While men and women vary greatly in size and shape, women tend to have better muscle endurance than men. According to a 2010 study published in Exercise and Sports Science Reviews, women generally take longer to fatigue. The differences aren't monumental, but they may explain why men and women gravitate towards different types of exercise.
Endurance Vs. Strength
Muscle endurance and muscle strength and two very different things. Strength is how much force your muscle can exert, while endurance is how long it can maintain that force. It's also known as "fatigability." If you have excellent muscular endurance, it means that you don't fatigue very quickly.
However, there's a bit of a blurred line between strength and endurance. An extreme example of strength would be a one-rep maximum weightlifting exercise — for example, bench pressing as much weight as possible for one rep. That one rep is only a few seconds of exercise, but you're putting everything you have into it.
A marathon, on the other hand, is an extreme example of endurance. During those 26.2 miles, you're running and using your leg muscles, but you have to pace yourself so that you can keep going for hours.
Strength is useful in the weight room, but it's less important if you go somewhere like a Pilates class. In Pilates, there are some exercises that you do for 100 repetitions — that requires much more endurance than strength.
Differences In Energy Sources
It's no mistake that women tend to frequent a muscular endurance-focused exercise class over something purely focused on strength training. Women seem to be better equipped to handle muscular endurance activities, according to a 2015 research review article in Experimental Physiology. The review points out that women tend to use less carbohydrates to fuel their muscles than men do.
When muscles use carbohydrates as fuel, it's because they have to put out a lot of power. They use fat for energy in less intense situations because carbohydrate is harder to regenerate than fat. Using fat more than carbohydrate for energy means that a muscle will be less powerful but it won't run out of energy as quickly.
Hormones are a major cause of the differences between energy uses in men and women, according to the study. Oestrogen and progesterone, two vital hormones in the female reproductive cycle, cause women to use less carbohydrate to fuel their muscles than men.
Muscle Fiber Differences
While women aren't as good at showing off their strength over one repetition, they don't fatigue as fast as men do. Men use more force to do even light weightlifting exercises. Even lifting a 5-pound weight, the average man will exert more force than the average woman.
A 2007 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology shows that the difference between muscle size between men and women doesn't explain why men had a slight advantage in sprint tests.
On the surface, a muscle might seem the same in both genders. However, a closer look at the individual muscle fibers reveals that there tend to be slight differences. According to a 2015 research paper from the American Physiological Society, the average man has more fast-twitch muscle fibers than the average woman.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers are more powerful and help you lift heavy weight but they get tired quickly. Slow-twitch muscle fibers aren't as powerful but they last longer, which would explains why women have better muscle endurance.
It's important to keep in mind that this is based on averages. Women, on average, have more muscle endurance than men. Men, on average, have more strength. However, some women are stronger than men and some men have more endurance than women.
Either way, you shouldn't let any predispositions affect the way you work out. Women can still benefit greatly from strength training, and men can benefit from muscle endurance exercises like yoga and Pilates.
- Washington State: Gender and Endurance Performance
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: Trunk muscle endurance tests: Reliability, and gender differences in athletes
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Gender differences in skeletal muscle fatigability are related to contraction type and EMG spectral compression
- Research Gate: Gender differences and reliability of selected physical performance tests in young women and men
- University of Massachusetts Medical School: Sex Differences in Central and Peripheral Factors of Skeletal Muscle Fatigue