It’s a known fact that men are stronger, but how much stronger are we really than women? Strength does vary by race as I have covered here extensively. However, I took another look at the only paper that I can find in the literature on black/white strength on the bench press and found one more data point that lends credence to my theory on racial differences in strength.
Strength and gender
Men are stronger than women. No one (sane) denies this. There are evolutionary reasons for this, main reason being, women selected us for higher levels of testosterone, along with differences in somatype. Now, what is not known by the general public is just how much stronger the average man is compared to the average woman.
Miller et al (2008) studied the fiber type and area and strength of the biceps brachii and vastus lateralis in 8 men and 8 women. They were told to do two voluntary tests of strength, using elbow flexion (think biceps curl) and knee extension. (Note: I am assuming they are exercises similar to biceps curls and knee extension, as the authors write that they had custom-made equipment from Global Gym.) They also measured motor unit size, number, and activation during both movements.
The women had 45 percent smaller muscle cross-section area (CSA) in the brachii, 41 percent in the total elbow flexor, 30 percent in the vastus laterus, and 25 percent smaller knee extensors. The last point makes sense, since women have stronger lower bodies compared to their upper bodies (as you can see).
Men were significantly stronger in both upper and lower body strength. In the knee extension, women was 62 and 59 percent of male 1RM and maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVC) respectively. As for elbow strength, women were 52 percent as strong as men in both 1RM and MVC. Overall, women were 70 and 80 percent as strong as men in the arms and the legs. This is attributed to either men’s bigger fibers or men putting themselves into more physical situations to have bigger fibers to be stronger (…a biological explanation makes more sense). However, no statistical difference between muscle fibers was found between gender, lending credence to the hypothesis that men’s larger fibers are the cause for greater overall upper-body strength.
The cause for less upper-body strength in women is due the distribution of women’s lean tissue being smaller. Women, as can be seen in the study, are stronger in terms of lower limb strength and get substantially weaker when upper-body strength is looked at.
Other studies have shown this stark difference between male and female strength. Men have, on average, 61 percent more total muscle mass than women, 75 percent more arm muscle mass, which translates approximately into a 90 percent greater upper body strength in men. 99.9 percent of females fall below the male mean, meaning that sex accounts for 70 percent of human variation in muscle mass and upper-body strength in humans (Lassek and Gaulin, 2009). Women select men for increased muscular size, which means increased testosterone, but this is hard to maintain so it gets naturally selected against. There is, obviously, a limit to muscle size and how many kcal you can intake and partition enough kcal to your growing muscles. However, women are more attracted to a muscular, mesomorphic phenotype (Dixson et al, 2009) so selection will occur by women for men to have a larger body type due to higher levels of testosterone.
Strength and race
The only study I know of comparing blacks and whites on a big three lift (bench pressing) is by Boyce et al (2014). They followed a sample of 13 white female officers, 17 black female officers, 41 black male officers and 238 white male officers for 12.5 years, assessing bench pressing strength at the beginning and the end of the study. The average age of the sample was 25.1 for the 41 black males and 24.5 for the 237 white males. The average age for the black women was 24.9 and the average for white women was 23.9. This is a longitudinal study, and the methodology is alright, but I see a few holes.
An untrained eye looking at the tables in the study would automatically think that blacks are stronger than whites at the end of the study. At the initial recruitment, the black mean weight was 187 pounds and they benched 210 pounds. They benched 1.2 times their body weight. Whites weighed 180 pounds and benched 185 pounds. They benched 1.02 times their body weight. Black women weighed 130 pounds at initial recruitment and benched 85 pounds, benching .654 times their body weight. White women weighed 127 pounds at initial recruitment and bench 82 pounds, benching .646 times their body weight. Right off the bat, you can see that the difference between black and white women is not significant, but the difference between blacks and whites is.
At the follow-up, the black sample weighed 224 pounds and benched 240 pounds while the whites weighed 205 pounds benching 215 pounds. Looking at this in terms of strength relative to body weight, we see that black males benched 1.07 times their body weight while whites benched 1.04 times their body weight. A very slight difference favoring black males. However, there were more than 5 times the amount of whites in comparison to blacks (41 compared to 238), so I can’t help but wonder if the smaller black sample compared to the white sample may have anything to do with it.
Black women weighed 150 pounds at the follow-up, benching 99 pounds while white women weighed 140 pounds benching 90 pounds. So black women benched 6.6 times their body weight while white women benched .642 times their body weight.
Another thing we have to look at is black body weight compared to bench press decreased in the 12 years while white body weight compared to bench press was diverging with the black bench press compared to body weight.
Furthermore, this study is anomalous as the both cohorts gained strength into their late 30s (testosterone begins to decline at a rate of 1-2 percent per year at age 25). It is well known in the literature that strength begins to decrease at right around 25 years of age (Keller and Englehardt, 2014).
