Exactly How Strong Are Female Bodybuilders Compared To Men?

Exactly How Strong Are Female Bodybuilders Compared To Men?

Female bodybuilders train for muscular hypertrophy and aesthetics. The present an image of strength, yet the question  is what is their strength compared to men. This article from Spot Me Girl attempts to answer this question. There are women could can be stronger than men, however their is a different outcome if both men and women are on the same fitness program. The reason is due to sexual dimorphism which is shown in size, weight, and body composition. Potential between both sexes in terms of fitness capacity can vary vastly depending on health, somatotype, genetics, and method of training. There is a range of strength levels that can be documented. While physical strength is not the goal of the female bodybuilder, the development of more type II muscle fibers may result in them gaining strength. Microtrauma occurs in the muscle causing hypertrophy. This process happens to women who engage in serious weight training for such a sport. The difference is in degree and extent. The average woman could gain some strength,  who trains on a regular basis. The female bodybuilder who trains for years or decades could reach a strength level either equal to or slightly above the average man. The untrained man probably would not depending on their weight or height be as strong as a woman who trains regularly for strength. Other exercises are useful, but some are more effective at amassing strength. A Female bodybuilder would probably not reach the same level of mass or strength as a male bodybuilder. This does not mean there cannot be overlap, but this is an exception unique to a woman’s individual physiology and physical fitness capacity. Female bodybuilders would thus be stronger than average men, but would have less compared to their fellow male competitors.

         It should be clarified that endocrinology as plays a role in sports performance. The text states that testosterone does not play as big a function in muscle building as one would presume. This contradicts the following statements about initial strength. The reason that this natural strength disparity is present is due to the difference in testosterone. Prior to puberty there is no difference in physical strength between the sexes. Boys and girls have roughly the same physical fitness capacity. Girls will grow faster and end their growth spurts sooner. Boys are slower to grow having two stages. The first growth spurt could happen as early as 10 to 11 years old. The major change comes around age 13 when testosterone production increases and the testis become larger. Between these two growth spurts, males will have a strength spurt. The spurt in strength is the result in increase testosterone production. Estrogen creates more fat storage on the female body when the ovaries produce it. Sex hormones also effect the bones, ligaments, and tendons which also contribute to body strength.  A majority of girls reach their adult height by age 15, while men continue to gain more. Women do not gain a strength spurt form puberty due to the endocrinological changes related to estrogen and progesterone. However estrogen does have benefits. It can contribute to muscule repair, protects joints as well as bones, stops muscle loss, and aids in metabolism. Testosterone aids in protein synthesis which changes the rate of how muscle reacts to exercise. It also effects growth factors. This explains why it would be harder for women to build strength and muscle when starting a training regimen.

The image above shows children and at this stage in life, there is limited physical capacity difference. The adults on the right would show the aftermath of the physical changes from puberty. The athletes at the bottom have to work harder to achieve these physiques. 

It should be understood that it is not the total amount of testosterone that produces greater strength . The amount of free unbounded testosterone in the body makes part of the determination.The majority of testosterone in the body is either bound to proteins or sex  hormone binding globlin. Endocrine function does have a significant fact in strength, yet it is not the only one. There are also considerations at the beginning that has to do with a woman’s body structure.

        The upper body region differs for males and females in terms of structure. Men have broader shoulders meaning a larger frame to store more muscle on. Women can have an estimated 40 % to 70 % upper body strength level compared to a man. When men train they can add more upper body strength. A female bodybuilder’s shoulders would not increase in size. The muscle would develop relative to her frame and size. The skeletal structure including  clavicle, scapula and the rib cage would be denser in the male body. That means an average man would have an upper body advantage over the untrained woman. Assuming the female bodybuilder had enough muscle for forceful recruitment and contraction her upper body strength could be close to or equal the average male, even if the bone density was not equivalent. There would not be a way for her to challenge a male bodybuilder because the bone and muscle mass is greater.

The female bodybuilder compared to the male bodybuilder would not reach his level of strength and mass. The less muscular women would not have the same strength as the men they are next to. The average man at the bottom would not be in the same strength range as the female bodybuilder. 

