Because women have about 15% less the amount of testosterone than men, there’s a common misconception that women’s bodies are not built for lifting, but that doesn’t make any sense. Testosterone doesn’t play as big of a role in building muscle as you’d think.
Men and women differ from the starting point. Women tend to have a higher body fat percentage. For women, about 12% is essential fat to regulate hormones. As for men, only 3% of the body is essential.
However, there does remain a difference in the muscular development of both men and women. Even if they both train, men get a substantial amount of upper body strength as it is. This is because, in untrained men and women, there is a fundamental difference in initial strength. Women can have anywhere from 40% to 70% of the upper body strength that men have.
The other sex hormone, estrogen, which women curse as the hormone that makes us fat, is actually beneficial to women in bodybuilding. Estrogen aids in muscle repair, prevents muscle loss, increases your metabolism, and protects joints, bones, and tendons from injury.
Many other factors play into the differences in male and female bodybuilding, but let’s look at some actual numbers regarding body fat percentage.
This woman’s body fat percentage is 19.4%. A female bodybuilder usually wants to aim for around 8–10%. She has nice muscle definition, but if she wanted to start bodybuilding, she’d have to shed around 9–10% of her body fat. Though her body fat percentage is higher, she looks a lot more in shape than a man with 20% body fat.
This man’s body fat percentage is not far off from the woman pictured above. His body fat percentage is 22.2%. The percentage is only two or three points higher than hers, but he looks less muscular and athletic than she does. This is a good example of how women naturally have a higher body fat percentage than men even if they look like they are more in shape and muscular.
A reasonably healthy body fat percentage for anyone who is not planning on seriously training for a bodybuilding competition will probably be around 20–21% for a woman and 14–15% for a man. A woman’s body fat percentage is usually around about 7% more than the man’s.
Iris Kyle, the famous female bodybuilder and 10-time champion of the Ms. Olympia bodybuilding competition, is around 10% body fat as evident by just looking at her incredible physique:
The 2015 Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath most likely has less than 5% body fat. In competition, Heath weighs 240 pounds compared to Iris Kyle’s competition weight of 155 pounds (Check out how Phil Heath gets ready for competitions here).
Okay, so women can be pretty strong. However, ladies, this isn’t an excuse to get cocky. If we look at the hand-grip strength of young male and female athletes, there is an obvious and significant difference between the strength of men and women. Looking at the graph below, we can see that the strongest female athlete is just above the median of strongest male athletes.
Men’s upper bodies will no doubt be more muscular than women’s (damn those two lumps of fat on our chests). Women’s upper bodies can be 43–63% weaker than men’s, and their lower bodies are 27% weaker.
If you grew up with brothers, you probably lost every time you wrestled. Even if we are biologically the weaker sex regarding muscle, at least we have some pretty good conditions for lifting because of our physical resilience! We bounce back quicker and in return, are able to train more frequently.