Another pitfall is that, as they rightly point out, they used skin caliper measuring on the black cohort. It has been argued in the literature that blacks should have a different BMI scale due to differing levels of fat-free body mass (Vickery et al, 1988). Remember that black American men with more African ancestry are less likely to be obese, which is due to levels of fat-free body mass. Since fat-free mass is most likely skewed, I shouldn’t even look at the study. I do believe that black Americans should have their own BMI scale; they’re physiologically different enough from whites—though the differences are small—they lead to important medical outcomes. This is why race most definitely should be implemented into medical research. The authors rightly state that when further research is pursued the DXA scan should be used to assess fat-free body mass.
Unfortunately, the authors did not have access to the heights of the cohort due to an ongoing court case on the department for discrimination based on height. So, unfortunately, this is the only anthropometric value that could not be assessed and is an extremely important variable. Height can be used to infer somatype. Somatype can then be used to infer limb length. Longer limbs increase the ROM, in turn, decreaseing strength. The missing variable of height is a key factor in this study.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they assessed the strength of the cohort on a Smith Machine Bench Press.
- The Smith Machine is set on a fixed range of motion; not all people have the same ROM, so assessing strength on a smith machine makes no sense.
- To get into position for the Smith Machine, since the bar path is the same, you need to get in pretty much the same position as everyone else. I don’t need to explain the anatomical reasons why this is a problem in regards to testing a 1RM.
- An Olympic bar weighs 45 pounds, but numerous Smith Machines decreases the weight by 10-20 pounds.
- Since the individual is not able to stabilize the bar due to the machine, the chest, triceps, and biceps are less activated during the Smith Machine lift (Saeterbakken et al, 2011)
Due to all of these things wrong with the study, especially the Smith Machine bench press, it’s hard to actually gauge the true strength of the cohort. Depending on the brand, Smith Machines can decrease the load by 10-30 pounds. Combined with the unnatural, straight-line bar path of the movement, it’s not ideal for a true strength test.
Gender differences in strength have a biological basis (obviously) and are why women shouldn’t be able to serve in the military and transgendered people shouldn’t be able to compete with ‘the gender they feel that they are’ (coming in the future).
The more interesting topic is the one on racial differences in strength. The untrained eye may read that paper and walk away assuming that the average black person is somehow stronger than the average white person. However, this study is anomalous since the cohort gained strength into their 30s when the literature shows otherwise. The biggest problem with the study is the Smith Machine bench press. It is not a natural movement and decreases muscle activation in key areas of the chest and triceps which aid in power while doing a regular bench press. Due to this, and the other problems I pointed out, I can’t accept this study.
Of course, height not being noted is not the fault of the researchers, but more questions would be answered if we knew the heights of the officers—which is an extremely critical variable. White males also gained more lean mass over the course of the study compared to blacks—47 percent and 44 percent respectively—which, as I pointed out, is anomalous.
There is more to HBD than IQ differences. I contend that somatype differences between the races are much more interesting. I will be writing about that more in the future.
Furthermore, for anyone with any basic physiology and anatomy knowledge, they’d know that different leverages affect strength. The races differ in somatype on average and thusly have different leverages. This is one out of many reasons why there are racial differences in strength and elite sports. Leverages and muscle fiber typing.
My points on racial differences in strength still hold; the anthropmetric data backs me up, elite sporting events back me up. My theory as a whole to racial differences in sports is sound, and this study does nothing to make me think twice about it. There are way too many confounds for me to even take it seriously when reevaluating my views on racial differences in strength. This study was garbage to assess absolutely strength due to the numerous things wrong with it. I await a more robust study with actual strength exercises, not one done on an assisted machine.
Boyce, R. W., Willett, T. K., Jones, G. R., & Boone, E. L. (2014). Racial Comparisons in Police Officer Bench Press Strength over 12.5 Years. Int J Exerc Sci 7 (2), 140-151.
Dixson, B. J., Dixson, A. F., Bishop, P. J., & Parish, A. (2009). Human Physique and Sexual Attractiveness in Men and Women: A New Zealand–U.S. Comparative Study. Archives of Sexual Behavior,39(3), 798-806. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9441-y
Keller K, Engelhardt M. Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength loss. MLTJ. 2013;3(4):346–350.
Lassek, W. D., & Gaulin, S. J. (2009). Costs and benefits of fat-free muscle mass in men: relationship to mating success, dietary requirements, and native immunity. Evolution and Human Behavior,30(5), 322-328. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.04.002
Miller, A. E., Macdougall, J. D., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Sale, D. G. (1993). Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology,66(3), 254-262. doi:10.1007/bf00235103
Saeterbakken, A. H., Tillaar, R. V., & Fimland, M. S. (2011). A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of Sports Sciences,29(5), 533-538. doi:10.1080/02640414.2010.543916
Vickery SR, Cureton KJ, Collins MA. Prediction of body density from skinfolds in black and white young men. Hum Biol 1988;60:135–49.