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Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics

Summary

Strength and muscle characteristics were examined in biceps brachii and vastus lateralis of eight men and eight women. Measurements included motor unit number, size and activation and voluntary strength of the elbow flexors and knee extensors. Fiber areas and type were determined from needle biopsies and muscle areas by computerized tomographical scanning. The women were approximately 52% and 66% as strong as the men in the upper and lower body respectively. The men were also stronger relative to lean body mass. A significant correlation was found between strength and muscle cross-sectional area (CSA; P≤0.05). The women had 45, 41, 30 and 25% smaller muscle CSAs for the biceps brachii, total elbow flexors, vastus lateralis and total knee extensors respectively. The men had significantly larger type I fiber areas (4597 vs 3483 μm2) and mean fiber areas (6632 vs 3963 μm2) than the women in biceps brachii and significantly larger type II fiber areas (7700 vs 4040 μm2) and mean fiber areas (7070 vs 4290 μm2) in vastus lateralis. No significant gender difference was found in the strength to CSA ratio for elbow flexion or knee extension, in biceps fiber number (180 620 in men vs 156 872 in women), muscle area to fiber area ratio in the vastus lateralis 451 468 vs 465 007) or any motor unit characteristics. Data suggest that the greater strength of the men was due primarily to larger fibers. The greater gender difference in upper body strength can probably be attributed to the fact that women tend to have a lower proportion of their lean tissue distributed in the upper body. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the larger fibers in men represent a true biological difference rather that a difference in physical activity, but these data suggest that it is largely an innate gender difference.

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Correspondence to J. D. MacDougall.

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Miller, A.E.J., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnopolsky, M.A. et al. Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. 66, 254–262 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00235103

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Key words

  • Fiber area
  • Fiber number
  • Muscle crosssectional area