By Tom DiChiara
The Rumor: Men have an easier time than women building upper-body strength
It's a commonly held belief that upper-body strength is predominantly the domain of men, and that women have a tougher time when it comes to performing exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. But is the stereotype true?
The Verdict: Women are just as capable of developing upper-body strength... relative to total muscle mass
A 2011 study exploring the bone-muscle relationship in men and women found that high levels of the "female" hormone estrogen result in increased bone density and strength relative to muscle mass, while high levels of the "male" hormone testosterone drive large gains in both muscle and bone mass. In essence, the simple male advantage of having more testosterone gives them the ability to gain muscle mass.
Sean Fortune, a personal trainer and running coach in New York City, isn't surprised by the study's findings. "As a trainer, I know some very strong females," he says. "But it's safe to say that, generally speaking, it's easier for men to develop not just upper-body strength, but strength in any body part, simply because of the hormonal advantage of having more testosterone." Indeed, testosterone has proven anabolic effects, stimulating muscle growth by binding to skeletal fibers and boosting the growth of proteins, the building blocks of muscle. Because women, on average, possess about one-tenth the testosterone levels of men, it makes sense that they'd have more difficulty developing upper-body strength.
Fortune emphasizes that this shouldn't deter women from trying to strengthen their top half -- far from it. "Women are going to get the same results as men," he says, "just to somewhat of a lesser degree." Research compiled by strength coach William P. Ebben and health professor Randall L. Jensen, Ph.D., backs this up. "If the amount of lean body mass is factored into the strength equation, the relative strength difference between men and women is less appreciable," Ebben and Jensen write. "Based on a strength-to-lean-body-mass ratio, women are about equal in strength to men, and when strength is calculated per cross-sectional area of muscle, no significant gender difference exists." In a nutshell, this research means that, in relative terms, strength training works just as well for women as it does for men.
Even so, bulk-averse women need not worry about packing on so much beefy muscle that they look like She-Hulk. "A lot of women steer clear of strength training because they have the misconception that they're going to get too big. That's not the case at all," Fortune says. "Strength training is so important in terms of building bone density and strength; it's good for helping to correct posture and it's great for fat loss because when you're doing strength training, you're creating more lean muscle, which helps to speed up your metabolism. Because women are at a slight disadvantage due to their lower testosterone levels, there's arguably more of an imperative for women to do strength training -- and there's probably a bigger payoff for them doing it."