Women used to be referred to as the weaker sex. But who really has the best pain tolerance? And what does it mean for your training?
Can you remember the days when women felt uncomfortable in gyms? When the guys thought they ruled the roost and as a woman you daren’t set foot in the strength room for fear of ridicule?
Well times of changed.
And now we’re not only mixing it full force with the guys; we’re practically ruling the gym.
If you want to know why women have a higher tolerance to pain and how to harness that for unbreakable workouts, read on…
The painful truth
There’s a whole arm of science that’s dedicated to finding out about pain – how to identify it, which parts of the brain are responsible for registering it, how to manage it and so on.
When we talk about pain we’re talking about anything that causes physical distress. Whether it’s a punch to the arm, needle in your skin or even a set of high-volume set of agonizing leg extensions.
Emotional stress can also cause pain too (yep, thinking about leg day counts as emotional pain).
There are two main factors when we talk about pain:
- Pain threshold – the point at which you feel the onset of pain after being presented with a stimulus.
- Pain tolerance – how much pain you can cope with before you’ve had too much.
Pain can also be categorized into acute and chronic. Acute is the kind of thing you feel following trauma or surgery, and lasts from just a few moments to months.
Chronic pain is more long-term and lasts for 6 months or longer.
There are numerous factors that affect pain threshold and tolerance
You probably know some girls that shriek at the slightest scrape or bruise. And others that soldier on with injuries that’d make even Evelyn Salt shudder.
We don’t all feel pain the same.
It’s a pretty subjective thing, with a number of things affecting both pain threshold or tolerance.
As we’ve already mentioned, every one of us feels pain differently. Some women are able to get punched in the face for sport, break planks of wood during martial arts shows and fight through intense muscle soreness on the last lap of a fast cycling race.
In fact, research shows that athletes have a higher pain tolerance compared to the general population.
And that pain can be desensitized too with practice. Especially if you’re a hardcore women who wants to get the very best from her training.
In some cultures, both children and adults go through pain-inducing rituals such as cutting, stretching and breaking skin in order to assess position within their tribe.
Body distortion is also a big thing in some cultures.
Distorting body parts such as ear lobes and lips is a common practice in many African, South American and Aborigine tribes.
It’s nothing to do with the with the gym. But what this means for the gym is that pain is all about perception.
You don’t feel pain as much in stressful situations. Athletes that get injured during competitive play often don’t realize that they’re injured until someone points it out to them.
And if you’ve ever heard of runners’ high you’ll know that some joggers feel elated because of the release of endorphins mid-way through an hard run.
Last of all is gender.
And while the research isn’t completely conclusive, there does appear to be a difference between men and women when it comes to pain tolerance.
Do Women Have a Higher Pain Tolerance Than Men?
You might have seen the sitcom episode where the woman fights through the pain of childbirth while her husband lies prone on the floor after fainting.
Or maybe you think of the overly needy woman who screams at the thought of manual work while her tired, dirty and exhausted man sets off to yet another day of hard physical work.
There are two sides to this age old argument about pain tolerance.
Many anecdotal reports suggest that childbirth is the worst pain a woman can go through. And that has led to an evolutionary higher pain tolerance than men.
But when it comes to pain tolerance, the studies don’t favor one side over the other. And if anything, show that men may well have the upper edge when it comes to pain tolerance.
But that’s only for acute pain.
When it comes to chronic pain management, there’s pretty much no difference at all.
(And of course we know secretly that we tolerate pain much, much more).
Pain research relies on truthful reporting
The ongoing debate about who the weaker sex is lies in the fact that because pain is so subjective, it’s actually pretty hard to say who really can tolerate more pain.
In studies, researchers have to rely on men and women being honest about how much pain they feel. Even in objective research, there’s still a large element of reporting.
And we know what men are like for macho responses. They’re probably holding back the tears from pain, but telling the scientists it doesn’t hurt!
Pain tolerance changes across your menstrual cycle
One thing is for sure when it comes to us women – pain tolerance changes throughout the menstrual cycle.
During what’s known as the follicular phase (the first two weeks of your cycle) your pain tolerance is at its highest.
This means that from bleed to ovulation, you’re in a strong position to life heavy and hit your PRs in the gym.
During your luteal phase (ovulation to the beginning of bleed) you’re not as tolerant of exercise-induced pain.
Estrogen levels might be the reason for increased pain tolerance
Across your menstrual cycle your hormones fluctuate on a daily basis.
The most important of these, estrogen, begins to increase during late follicular phase and peaks during ovulation.
It also spikes during pregnancy too.
Estrogen plays a ‘protective role’ in the female body. When levels are high, your natural painkiller system becomes more active, releasing endorphins and other analgesic chemicals when pain occurs.
This of course helps to boost pain tolerance.
Women Can Tolerate the Pain of Exercise: What This Means for Workouts
Although the research says men might have the upper hand when it comes to absolute pain tolerance, women are extremely good at triggering their adaptive pain mechanism.
Whether that’s circuit training, high-intensity resistance training or cardio; females have an in-built ability to deal with hard exercise.
One thing that we do know is that women are absolute machines when it comes to dealing with high-volume exercise.
Higher estrogen levels means you can work out harder for longer in the gym too.
With less muscle damage too.
Increase intensity during the follicular phase
During the first couple of weeks during your period, it’s important that you do one (if not all) of the following:
- Increase your workout intensity
- Add in more volume
- Reduce rest periods
Focus on endurance during luteal menstruation
When estrogen is low, your pain tolerance drops through the floor.
You can’t withstand anything near the intensity you normally would during your workouts.
So instead of pushing yourself though painful workouts that set your muscles on fire, focus on endurance instead.
Ditch the heavy workouts and introduce lighter weights and more cardio.
Introduce more lower-intensity weight training coupled with moderate-intensity cardio or circuit sessions.
Endurance sessions with an emphasis on duration and not intensity also work well during this phase too.