The claim that “Men are stronger than women” does not need to be said—it is obvious through observation that men are stronger than women. To my (non-)surprise, I saw someone on Twitter state:
“I keep hearing that the sex basis of patriarchy is inevitable because men are (on average) stronger. Notwithstanding that part of this literally results from women in all stages of life being denied access to and discourage from physical activity, there’s other stuff to note.”
To which I replied:
“I don’t follow – are you claiming that if women were encouraged to be physically active that women (the population) can be anywhere *near* men’s (the population) strength level?”
I then got told to “Fuck off,” because I’m a “racist” (due to the handle I use and my views on the reality of race). In any case, while it is true that part of this difference does, in part, stem from cultural differences (think of women wanting the “toned” look and not wanting to get “big and bulky”—as if it happens overnight) and not wanting to lift heavy weights because they think they will become cartoonish.
Here’s the thing though: Men have about 61 percent more muscle mass than women (which is attributed to higher levels of testosterone); most of the muscle mass difference is allocated to the upper body—men have about 75 percent more arm muscle mass than women which accounts for 90 percent greater upper body strength in men. Men also have about 50 percent more muscle mass than women, while this higher percentage of muscle mass is then related to men’s 65 percent greater lower body strength (see references in Lassek and Gaulin, 2009: 322).
Men have around 24 pounds of skeletal muscle mass compared to women, though in this study, women were about 40 percent weaker in the upper body and 33 percent weaker in the lower body (Janssen et al, 2000). Miller et al (1993) found that women had a 45 percent smaller cross-section area in the brachii, 45 in the elbow flexion, 30 percent in the vastus lateralis, and 25 percent smaller CSA in the knee extensors, as I wrote in Muscular Strength by Gender and Race, where I concluded:
The cause for less upper-body strength in women is due the distribution of women’s lean tissue being smaller.
Men have larger fibers, which in my opinion is a large part of the reason for men’s strength advantage over women. Now, even if women were “discouraged” from physical activity, this would be a problem for their bone density. Our bones are porous, and so, by doing a lot of activity, we can strengthen our bones (see e.g., Fausto-Sterling, 2005). Bishop, Cureton, and Collins (1987) show that the sex difference in strength in close-to-equally-trained men and women “is almost entirely accounted for by the difference in muscle size.” Which lends credence to my claim I made above.
Lindle et al (1997) conclude that:
… the results of this study indicate that Con strength levels begin to decline in the fourth rather than in the fifth decade, as was previously reported. Contrary to previous reports, there is no preservation of Ecc compared with Con strength in men or women with advancing age. Nevertheless, the decline in Ecc strength with age appears to start later in women than in men and later than Con strength did in both sexes. In a small subgroup of subjects, there appears to be a greater ability to store and utilize elastic energy in older women. This finding needs to be confirmed by using a larger sample size. Muscle quality declines with age in both men and women when Con peak torque is used, but declines only in men when Ecc peak torque is used. [“Con” and “Ecc” strength refer to concentric and eccentric actions]
Women are shorter than men and have less fat-free muscle mass than men. Women also have a weaker grip (even when matched for height and weight, men had higher levels of lean mass compared to women (92 and 79 percent respectively; Nieves et al, 2009). So men had greater bone mineral density (BMD) and bone mineral content (BMC) compared to women. Now do some quick thinking—do you think that one with weaker bones could be stronger than someone with stronger bones? If person A had higher levels of BMC and BMD compared to person B, who do you think would be stronger and have the ability to do whatever strength test the best—the one with the weaker or stronger muscles? Quite obviously, the stronger one’s bones are the more weight they can bare on them. So if one has weak bones (low BMC/BMD) and they put a heavy load on their back, while they’re doing the lift their bones could snap.
Alswat (2017) reviewed the literature on bone density between men and women and found that men had higher BMD in the hip and higher BMC in the lower spine. Women also had bone fractures earlier than men. Some of this is no doubt cultural, as explained above. However, even if we had a boy and a girl locked in a room for their whole lives and they did the same exact things, ate the same food, and lifted the same weights, I would bet my freedom that there still would be a large difference between the two, skewing where we know it would skew. Women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than are men (Sözen, Özışık, and Başaran 2016).
So if women have weaker bones compared to men, then how could they possibly be stronger? Even if men and women had the same kind of physical activity down to the tee, could you imagine women being stronger than men? I couldn’t—but that’s because I have more than a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology and what that means for differences in strength—or running—between men and women.
I don’t doubt that there are cultural reasons that account for the large differences in strength between men and women—I do doubt, though, that the gap can be meaningfully closed. Yes, biology interacts with culture. So the developmental variables that coalesce to make men “Men” and those that coalesce to make women “Women” converge in creating the stark differences in phenotype between the sexes which then explains how the sex differences between the sexes manifest itself.
Differences in bone strength between men and women, along with distribution of lean tissue, differences in lean mass, and differences in muscle size explain the disparity in muscular strength between men and women. You can even imagine a man and woman of similar height and weight and they would, of course, look different. This is due to differences in hormones—the two main players being testosterone and estrogen (see Lang, 2011).
