Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength

28 01 2008

This entry is a follow-up/sister post to the one I guest-wrote on The Capoeira Blog, “6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength“.

So, I have a confession to make.  Originally, the guest post I wrote for Faisca wasn’t supposed to be a general guide to building upper-body strength.  Originally, it was going to be something with a title like “Upper-Body Strength-Building for Women”.  It was my idea, but it wasn’t until I actually started working on the post that I realized something like that would actually go against everything I’ve/this blog has been standing for!  Mandingueira is not for women; it is about women, and for everyone. 

The reason I changed my mind is because to write an article about “strength-building for women” would imply that it is separate from the same for men; yet a strong woman would need the same level of advice as a strong man, regardless of her gender.  By the end of my first draft, however, I realized that my post read more like a beginner’s guide to strength-building—but all my information had come from purported “women’s guides” to strength-building!  Is anyone else seeing a pattern here

Abada capoeirista shows how it's done!There was one thing in particular that nearly every article I came across had in common:

“Women generally have far less upper-body strength than men.”
“Typically women do not have strong upper bodies.”
“These statistics merely illustrate what everyone knows, that women naturally develop less strength than men.”
“In terms of inherent upper body strength, we really are the weaker sex.”
“Most women have trouble performing a standard push-up.”  (And adding insult to injury: “To perform a modified push up, simply push up from your knees.  Most women can perform a push-up in this position.”  Really, now??  Some of us actually CAN do knee push-ups?!?  That’s AMAZING!!)

Wow, I feel weaker already.  Kind of ironic, considering all these articles purported to help you build your strength, not doubt it!

The age-old myth of women having less muscular strength than men do is just that—a myth.  This excerpt from Shameless Magazine puts it best:

Many people believe that all men, as some sort of single unit, are stronger than women. And reason says that simply isn’t true. Men’s strength is just as variable as women’s. Men, on average, are bigger than women, with a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio. But women generate the same force per unit of muscle as men. That is, muscle pound to muscle pound, women and men are similar in strength. A strong woman is strong, full stop. (emphasis mine)

This observation was confirmed by a study from the US National Strength and Conditioning Foundation, which adds that although women and men have the same muscle strength, the reason many men appear stronger on the surface is because they have more muscle mass from being bigger (as opposed to muscle strength), have a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio, and have different fat distribution in the body than women do.

Wait a minute (I can hear someone say), aren’t we just picking nits now?  What does it matter if technically women’s muscles produce the same amount of power, if due to the other factors mentioned above, a woman’s body altogether still produces less power, on average, than a man’s body altogether?  And if this is true, what’s wrong with saying so?

First, this distinction is important to make because it’s actually a pretty big one, with implications and consequences depending on whether one makes it or not.  Stating without qualification that women have less strength than men, period, is inaccurate and suggests that this is an inherent trait in women, something that can’t be changed.  As mentioned though, women’s muscles have the exact same strength as men do, and it is in fat distribution and lean body mass where they differ—factors which are variable and can be changed through training or exercise. 

Moreover, even though muscle mass is cited as a contributing factor of men’s strength, the same studies have shown that women build strength the same way men do yet without building as much muscle mass—which is interesting, because if both men and women build strength equally, but only men’s muscles build much mass to go with it, to me that suggests that in the end, women’s muscles would actually have more power per inch/pound than men’s, to do the calculations!  And as Shameless said, if a strong woman were matched with a man with less muscle (or lesser built muscles), more fat, and less lean body mass, she would in that case definitely not be “the weaker sex”.

Second, making this distinction is important because it affects how people approach this and related topics, and this ties in to the last question above.  There is nothing wrong with explaining why many women have less net strength output than many men.  After all, a fact is a fact, right?  The problem arises when people start making unqualified statements like the ones at the beginning of this post, and making them frequently and thoughtlessly.  Although clearly I was kidding when I said “I feel weaker already”, can you imagine what the effects of reading or hearing statements like that over and over again would be on someone’s mindset, whether consciously or subconsciously? 

If you imagined the logical, you’re right: other studies have shown that women significantly underestimate their own strength, compared to men.  Because we’re told we’re weaker, we think we have even less strength than we have to begin with.  This affects everything from whether or not a woman will reach her full potential while weight training, to whether or not she’ll choose to fight off a man who attacks her in the street, or just “let it happen” because to fight back would make it worse (according to another disastrous, popular myth). 

It’s all woven into one more narrative about what women are or aren’t or should be or shouldn’t be, whether it’s a young Mestra Edna’s relatives telling her “martial arts aren’t for girls”, or today’s average female capoeira student only able to find articles reiterating how weak she is compared to all the male capoeira students in her class—which may be true, but also just as well may not, and who’s the article’s author to say?  So mulhers é meninas, remember this the next time you aim for that macaco/s-dobrado/bananeira/cool upper-body strength-requiring move!

Picture source: http://www.worldartswest.org/Assets/Performers/AbadaAndyMogg.jpg

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