Tendon and ligaments have to be factored in when discussing functional strength. Women have looser joints, which allow for greater flexibility, but this comes with the added problem of possible injuries.The lower body women tend to be closer to men in body strength. This is probably easier for women to build up compared to the upper body. These estimates in body strength can be represented in estimated percentages. Women are 27% weaker in the lower body and 63% weaker in the upper body in terms of averages. Greater upper body strength can be essential to sports like weightlifting or boxing. The difference in upper body strength only gets more pronounced with training. If women were to match the upper body strength of men it would require more bone mass and broader shoulders. Narrow shoulders mean that there is a decreased articular surface. Before considering other biological and physical factors to answer the question, there has to be a precise method of measuring physical strength.

         There are ways of measuring strength. There are methods that are more precise than others. Hand grip measure would not be the most precise measure. The chart used in the article only used women hand ball players and judo martial artists. The study conducted by The Journal of Applied Physiology . They used a total number of 1,645 men and only 533 women. This data could be distorted considering women’s numbers were small in the sample. While hand grip strength can be an indicator of manual lifting and the ability to carry loads this does not give a full assessment of absolute strength. The subjects they used were not training for physical strength, like weightlifters. Only with precise measures can a determination be made. Looking at men and women’s weight lifting and powerlifting records shows more.

Weightlifting World Records (men and women)

Powerlifting World Records (IPF)

The records demonstrated the difference in  absolute strength between men and women . The difference calculated in weightlifting is 120kg  compared to 327.kg in powerlifting. There still remains a difference in absolute strength. Bodybuilders do not train the exact way as powerlifters or weightlifters. So, if one wants to get specific about strength levels it would be best to collect data on some of the lifting records of individual athletes. When Kristy Hawkins competed in bodybuilding her lifting stats were 205 lbs (92.9 kg) for incline bench, 315 lbs (142.8 kg ) for squats, and deadlift. She could also do 245 lbs (111.13 kg) barbell rows. When she became a powerlifter her lifts became significantly larger. She broke records with a deadlift of 650 kg and a 225 kg squat.  Kristy had strength as a bodybuilder,but gained more of it through powerlifting techniques.

A person can gain some strength from bodybuilding, yet powerlifting and weightlifting provide a greater potential in terms of absolute strength gains. The goal of bodybuilding is not too bench the most, but to present a physique that has definition, shape, symmetry, size and conditioning. It is rare that women reach the strongest trained male range.The comparison of how strong a female bodybuilder is also depends on the man she is being compared to in terms of strength capacity. The average male lifter can roughly squat  125 lbs (56.7 kg), benchpress 135 lbs (61.2 kg), and deadlift 155 lbs ( 70.3 kg). Compared to Kristy Hawkins the average man would not be as strong. This is based of the Lon Kilgore strength standard. Another comparison could be made with Desiree Ellis during her career. She was able to perform 225 lbs( 102 kg ) bench press and 315 lbs squats (142.8 kg ).

The average novice male  lifters weighing 198 89 kg) pounds with several months of training could reach a 230 lbs (104.3 kg) squat, a 175 lbs (79.4 kg)  bench press. These gains are modest, but still not in the range of a female bodybuilder. Several years a male could reach the intermediate level which could see a 215 lbs (97 kg ) bench press and (129.3 kg) 285 lbs for squats. The intermediate level range of male strength is normally were women reach their maximal strength. Advanced male lifters can reach 290 lbs (131  kg ) for bench press and 390 lbs( 176.9 kg) for squats. Kristy Hawkins deadlift is higher compared to advance male lifters, but this is a notable and rare exception.

deadstat

This comes down to body size. women weigh less than men and on average are smaller. Examining deadlift data from a small sample of athletes show the difference in body weight. The smallest males weigh in  at  is 114 lbs (51 kg ) compared to the smallest woman at 97 lbs (43 kg). The largest woman would only reach 199 lbs (90 kg )compared to the male 320 lbs (145 kg )  and over. Female bodybuilders often seem bigger than they actually are. One of the biggest female bodybuilders to compete was Lesa Lewis who competed at 193 lbs (88 kg). Phil Heath the 2015 Mr.Olympia weighed about 240 lbs (108 kg). The biggest  women are comparatively small to their male counterparts.Other female bodybuilders may even weigh less than an average man when in competition. The average weight of the American man over the age of 20  is at least 191 pounds. Female bodybuilders rarely reach this weight even during the off season.

