Gender In The Gym, Part Two: Differences In Male And Female Ability

My name is Holly Crane. My graduate school research focused on the sociology of sport and physical activity, and the gendered behavior patterns that exist in physical activity spaces, like the gym. My goal as a coach and a trainer is to demystify the weight room for girls and women, teaching them that they, too, belong in this space.

*A quick note on language. Much of the terminology in this post (male/man/female/woman) is cis-centric. It is important to recognize that language is a key way that binaries of sex and gender are reinforced. I use such language in this particular article as a way to discuss a specific (cis) population that is affected by the meanings we ascribe to male and female strength as a culture. However, there are many more types of identities at stake here, many of whom are rendered invisible when discussions are limited to male versus female language. This is something I plan to address in further articles.*

Hi folks! I’m back. In Part One of this series, I discussed the gender binary in the context of the gym. Over the next three posts, I will explore three different ways in which the gender binary inserts itself into the fitness world. Today’s topic is: “scientific” differences between men and women.

First and foremost, I’d like to set the record straight on the physiologies of men and women.

Chances are, you’ve grown up with the knowledge that men are naturally stronger than women. This isn’t necessarily something you vaguely remember from your sixth grade science class, but rather something you just sort of know. The idea has been reinforced throughout your life by things like moving companies (almost always dudes carrying that stupidly heavy IKEA wardrobe down the stairs), grocery store cashiers, movies (like, all of them), the NFL (still waiting on the WNFL…), and eighth grade gym class.

Now I’m not going to say that you’ve been wrong your entire life, but I will leave this quote right here (from the National Strength and Conditioning Association)…


“When strength is expressed relative to muscle cross-sectional area, no significant difference exists between sexes, which indicates that muscle quality (peak force per cross-sectional area) is not sex specific.”

In other words, when we control for the relative size of muscles fibers in men and women, there is no difference in strength between the sexes.


Mic drop.


That’s so cool, Holly! I’ll go tell all my friends immediately. One quick question, though. What about, like, weightlifting or powerlifting competitions. The men literally always lift more than the women, even when they are the same size. What gives there?


*Picks mic back up*


Solid point.


Research tells us that, in many cases, strength differences between two men and two women may be greater than those between men and women, but that doesn’t quite line up with reality. In the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships, our very own Sarah Robles (a 90+kg class lifter) won gold, totaling 284kg (624.8lbs).


Quick primer for those who don’t follow weightlifting: a total is the combination of the amount lifted in the clean and jerk and the snatch. In Sarah’s case, she clean and jerked 158kg and snatched 126kg.


While Sarah, who lifts in the highest possible female weight class (90+kg), lifted more than the gold medalist from the men’s lightest weight class (56kg), she was out-lifted by men from each subsequent weight class, including the top eleven competitors in the 62kg men – all of whom weigh over 150lbs less than she does. The gold medalist in the men’s 105+kg weight class totaled 477kg, about 1.7 times as much as Sarah. It’s pretty hard to look at results like these (which are mimicked in all major international weightlifting events and most amateur ones, as well) and not come away with the idea that men are just plain stronger.


Here’s the thing. The expression of strength isn’t simply a function of physiology.



I coach strength training at a K-12 school in Manhattan. Whenever I coach the young kids for the first time, the boys always have more knowledge about the weight room than the girls. Is this their physiology? Or is this because boys are taught from a very young age that they belong in the weight room? Magazines and TV shows teach them that bigger is always better and that bulging biceps get the girl every time. Girls, on the other hand, are bombarded with images of smallness. Thin models advertising tiny clothes in aerobics classes with small pink dumbbells (if any dumbbells at all). Have you noticed, by the way, that the smallest dumbbells are always pink? This isn’t an accident.


Our culture teaches women and girls that strength and size are not things they should value. Is it any wonder, then, that boys and men gravitate towards strength sports in higher numbers and at earlier ages?


Let’s try a little thought experiment, here.


