By: Katie Flaherty
As a female coach at a fitness facility originally built on the principles of CrossFit culture, I am oftentimes asked why there are suggested mono-structural and weight load guidelines posted for men vs. women. In a time where gender equality is at the forefront of social and political importance, it is an understandable concern. There are several reasons, however, that related fitness methodologies have workouts designed with scaling options based on gender.
- Size & body composition: It has been determined through countless studies that, on average, men produce ~70% more testosterone than women, resulting in larger potential power output during physical activity. Men also have the ability to develop a higher percentage of muscle mass as well as overall mass (again, on average), generating stronger force production, along with a higher maximum consumption of oxygen.
- Consistency & stimulus: Common CrossFit weight suggestions for male vs. female (e.g. 95/65lb, 135/95lb) are determined through these testosterone studies (e.g. 65lb is ~70% of 95lb). Depending on the specified movement and repetition volume of the daily workout, consistency between loading is essential so that both genders have a fairer chance at reaching the desired stimulus. For example, although women may have the ability to lift the same load as men, speed at a higher repetition volume of movement may be the challenge. Prescribed weights/output is designed to level the playing field for top athletes of the sport to allow for comparison over time.
Is the system without flaw? Absolutely not. Evaluating the scientific details even further behind this thinking, it seems evident that fitness performance is less a function of gender itself and more the result of body size and chemical configuration. There are many instances where a female is capable of achieving a better performance vs. a male based on a number of other factors, including height, weight, athletic background, etc. This goes for all individuals, regardless of gender. Perhaps as CrossFit continues to evolve and adjust for the benefit of its community, other factors will be taken into consideration for scaling suggestions. Maybe a more appropriate way to think about scaling is a tiered format where elite athletes, intermediate athletes, and beginner athletes have three different benchmarks/loads to work with based on athletic performance and experience rather than focusing on the disparities in gender prescriptions. Fitness will never be a one-size-fits-all prescription, and the ability to scale through simple guidelines has done well to increase inclusivity, and is a major factor in the rapid success of CrossFit.
CrossFit and related multi-modality fitness programs promote a supportive environment with scalability regardless of age/athletic background. It is the job of the coach to ensure one’s experience is fun and rewarding, but most importantly safe. All scientific research aside, if an individual does not feel properly equipped to meet the suggested criteria, or feels that they are not being tested to the best of their ability, the athlete is free to adjust according to his/her desired goals. In any fitness setting both coach and athlete should always be in communication to establish safety in weight load/output, regardless of gender, to get the most that they can out of a workout. As athletes get fitter and science progresses it will be interesting to see how the world of functional fitness evolves.