These weightlifting statistics are more precise than a basic hand grip study. While lifting any amount of weight can induce change there is a training technique that is more efficient in building strength. Strength increase can happen from bodybuilding,but powerlifting and weighlifting can increase strength even more.

       Another factor is body composition and somatotype. This is an estimation of possible muscular strength gains that can be made. Many female bodybuilders have a mesomorphic body type prior to starting their sport. Having that base can enhance the body further through training. For people with ectomorphic and endomorphic body types this poses more of a challenge. Muscular gain would be more difficult for naturally thin or larger people. When related to body fat percentages it makes a difference. A thin man would still have less fat compared to a thin woman. Fat does not add to strength, rather it can add to mass. Although from basic kinematics the more mass the more force can be generated, having more fat does not correlate to more functional strength. This explains why a the weakest man would still have more strength than the weakest woman. The male body has more muscle composition compared to the higher fat composition in women’s bodies. Muscle fibers generate more force compared to fat.

Both the men and women in these photos are very strong. However, the women are carrying more body fat compared to the men. It is hard to tell my just looking. 

Normally a female bodybuilder can reach at least 8% body fat. Men can reach as low as 3%. These low body fat levels are only done for a contest. Keeping the body under such conditions could be harmful. Body fat levels need to be low enough to show definition . Fat is necessary for the cell membranes. The recommended body fat levels for men are around 15% compared to women’s 21%. Seeing as athletes are pushing their bodies to a limit, they would actually have more physical strain during contest time. This is tougher for women, because if body fat levels become to low it can disturb the menstrual cycle. This can be avoided as long as there is recovery during the off season. Body composition also has a role in strength.

         Another consideration is muscle fiber type. Simply having large muscles does not equate to more strength. There are weightlifters and crossfit competitors that lift more compared to some female bodybuilders. The reason is based on type II muscle fiber distribution. This muscle fiber type is designed for more explosive power. Type II muscle fibers can either be classified as moderate IIa  or fast twitch IIb. If one is looking to increase strength and muscle mass these fibers are essential to the body. A bodybuilder may have large muscles, but depending on their type II to type I ratio a smaller person could be stronger.

At first this can be confusing. it only becomes clear when comprehended from the perspective of full muscle recruitment. Each of the muscle fibers must contribute to the physical task at hand. Men tend to have more type II muscle fiber, while women contain more type I fiber. Although such type I muscle fiber is not as strong, it is more fatigue resistant. The amount of muscle fiber type can vary among individuals, yet it is clear that sex is a factor in muscle fiber expression, which results in distribution.

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The general muscle fiber classification demonstrates power and energy levels.
Basic RGB
The type IIa muscle fiber expression in hindlimbs of a man and a woman.

Type II muscle fiber has the ability to contract rapidly. There are case when both type I and type II are used during physical activity. Type I muscle fibers are used first and when they reach their limit there is a switch to type II. The muscle fiber types act as an auxiliary support for the body under physical activity. Men and women have the same muscular system. The difference is that men have a grater amount concentrated in the upper body. The more fibers available in that area means the greater chance for more force from recruitment.

Blood supply is also different for certain muscle fiber. Slow twitch muscle fiber has more blood supply compared to fast twitch. A large blood supply enables more oxygen. As a result their work out put can last longer due to the blood difference. Fast twitch muscle has a lack of blood, which means less oxygen delivery to the tissue. Fast twitch muscle fiber has less mitochandria. Mitochandria is responsible for energy production by means of adenosine triphosphate. This explains the secret to type I muscle fiber’s endurance it utilizes blood supply and adenosine triphosphate more efficiently. Type II muscle fiber has a bigger diameter compared to type I fiber.

Strength can come in various sizes and body types. 

