The Anatomical and Physiological Reasons for Differences in Performance Between Female and Male Athletes

Men tend to have higher levels of athletic performance than women. There are sociological factors that play a role. Boys at an early age are encouraged to engage in physical activity. The opposite is true for girls. Women may not have the same opportunities to develop physical skills as men. Before puberty, there is no gap in athletic performance. Boys and girls are at equal levels of strength and speed.While some of the discriminatory barriers have been removed, the difference in performance cannot be solely environmental or sociological. There are anatomical and physiological factors that effect athletic performance. Elite female athletes would not be able on average, to compete with with elite male athletes. When men and women are given the same training regimen, on average men perform at higher levels. However, this does not mean there cannot be a small sample of women who overlap with some males in terms  of performance. The difference in biology, physiology, anatomy, and endocrinology contribute to the gap in athletic performance.

One factor that effects athletic performance is body structure. Women and men’s bodies differ in particular attributes. Secondary sex characteristics do influence athletic performance. Men have broader shoulders and more upper body strength. Having broader shoulders means more space to build muscle on that section of the body.


This would give men more advantage in sports that require upper body strength  like boxing or weightlifting. Women would have to work harder to gain strength in the upper body. Women have wider pelvises, which effects running speed. However, women are closer to men in lower body strength, so it is not impossible for a woman to outrun a man. Women have a smaller waist  and smaller shoulders, which means limited space for muscle mass. Women are normally shorter in height and weigh less than males. The difference between body composition occurs after puberty, with males developing more muscle mass and women more fat. Women’s fat is concentrated more so in the buttocks, thighs, and hips. Men have larger feet and hands. This could be useful to an athlete depending on what sport. Women have lower bone mass as compared to males. The difference in body structure is due to endocrinology.

        The endocrine system plays a major role in athletic performance. Specifically endocrinology refers to the study of hormones, the organ system itself, and the diseases that could befall it. The hormones that are relevant to performance are testosterone and estrogen . Although estrogen produces fat, there are advantages.


The functions of the endocrine system.

Estrogen-B has an effect on the speed of contractile tissue, but  it means the muscle is more fatigue resistant. This is critical for recovery after work outs. Exercise physiologists in the past just assumed that males had all the advantages, due to sex biases. Testosterone on the other hand, allows for greater muscle mass. It does not only just effect muscle, but bones ligaments, and tendons. Testosterone also produces more red blood cells. That means men would have higher anerobic capacity. Estrogen and progesterone are sex hormones that have other functions. Estrogen like testosterone is responsible for secondary sex characteristics in females. Progesterone is responsible for preparing the female  body for pregnancy. The endocrine system metabolizes nutrients differently in a woman’s body. Women will have higher subcutaneous fat levels. Fat is needed for ovulation and menstruation. Even the most muscular woman will retain higher body fat than a male. Marathon runners have low body fat percentages, but males are usually at four percent  while women have eight percent.


Testosterone allows men to have more muscle mass. Women do produce this hormone, but in smaller amounts. Women produce at least one-tenth the amount of testosterone of males .Hormonal levels do vary among individuals, so it is not impossible that a woman producing more testosterone naturally could be exceptionally athletic. Testosterone contributes to protein synthesis which will aid in how muscle will respond to an exercise regimen. This means males will achieve a higher level of muscular hypertrophy. However, hormones are not the only factor in strength. The testis are not the only pace in the male body in which testosterone is produced. The pituitary gland also contributes. The hormone will bind to skeletal fibers as well has having an effect on proteins.   A man could have more testosterone, but not stronger than a particular woman.


The assumption is that the man would be stronger, because of higher testosterone production.  The testes produce more of the hormone in males, but that does not mean every man would be stronger than every woman.  There is no doubt that the woman in the photo could have more strength than the man. 