Sarah Robles, who began her athletic career as a collegiate shot-putter, started weightlifting in 2008, when she was 20 years old. She qualified for nationals three months later. What if she’d been in the weight room since she was thirteen? What if a strength coach had suggested weightlifting when she was fourteen? What if she’d been taught that being strong was a rite of passage instead of being taught that fat girls are undesirable? What if she hadn’t been sanctioned from competing for two years by the International Weightlifting Foundation because her PCOS medication (a disease that only effects women and has been historically neglected by the medical community) contained small amounts of testosterone?

We’ll never know how this alternate timeline ends but we can say for sure that comparing Sarah Robles to male weightlifters of her size based on physiology alone is to ignore the world that built her.


If our social environment affects the athletic choices we make (which it does), then it also affects how we see athleticism. Even in sports where the field of competitors is more evenly spread, we tend to make selective comparisons between male and female ability. 



In 1995, Mary Jo Kane, sport sociologist, Title IX scholar and one of my professors at the University of Minnesota, developed a real-life analogy to draw attention to this phenomenon: a marathon.


Kane noticed that running races are one of the few places where elite female and male athletes will compete on the same course at the same time. It is, therefore, the perfect arena for comparisons between men and women.


Typically, Kane explained, we compare the fastest women to the men who ran faster than her. For example, in this year’s NYC marathon, the male winner, Geoffrey Kamwoor, came in at 2:10:53 while Shalene Flanagan, the female winner, finished in 2:26:53. Nineteen men finished faster than Shalene. Dr. Kane argues that this is where the comparison stops. What we don’t see are the thousands of men that Shalene beat. We completely miss the continuum of ability – in which male and female athleticism lies interspersed along a spectrum – in favor of a binary view, in which all men are naturally stronger or faster or more athletic than all women.


Kane explains how this overemphasis on certain gender comparisons (the 19 men that beat Shalene and not the thousands that she beat) teaches us to evaluate athleticism in a way that consistently privileges male performance.


The consequence of this is that female performance is devalued. It is relegated to “less-than”. The idea that men are naturally stronger than women, whether true or not, functions as a reminder that women do not belong in athletic spaces. It is a reassertion of the gender binary. To many women, it is a threat.


And the critical point is that none of this has anything to do with the potential to be strong. Everyday, I’m surrounded by men who are stronger than me. Just as I am daily surrounded by women who are stronger than me. And while, on any given day, that might feel inspiring or intimidating, it does not affect my ability to squat more next week than I did this week.


So let’s recap.


Research shows us that, when controlling for muscle cross-sectional area, there are no significant difference in strength between the genders. And we know that the strength differences we do see are often complicated by social environments that teach men and women to value strength and size differently. This social environment even affects the way we view competitions, causing us to emphasize male athletic prowess over that of women. And, most importantly of all, none of this has any affect whatsoever on the potential to be strong or fast or athletic. The existence (or not) of strength or speed or athletic differences between men and women DOESN’T ACTUALLY MATTER.  


The human body is far too remarkable to be confined by binaries of strength, ability or gender. We have too much potential for that. It does not matter who is or is not stronger than you. It does not matter where along the spectrum of gender or ability you lie. You are deserving of space, of strength, and of iron.


There is so much more to be said here. About the policing of transgender and non-binary folks in athletic spaces. About how physiological strength can actually be a product of social environment. About the subjectivity of clinical research and how science is just as subject to bias as any other field. I look forward to having this dialogue with all of you as we work toward disrupting these exclusionary narratives of strength and bodies.



I am a feminist, strength coach, personal trainer, competitive weightlifter, and food enthusiast. My graduate school research focused on the sociology of sport and physical activity and the gendered behavior patterns that exist in physical activity spaces, like the gym. My goal as a coach and a trainer is to demystify the weight room for girls and women, teaching them that they, too, belong in this space.

Holly has a BA in Comparative Literature from Williams College and an MS in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota, with the following additional certifications: NSCA – Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, NASM – Certified Personal Trainer, Pre and Post Natal Training Techniques, American Red Cross – Adult & Child First Aid/CPR/AED.



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