The challenge for type II muscle fiber is the lactic threshold. ATP uses glucose as a fuel source when under physical activity and work. Activity that goes from a range of 10 seconds to three minutes ATP is formed from incomplete breakdown of stored glucose known as glycogen. Lactic acid is produced as a result. Lifting weights requires energy faster than the body can deliver oxygen to the tissues. During this process glucose can be metabolized into  pyruvate. Pyruvate will then be converted into lactate for energy production to continue. The lactic threshold almost acts as a defense mechanism telling our bodies to stop strenuous activity. Lactic acid is not responsible for muscle soreness after work outs. Metabolites have been thought to cause such soreness, but it is unclear which ones. This explains why an athlete cannot exercise non-stop.

During exercise intensity levels are a factor in fatigue and lactic acid build up. Slow twitch fibers are reliant on a mixture of fat and glucose. Women who have a higher fat percentage can use some of that for energy. When intensity levels rise for slow twitch fibers fat metabolism will subside, while the carbohydrate metabolism increases. This induces assistance from fast twitch fiber.

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The muscle cell types
muscle1
Basic muscle fiber structure

What can be extrapolated is that not all muscle fibers are the same. The muscle cells also differ.  The three types include cardiac, smooth, and skeletal muscle. It is skeletal muscle that contributes more to strength and type II fibers that make it physiologically possible. The motor neurons are bigger in type II muscle fiber. The difference relative to size means that more fibers are activated during muscular contraction. Sarcomere length also contributes to maximal force of the muscle. Filament length if too short or too long will not produce the highest amount of force. Sarcomeres are the smallest units of contractile sections of muscle. The thin and thick filaments overlap one another when producing action. There is an estimated 600 muscles in the human body which requires the myocardium, voluntary, and involuntary muscles to collaborate. Women contain the same anatomical structure, however the difference is in body composition and total muscle fiber type.

       The nervous system is a factor in strength. Neural activity and its function translate into motor skill movement.The nervous system transmits impulses to the muscles. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. Strength level can be effected by the total number of motor neuron units and the rate of activation. This process is known as rate coding. When an athlete reaches a high level of rate coding they reach a classification known as explosive.

Motor neurons
The motor neuron and muscle fiber link as displayed anatomically.

There are certain methods employed to increase strength training wise. Lifting heavy weights can cause a change or lifting light weights at fast intervals. There are also factors of coordination and synchronization. Inter-muscular coordination refers to how efficiently multiple muscle work together to perform a task. Intra-muscular coordination requires the firing patterns of individual muscle fibers for a particular physical task. The process functions similar to gears working together in a clock. The gears will move to get the hands of the clock to move. This collaboration in action results in a synchronization. Motor neuron units will fire in accordance to the training load. Synchronization describes how particular muscle fibers are used depending on the physical task. Neural adaptation also is just as important as muscle fiber type. Technically, if a female bodybuilder has mastered this neuromuscular efficiency she could have considerable strength.

Some bodybuilders actually do have powerlifting backgrounds that contributed to their success. Bev Francis was a powerlifter before competing in bodybuilding. Her training in that sport gave her a great base to compete. Her maximum lifts were 335 lbs bench press 501 lbs deadlift and 500 lbs squat. Becca Swanson has been considered by many to be the strongest woman who ever lived. Her statistics include a 600 lbs bench press, 683 lbs deadlift, and 854 lbs squat.  Jill Mills also competed in bodybuilding before becoming a World’s Strongest Woman competitor.

If there were to be a comparison of strength levels, they would probably be stronger competing as powerlifters than when they were bodybuilders. That is due to the fact that the nervous system, just like the muscular system is responding to stimuli. The neural adaptation develops new pathways for the purpose of functional movement. This indicates that lifting higher loads would be more effective than lighter ones. If  any one wants to gain strength weighlifting would be the best method to reach that physical fitness target. Bodybuilders do lift weights, but the intent is not to gain the most strength. It is designed for body sculpting.

363px-Nervous_system_diagram

The nerves and neurons serve many functions in the human body. Voluntary movement would not be possible without the effort of the motor cortex. The nervous system is a network of nerves and sensory receptors working to provide the brain with information. The nervous system is divided into two parts : the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system contains the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves responsible that transport impulses from to and from the nervous system. During exercise or sporting competition the nervous system is diligently working with other organ systems. The muscular system, endocrine system,and nervous system contribute to physical strength, but it goes beyond that. Physical strength can also come from the genes.

