Gender differences of men and women in exercise

The musculo-skeletal differences between male and female physiologies account in the main for the difference in sporting achievement between the sexes. Whilst most of us are prepared to accept that height; build, bone, muscle size and density will play its part in exercise success, much less frequently will you hear that there are movements that are totally unsuitable for women whilst being perfectly acceptable for men.

Differences in aerobic capacity

Much has been written about a 10% difference in cardio vascular (heart and lung) capacity between men and women, it being commonly held that men possess the stronger capability. However, in practice this 10% difference is in fact usually greater, and is one of the concepts behind the present investigation by the British Army into a high incidence of injury and drop out rate amongst female recruits, who are currently required to perform the same physical training schedules as their male colleagues.

Do not misinterpret where we are going here, this is not a case of offering deference to a 'weaker' sex. Women can be physically very fit and strong, and their ability to move heavy weight will often surprise men in the exercise area. Furthermore, the higher pain threshold that women possess combined with their greater natural flexibility and muscle elasticity (in the case of pregnancy and childbirth for example), allows them to potentially surpass their male counterparts in other areas such as endurance swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. The completely safe and progressive pathway to such levels of accomplishment lies in the intelligent acceptance these gender differences.

The male / female divide is prevalent in all walks of life, but rarely in exercise circles is a structured exercise regime reflective of separate biomechanical abilities. Health club instructors will inevitably give men and women similar exercise programmes that vary only when taking into account basics such as height, build or ultimate goal differences. A highly qualified trainer, however, will work with the anatomical, physiological and biomechanical differences.

The following examples highlight some of the factors that may be taken into account:

  • body type - Endomorph (large bones, moderate to high fat coverage), Mesomorph (good musculature, moderate to low fat coverage) and Ectomorph (light bone structure, low to very low fat coverage)
  • arm and leg length
  • grip aperture in 'pull down' disciplines
  • body water and fat content
  • timing of the female menstrual cycle

Pull down

When using an exercise machine with a pull down (front or back or using a long bar), arm length is important. The usual advice is for arms to be placed as wide as possible to engage the long muscles down the side of the body (latissimus dorsi). In men the strength of the shoulders (trapezius and deltoids) is usually sufficient to maintain stability in this position and they will be able to perform the pull down correctly.

However, if the grip position has not taken into account shorter arm length, overreaching will occur with the result that ongoing damage or micro-trauma takes place whilst pulling down. This is also known as sub clinical damage.

Furthermore, overreaching may lead to pulling down predominantly with the outer part of the hands (the little finger side) with little, if any, use of the index finger. Both the little and ring finger house the ulnar nerve - when you strike your elbow and hit the 'funny bone', you've struck the ulnar nerve. So, over time, pulling down with a domination of the two outer fingers causes a neural reaction in the elbow, along the ulnar nerve. You may well then suffer pain or pins and needles along its pathway during, and increasingly after exercise.

The situation for women can be worse as the larger muscles of the shoulder girdle are not as strong as in men. Incorrect grip positioning will cause excessive muscular contractions at the neck and collar bone (sternocleidomastoideus) and produce shoulder problems at the junction of the shoulder blade and collar bone (achromium), especially if the bar is occasionally pulled down too far behind the neck. Neck ache and headaches are the inevitable conclusion.

Carefully assessed individual positioning for both sexes must be established with this exercise, with the female assuming a slightly narrower grip (even if she is tall and of heavy build) and the male (even if he is shorter and of slight build) taking a wider one. The distance however, is assessed differently person to person, according to their unique biomechanical abilities, and should be established during an initial Range of Motion test by a degree qualified biomechanical trainer/assessor.

Chest press

In any chest press action there are over 18,000 small ranges of possible movement variations, and unexercised women, despite being more flexible than men, lack the basic foundational strength of front shoulder and rear upper arm synergy. With press ups, bench press, and any form of horizontally working exercise that will shape, tone and strengthen the chest area, women should never be asked to attempt a press up movement without first having strengthened the rear upper arm muscles (triceps), the front shoulders (anterior deltoids) and the inner aspects (over the central chest area) of the chest muscles (pectorals).

However, everywhere in health clubs and exercise classes women are asked to perform partial and even full press-ups and chest pushing motions, even in novice training program schedules. Quite simply, this should never occur, apart from being a demotivating experience, it can gradually produce inflammation of the four small muscles (Supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) at the shoulder, which form the 'rotator cuff'. The cuff stops the larger muscles dislocating the head of the upper arm (humerus) during exercise, so if its muscles become inflamed, an intense burning pain in what feels like the socket of your upper arm and front shoulder will be felt and there is greater possibility of partial or complete dislocation.

Body water and fat

There is no gender difference in the ability to lose fat once a basic fitness level has been established. In moderately fit to trained athletes, male and female, this concept was proved in 1979 by Dr David Costill of Ball State University, Indiana USA. Women have lower sweat rates than men per kg of bodyweight, but as they have higher body surface area to volume ratio, they dissipate heat equally well. Men have an advantage in evaporative cooling, but women have the advantage in radiant cooling, so in this instance they come out even.

Menstrual cycle

Hormone levels change during the menstrual cycle (unless hormonal contraception is involved) and these fluctuations have tangible effects on fitness and general athletic performance.

Oestrogen is the key hormone that affects not only the menstrual cycle, but also the fuel available for your working muscles. During the days 1 to 13 when oestrogen levels are depleted, muscle glycogen (glucose in the muscles) or your quick energy store is ready is easily available. The female body is primed for speed or power work e.g. fast running as it has access to quick energy through carbohydrates.

However, during days 15 to 28 higher oestrogen levels means energy will come from body fat rather than carbohydrate. This gives better fat burning capability and lower levels of lactic acid level, the substance that makes muscles ache after workout. During this time endurance work will feel less demanding and require less recovery time.

Whether you are concerned with losing fat, toning and improving your body shape or increasing strength and endurance, your trainer must be expertly familiar with the sophisticated differences between the sexes and be able to structure your unique exercise program accordingly. Such knowledge is only available from a highly qualified, exercise and nutritional professional.

Courtesy of Alan Gordon, Personal Trainer

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