destiny. In 2012, a 99-pound girl named Naomi Kutin deadlifted almost 210 pounds of weight and squatted almost the same amount. In other words, she squatted almost 215 percent of her body weight. This is similar to what a strong male would squat.
Elite male marathoners typically have faster times relative to elite female marathoners. For endurance events the length of a marathon or shorter, men have an advantage. You can partially explain this by the fact that men have a greater aerobic capacity or V02 max, meaning they’re better at delivering oxygen to tissues during submaximal exercise.
For sedentary women, the average V02 max is 33 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute. For men. it’s 42 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute. For highly trained endurance athletes, V02 max in men can reach the 80s whereas top-level women usually have a V02 max that tops out in the 70s. In terms of lactate threshold, also an important determinant of endurance performance, trained men and women seem to both have a threshold of between 75% to 80%. This means they can exercise at around 75% to 80% of V02 max before the build-up of