The amount of free testosterone is a major factor in muscular hypertrophy. The majority of testosterone is bounded to sex hormone binding gloubin  or non-specific proteins. While it seems that testosterone has all the advantages, estrogen also contributes  to something vital. Estrogen plays a role in protecting bones, the heart, and the brain. Women when they produce estrogen allow for the creation of osteoblasts. This type of cell is what bones are made of. Estrogen will then collaborate with calcium, vitamin D, and other hormones to maintain proper bone health. Recent medical studies have shown that estrogen can protect the brain. This was discovered by examining pre-menopausal  women who had their ovaries removed. This is sometimes done when there is a high cancer risk. Hormone therapy is done to maintain good endocrine health. Estrogen helps the heart by relaxing dilated blood vessels contributing to increased blood flow. The hormone can also maintain and manage high density  lipoprotein, which is essential to having good cholesterol. The endocrine system performs many functions, but the muscular system is also pivotal to athletic performance.

         Muscle and strength are two elements an athlete needs to be successful. When examining this organ system, there is little difference between females and males. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as “girls muscles” or ” man muscles.”  At the cellular level, the fibers are the same.


Men and Women have the same muscles. 

The difference is revealed in the distribution of certain types of muscle fiber. Hormones do play a role as previously explained, but that is not entire reason for the strength difference. Males have a greater amount of fast twitch muscles fibers. These types of muscle fibers allow for greater bursts of physical out put. Women have more slow twitch muscle fibers, which means they have more endurance. This is the reason why women’s muscles would be more fatigue resistant. Women can develop fast twitch fibers through weight training, but men have more to start off with. According to some exercise physiologists, male’s muscle fibers may actually be bigger. Women are closer to men in lower body strength.

muscle fibersMen still at equal levels of training surpass women in the lower body. Women who go train the same will rarely surpass their male counterparts. Women produce at least two thirds the physical strength of a man. Another important consideration is muscular endurance. This describes the ability of a muscle group to contract over a long period of time. Men could not have more muscular endurance, just because they have more muscle tissue. Training and genetics seem to be essential factors. Muscle activation, blood flow, and metabolism play a role. When examining muscle activation women had more endurance, because they fatigued less quickly and recruited more synergistic muscle groups. Women were found to utilize blood flow better, which aids to muscular endurance. Men and women can have similar levels of muscular endurance. Although weight training can address some disparities in absolute strength, usually the strongest male is stronger than the strongest female. Males during puberty go through a “strength spurt.” This occurs during the later stages of puberty. This strength gain can even continue into adulthood, when testosterone levels reach their peak. The strength spurt describes the pace of  muscular hypertrophy and is a attained one year after the initial peak rate.



Zoe Smith most likely followed the same training regimen as her male counterpart. However, he has the advantage of more upper body strength. 

While it is true men have more absolute strength, when comparing men and women of a similar size the disparity is not as large. When examining cross sectional area of muscle it would appear that male and female muscle are equal in strength. Women respond just the same to weight training, but there are some hormonal and histological  factors that could limit physical gains.

       Bones and the skeletal structure are also a reason for athletic performance differences.  The Skeleton’s various tendons and ligaments contribute to biomechanical   function. Women have smaller bones as compared to men. Larger bones on the male body allow for greater articular surface and extra leverage. A large frame means more of an opportunity to hold muscle. Women’s ligaments are looser, which means they have to be mindful of injuries. A wider pelvis means that a woman’s running speed would be slower than a man’s. This does give an advantage in balance, which is required in sports such as gymnastics. Women involved in sports do suffer a higher rate of musculoskeletal injuries. Joints, shoulders, and knees are major points of injury. Even though this statistic is high, building up particular muscles can prevent such damage. Looser joints allows for greater flexibility in women.


Muscle is not the only player in strength, but bone mass is as well. Men larger bone structure adds to the strength of the lean body mass. Men’s greater height would give them advantage in sports like basket ball or volleyball. More bone mass means the body can withstand more trauma. However, injuries such as concussions can effect men and women both negatively. This is why it is more pivotal for women to build up their bone mass as much as possible.

        There is a difference in levels of cardiovascular fitness. Women have smaller lungs and hearts, which effect how oxygen is utilized. The Vo2 max describes how oxygen is transported to the muscles during exercise. Women have lower levels of hemoglobin and would have less aerobic capacity. Muscles take the oxygen transported and used it to produce adenosine triphosphate which is essential for muscular contraction. This describe the general processing of aerobic power. The aerobic power of males is about 50% greater. This is due to certain factors. A larger heart means there is more blood to pump into the body .Larger lungs allow to fully oxygenate the blood coming from other body tissues.  The role of hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to other tissues of the body.