So yes, part of the difference in strength between men and women are rooted in culture and how we view women who strength train (way more women should strength train, as a matter of fact), though I find it hard to believe that even if the “cultural stigma” of the women who lifts heavy weights at the gym disappeared overnight, that women would be stronger than men. Differences in strength exist between men and women and this difference exists due to the complex relationship between biology and culture—nature and nurture (which cannot be disentangled).
Interesting blog, I didn’t find an ‘about’ page on your site so not sure where you’re from or why you set up the site, but I’ve read a few of your articles and find them well researched and referenced – a bit like reading Pew Research.
Can’t disagree with this one either, but would wager a bet that my daughter would beat you in a push-up competition.
In every population, men are stronger than women. However, such a lazy observation is not sufficient for the assumption that testosterone (or sex hormone differences) is mainly responsible for strength differences. Furthermore, your article concerns muscle mass which is not a measurement of strength. Let’s compare actual differences in strength (grip strength) across ethnicities:
As we can see, women from some ethnic groups are stronger than men from other ethnic groups. Swedish women are stronger than Pakistani men. Polish women are stronger than Indian men. Brazilian women are equivalent in strength to South African men.
If testosterone is the main contributor to sex differences in strength, we would never find ethnic populations in which women were stronger than men from another ethnic group, because genetically pure women are physiologically incapable of producing higher testosterone levels than normal men. Furthermore, note that Indo-Aryan (meaning Indian, Pakistani, etc) men have some of the highest testosterone levels in the world:
So how can women from Brazil and Northern Europe be stronger than Indian and Pakistani men? In the case of Northern European women, it may be natural to look at their greater body mass, the gargoylic, hulking musculature, broad shoulders, and overall “masculine” appearance, and assume that they are stronger than men for that reason. That doesn’t explain how they got those features with their lower testosterone, and it also doesn’t work for Brazilian women, who are smaller than South African and Indian men, and more feminine than Swedish women, yet stronger than all either, absolutely or on a pound for pound basis.
Also, there is a pronounced sexual dimorphism disparity between ethnicities. In the North European countries (Poland, Canada, Sweden, etc) men are significantly stronger than women of the same nationality. Although it is natural to assume that there is an innate genetic superiority of European males, European culture also weakens females, by never expecting them to do any physical work. Women in the developing countries are not seen as so inferior that they cannot be used for grueling physical labor. In many European cultures, women are considered so inferior and fragile that they cannot even be expected to open a door for themselves (a man must do it for them). Such sickly and perverted cultural attitudes are likely lowering the average strength of European women, through psychological and physical effects. Their actual strength levels would be higher if they grew up in the same environment as women in poorer countries.
Bottom line, sex hormone differences alone don’t explain the sexual and ethnic disparities in strength. Neither does body mass. Men with supposedly highest measured testosterone levels are in fact the world’s weakest, and indeed weaker than some women of another nationality, despite a lower bodymass and 20-fold lower testosterone levels.
Note also that women’s results are rapidly catching up to men in sports like weightlifting and they may even be better suited for these types of activities:
175 pound Women today are lifting weights that were considered world records for 200 pound men in the 1950s.
Yes, the observation is true. I did not outright state that testosterone (or sex hormone differences) was the cause, in part, of sex differences in strength (in this article). I do believe that testosterone does give an advantage in competitive sport though.
While grip strength is not full-on physical strength, there is a relationship between the two, though I would not count it as showing full-on strength differences and evidence for your assertion for a few reasons.
(1) You’re asserting that grip strength is a true measure of overall strength . While it may be true that there is a relationship, I don’t think it licenses your claim. Though, grip strength is imperative for many lifts, like that deadlift. If your grip strength is weak you’re not going to be deadlifting a lot, even if you can physically still lift the weight, if your grip gives out you’re not going to do the lift (which is why they make lifting straps and chalk).
(2) Notice the “low income” countries, and also India has a high number of vegetarians (recall how I discussed the interaction between biology and environment).
(3) I don’t think I’ve claimed in any of my articles on this matter that “testosterone is the main contributor to sex differences in strength”; I do know for a fact that higher levels of testosterone are related to increases in muscle mass and the more muscle mass one has the stronger they should be. That is one claim you can state I made.
I don’t understand what “innate genetic superiority” is, the concept of “innate” is nonsensical, as “innate” traits are learned.
Do note that I did state in the article that “part of the difference in strength between men and women are rooted in culture and how we view women who strength train (way more women should strength train, as a matter of fact),” and then I said “though I find it hard to believe that even if the “cultural stigma” of the women who lifts heavy weights at the gym disappeared overnight, that women would be stronger than men.”
I should add that I doubt they’ll be stronger than men and get near the average strength level for men.
Yes, women have the ability for more relative strength while men are absolutely stronger; this is nothing new. That article was really good. I agree that weightlifting is about skill and that you don’t need big muscles to be a great weightlifter but I disagree that women can and will be stronger or as strong as men.
Ask me about it, I train people for a living.
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Joanne, thank you for the compliment. How many push-ups can your daughter do at one time?
I am from New Jersey. I originally set this blog up for HBD-style things—such as racial differences in psychological propensities and behavior along with differences in cognitive abilities. But in May of 2017 I shifted my views from hereditarianism to developmental systems theory (DST).
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Thank you for the long reply, I find the numbers really interesting, and will let the facts form my opinions (rather than the other way round).