Once considered a mostly male sport, bodybuilding and weight training at a professional and recreational level has skyrocketed among women in the past years. Why the rise in popularity? More women are realizing that resistance training won’t give them big, bulky muscles. Instead, it can make them stronger, leaner and firmer. Of course, the benefits of resistance training for women go far beyond superficial appearances. Resistance training helps preserve bone mass, reduces the risk for injury, lowers risk for type 2 diabetes, helps prevent loss of lean body mass with age, increases resting metabolic rate (due to greater lean body mass) and improves emotional well-being. Who wouldn’t want those benefits?
Both men and women are capable of building lean body mass and respond similarly to resistance training, although men are capable of greater muscle hypertrophy due to their higher level of anabolic hormones like testosterone. Research shows men and women are rewarded with a decrease in body fat percentage and an increase in lean body mass in response to resistance training. Age, genetics, diet, and intensity of lifting all influence how much muscle a woman is able to build and the number of strength gains they can make.
It’s no secret that the average man is stronger than the average woman. For one, men have more muscle mass. Of course, women have some advantages too. For one, women live longer. In fact, they outlive men by an average of 5 to 6 years. So, women are definitely not the “weaker sex.” Still, have you ever wondered how men and women differ in terms of strength and power?
Strength Differences between Men and Women
How much stronger are men, on average than women? According to research published by California Lutheran University, men and women differ most in terms of upper body strength. A female’s upper body strength is between 25% to 55% of a male’s. You can bet women who resistance train fall towards the upper end! Some trained women ARE stronger than untrained men.
In terms of lower body strength, men and women are closer to being equal. Women have between 70% and 75% of the lower body strength that men do. Why do males and females differ so much in terms of upper body strength? Females have more lean body mass in their lower body as opposed to their upper body. Plus, a study showed men have larger muscle fibers than women. They also have a greater number of muscle fibers.
Differences in Power between Men and Women
How do men and women differ in their ability to generate power? Power is the ability to do work or generate force quickly. In terms of weight training, it’s the ability to move a weight rapidly. On average, men are at an advantage in terms of generating power. For example, at the Olympic level, record-holding women jumpers differ by about 17% in their performance compared to record-holding men. The same is true for other sports that require power like sprinting. That certainly doesn’t mean women can’t excel at power sports and can’t significantly enhance power through training. Explosive power drills like power cleans, kettlebell swings and plyometrics greatly enhance power capabilities in both sexes. Plyometrics are especially effective for building explosive strength and power.
Power moves like kettlebell swings and plyometrics are essential for women of all ages. They’re important for the benefits being powerful offers but also as a way to prevent age-related loss of strength and power. You don’t just lose strength with age – you also lose power. Research shows people lose anaerobic power at a rate of about 8% per decade after the age of 20. Why is this important? Research shows muscle power is a better predictor of functional ability than muscle strength. In other words, you need both strength training and high-velocity strength training and drills like plyometrics to preserve power capabilities as you age.
The Importance of Intensity
The average man is stronger than the average woman, especially in the upper body, and they have a power advantage too. Men also have advantages when it comes to building strength and muscle mass due to their higher testosterone level. It’s even more challenging for women to maintain lean body mass after menopause due to hormonal changes, including a drop in testosterone. If your goal is to get more muscle definition and become stronger, intensity is key. According to research from California Lutheran University, women should ideally train using a resistance that’s 80% of their one-rep max. Women need to train at a high intensity to get results.
Exercises that build explosive strength and power are also an important part of a balanced fitness program. This is an area of fitness many women ignore. If you play any type of sport that involves explosive movements, power training can help your performance.
How can you incorporate these findings into your training? Alternate heavy resistance training with explosive strength training. Use a lighter resistance but increase the speed with which you move the weight. For explosive training, use a weight that’s around 30% of your one-rep max when you first start out and do a high number of reps. Focus on form. Explosive strength training increases your risk of injury, especially if you don’t use good form.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t worry about becoming muscle-bound by resistance training. You’ll only become stronger and more powerful – and lose body fat with a combination of power and strength training. Heavy resistance training and explosive training is the key to maximizing strength, power, and body composition.
California Lutheran University. “Women and Strength Training”
ShapeFit.com. “Men vs Women When Exercising – Gender Affects Muscle Strength & Power”
Scientific American. “Why Women Live Longer” September 2010.
Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2012;40(1):1-12.
European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. March 1993, Volume 66, Issue 3, p
Delaying the Loss of Power as a Result of Aging. Michael Boyle. (February 2008)
Baechle TR and Earle RW. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetic. 2000.
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