          There are genes that are linked to physical strength. The genes that are responsible for muscular strength ACTG 1, STY 1, PEX 14, and TGFA. Genes are just units of deoxyribonucleic acid. ACTG 1 provides instructions for the formation of gamma y actin proteins. There are six types of actin and four of them are present in the muscle cells. This contributes to muscular contraction. TGFA also has involvement in protein coding.Genes can be expressed in different ways depending on various factors. There are multitudes of genes that influence body structure and their is a possibility that there are more. Actin alpha 3 and ACE influence muscle fiber type and even endurance. Alpha actin 3 is found in mostly fast twitch muscle fiber. This protein is essential to the fast twitch muscle fiber. ACE instructs the production of angiotensin-converting enzyme. Angiotensin I becomes Angiotensin I I, which may contribute in some manner to skeletal muscle structure. The ACE gene can have variation resulting in the ACE I/D polymorphism. Having two copies of this version of the gene could result in the D allele. This may result in a greater portion of fast twitch muscle fibers in the body.

actn3-1

image001

Genes and environment can influence an individual’s physical capabilities. While it is true genes are important, this should not mean that genes determine everything. Training method is important. A woman who spends more time doing cardiovascular exercise or aerobics probably would not see a dramatic increase in strength compared to a woman doing weight training. The physical fitness potential could vary immensely among individuals.

        There is an exact answer to this question if approached from a perspective of biology, physiology, and anatomy. Then one must have precise measurement. If one wants to be exact, this is an essential part of the experiment. The use of the hand grip measure was not as precise as weightlifting or powerlifting measures.  The conclusion that can be reached is that men are stronger than women, however a physically fit woman has a strength level either equal to or beyond average men. The Spot Me Girl  article does come to an incorrect conclusion. It states “even if we are biologically the weaker sex regarding muscle, at least we have some pretty good conditions for lifting because of our physical resilience!” There is no such thing as a biologically weaker sex in regards to muscle. The real difference is in maximum physical fitness capacity. Men’s fitness levels are just higher due to differences in genetics, anatomy, biology, and physiology.

    What can be  gathered from this information is a rough estimate of strength levels. An untrained woman would have less strength than an untrained man. A female bodybuilder would be stronger than both an untrained man or untrained woman. However, the female bodybuilder would not have a similar physical fitness capacity of a male on her same training regimen.

BattleTable1

The depiction of strength levels from weakest to strongest going from left to right. 

These women have achieved considerable strength that clearly would surpass a man less active.  

The article is correct in the fact that women require less time for recovery and have an advantage in endurance. The full extent of women’s physical capability may not be known. A majority of exercise physiology research focuses on male athletes. Thus women may not be training in the most efficient manner tailored to their biology and physiology. This makes questions such as these more difficult to answer. A prediction which may be correct can be made. The exact answer could be that female bodybuilders could be stronger than many men depending on the man’s weight, size, health, and physical fitness level.  The female bodybuilder is stronger than the average man, but the weightlifters and powerlifters could achieve strength levels much higher. While men’s physiology allows for greater physical fitness capacity, this does not automatically make them better athletes. Skills, training, and experience can make the difference in athletic competition. Female bodybuilders can be very strong depending on their genetics, training method, and diet.

Exactly How Strong Are Female Bodybuilders Compared To Men?

3 thoughts on “Exactly How Strong Are Female Bodybuilders Compared To Men?

  1. Warrior says:

    To say that some women can be stronger than men in bodybuilding…it’s a fallacy and incorrect. No there are not, because these women take , guess what the male hormone to gain strength…..so they’re not natural women. So what you ought to compare a bodybuilder female who doesn’t take anabolics with a male bodybuilder who doesn’t take anabolics

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    1. You clearly did not read what I wrote. There are some cases of overlap, although it’s very small . Endocrine function is not the only factor in physical strength. Genetics, somatotype, nutrition, diet, and training regimen also determine how strong a person can get. Drugs do not create sports champions. Simply taking something is not going to produce a quality physique. I have done comparisons on here before of athletes among a wide spectrum, so I don’t think my information is incorrect. I find it funny that you just assume all the women on the site have taken something. You would not know that unless you seen a drug test of the athletes. Women can build mass without drugs

      https://femuscleblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/06/can-women-build-muscle-mass/

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