The ACTUAL Differences in Males & Females in Exercise Performance

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The ACTUAL Differences Between Males & Females in Exercise Performance

Not all things are created equal. When it comes to the physiology of males and females during exercise, there is undoubtedly genetic differences that affect how they perform. 

Now this is 2018, and its a touchy subject right now, so for complete disclosure I want to emphasize that I am speaking only as it relates to exercise performance and the differences between males and females. I'm not saying one is better than the other (although you might argue for one after reading this article), I'm simply explaining the physiology. It's silly that I have to say this, but I digress...

One of the main differences when we compare the sexes is the proportions of muscle fiber types. It's well understood that males have greater relative muscle mass when compared to females (CITATION). It's also known that having greater muscle mass correlates to increased strength. The larger your muscles, the more contractile properties (called actin and myosin) are present which means more cross bridges (micro-contractions) can be formed. More of these means more force can be generated. Also, men typically have greater proportions of Type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers than females, meaning they can generate more force. Women typically have more Type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fibers when compared to men. Because of this, males generally can lift more weight, and are considered "stronger" than females. It's not to say a female can't out-lift a male (because depending on the genetic makeup and training they absolutely can), but when compared across the board this is true. In summary, when it comes to muscle fiber type:

Males have a greater proportion of Type 2 (Fast Twitch)
muscle fibers, while females have more Type 1 (slow twitch)

This also helps explain why females generally have the greater advantage over males when it comes to aerobic performance. Type 1 muscle fibers use fats as a fuel source and require oxygen in order to perform. Because females have a greater proportion of Type 1 fibers, the contribution of fats as an energy source happens sooner during exercise, and for longer. Men, on the other hand, typically rely on carbohydrates (fast metabolism) more than females during exercise. Because fats are a slow burning fuel that rely on oxygen, this means that women can maintain endurance type activities for longer. In short:

Females use fats as a fuel source for longer than males

The differences between males and females during exercise are genetic. Many of the differences are due to circulating hormones and catecholamines (epinephrine or "adrenaline") that each sex has. For example, you've probably heard that males have more free testosterone in their body which is true. Testosterone allows males to increase muscle and bone mass to a greater degree than females, who have more estrogen. Its important to note that both males and females have levels of testosterone and estrogen, however again;

 its the PROPORTIONS of each that affect performance. 

As always, training status affects performance more than anything else. Just because someone is genetically more likely to have fast or slow twitch muscle fibers, proportions of hormones, or rely on different fuels (fats vs carbohydrates), it doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be stronger, or have better performance. However, when properly trained these characteristics can be accentuated and thus can increase the POTENTIAL to perform. What does this mean practically for those who are training? Not much. You should still exercise and train specifically to meet your goals and not worry about the differences between you and someone else (whether they are the same sex or not). However knowing these differences can help guide your training and might even modify the specificity of your training to better meet your genetic makeup, and thus help you optimally perform. Because after all, that's what it's all about!

Thanks for reading,

Kalan is a Human Performance Expert & Ph.D. Candidate who aims to optimize YOUR performance in both sport and every day life. He is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), and has obtained his Master of Science in Kinesiology degree at the University of Victoria. Through his masters thesis research, Kalan has established and implemented the KFit Test Battery for Combat Sport Athletes which is used by Karate BC, Boxing BC & Karate Canada as their standard fitness test for athletes across the country. Additionally, Kalan is an exercise prescription & physiology lab instructor at the University of Victoria, and trains individuals every day to help meet their fitness needs and goals. He has many years of experience both as an elite athlete and high performance coach and is knowledgeable in the many fields surrounding human performance.