The body is really an impressive organic machine. While cardio vascular fitness is important element of athletic performance endurance is necessary.

         Endurance can be described as the ability to resist fatigue under periods of physical exertion. Endurance can be determined by how efficiently the body convert calories into energy. Women have an easier time converting glycogen into energy. When glucose levels drop, glycogen acts as a secondary power source. This may explain why women excel at ultra running events. Women’s endurance could be related to estrogen. The hormone seems to have a protective role in regards to the muscles after workouts. There is some indication that estrogen could also control fatigue by inducing a level of serotonin production. There still is more research done to find out the exact role of estrogen in athletic performance.

      These are the average differences between men and women in terms of physiology and anatomy. However. when examining the elite male and female athletes there still is a gap in performance. The gap has remained stable since 1983 according to Olympic records. Generally, there is an estimated ten percent difference in all events. The data could be skewed a little, due to the fact there are still countries that do not let women compete in the Olympics. Women do not participate at the same levels at males do and it has only been recent that women were allowed to engage in serious competition. Although it is a small sample size it still provides an accurate assessment , but no precise.


Estimates of athletic performance gaps 

Sports such as equestrian events and shooting men and women are close to equal in performance.Given the difference in skeletal and muscle mass one would assume that the gap would be larger. These are averages, but when individuals are examined their is a level of overlap. Some enthusiastically believed that women would catch up to men in performance in the 21st century. This has not occurred and many are doubtful it can happen. While it seems a little presumptuous to say it would never happen, it just may not be in this century. Humans could still be evolving and their is a possibility that women could change as well. This process takes millions of years. Seeing as we have not mastered time travel, this prediction remains speculative. Another problem is related to training methods. Women may not be performing at their very best, due to certain cultural mores. Some women, even ones in sport are afraid of developing muscular bodies. Jessica Ennis famed track athlete had sated she had to overcome that trepidation. Women if they are going to be successful in their sport are going to have to embrace muscular strength. The gap would not be fully closed, but narrowed.

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Women can gain strength, but males have the advantage more type II muscle fibers.

 There is a period in which male and female physical performance is equal.Boys and girls have not fully matured or grown. At this period, strength levels and body composition are the same. Aerobic capacity is even similar.Women do not gain extra strength, unless they train vigorously. Girls will as they mature develop a menstrual cycle. This does not hinder athletic performance. Studies show that athletic performance is not changed during the 28 day cycle. Many myths and old wives tales have surrounded the function of women’s bodies.It was once believed that women lose half their strength during their menstrual cycle. This has been proven erroneous.


Muscles are not the only contributors to strength, but the skeleton. The three major sex differences in the skeleton are the ribcage, pelvis, and skull.  

This myth was developed around the 19th century based on eugenic foundations. It was assumed that the female body was too weak for strenuous activity and the menstrual cycle was used as proof. The medical professionals of the West said that girls upon reaching puberty, needed a rest cure. This meant doing as little physical activity and protecting the body for child birth. When women began playing sports, this put to rest these ideas. Examining the records it seems that physiology, biology, and anatomy do influence performance.

       After looking at these facts many would assume that males are the better athletes. This is an incorrect conclusion. While male records are higher, individual women athletes have proven extremely skilled. What makes are great athlete is persistence in training regimen, diligence, genetics, and  the rate in which they can master physical skills. When examining those factors biological sex does not seem like a factor. Even though sexual dimorphism is a major factor in athletic performance, the sociological factors cannot be ignored. Women are recent neophytes to the world of professional sports. Women still have to deal with body image issues and traditional gender norms imposed by society. Inequality and discrimination are still present  in terms of access to training facilities, pay, and media coverage. This explains that differences in performance are not always biological, but can be environmental.


Doctor, Vanessa. “Is There a Difference Between Female and Male Muscles?” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 12 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <;.

Mich, Hannah. “Muscular Endurance Men Vs. Women.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <;.

Latham, Andrew. “Physiological Differences Between Male and Female Athletes.” N.p., 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <;.

Lee, Lexa. “How Do Men and Women Differ Athletically?”LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 08 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <;.

The Anatomical and Physiological Reasons for Differences in Performance Between Female and Male Athletes

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