This is in response to a recent discussion on a recurring topic in historical European martial arts (HEMA) as well as in sports and martial arts in general. Open to revision.
1) I reiterate my long-standing assertion that cultural norms far outweigh the real and not insignificant physiological differences between men and women with regards to overall and upper body strength.
This view is far from a mystery to most sports psychologists or coaches, but it bears repeating for audiences that have not yet made their peace with the nuances. Rather, it's much easier for people to cling to a singular idea: "We are all the same, with the same potential!" (clearly, we are not all the same) "Men and women are different. Just face the biological facts!" (clearly, we are all human with the same chemistry and principles of physiology; no men from Mars or women from Venus here. Sorry, Dejah Thoris.)
(Bear with me; I'm going to quantify this to frame the next steps in discussing appropriate training approaches for manly women, womanly men, couchly potatoes, and every permutation thereof.)
This abstract indicates that men and women have roughly the same number of muscle fibers and same joint strength (elbows/knees). However, the study found that women were 52% strong as men (upper body) and 66% strong as men (lower body). This appeared to be due to the 32% greater Type I (slow-twitch) and 90% greater Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber area/size.
HOWEVER however, the strength generated per same unit size of muscle was roughly the same between men and women. So in a sense, men and women are fundamentally equally strong, by nature. HOWEVER however however, aided by another part of nature (testosterone) but a lot more by nurture, men can more easily develop strength and are encouraged to do so by societal norms. Women, OTOH, are often implicitly or explicitly discouraged by older family members, school peers, and coworkers -- as well as by discussions such as this one.
Many PEOPLE new to activities (particularly physical ones) internalize negative attitudes, fixating on the tangible fact that they can't do a certain exercise the same as someone else in the class -- ignoring the less tangible discrepancies in prior time spent in HEMA-specific training, prior lifetime sports participation, physical activity, etc. You wouldn't expect to pace Lance Armstrong on a bicycle without training; why assume you can pace the person next to you in your first training session when they have 6 years of football conditioning or whatever? Yet I observe this behavior all the time across multiple areas of new/unfamiliar activity.
Such people project "I can't currently do this" forward into "I'll never do this." Instead, the statement should be revised to "I can't YET do this" and projected forward to "I will incrementally progress my training towards this." I spend the majority of my time on adjusting those attitudes. Once they choose to do something about it, their training skyrockets. It's how I got hundreds of parkour students gradually from gassing out on a half-mile jog to doing hundreds of 8' jumps. Jogs led to hops led to small jumps led to running jumps.
Then they hit their first plateau. At that point, the attitude process restarts, at least until they realize the adjustment pattern required for continued growth -- and that all athletes are constantly putting themselves through this process again and again. None of us are invulnerable to these doubts, even if some of us are tested less often by them.
I say "people," b/c I get both men and women who are overly self-critical or lacking in confidence. In a completely different topic, our society instills a lot more insecurities in women (just look for the articles on pay scale variation, women in CEO positions, management/celebrity positions as chefs/movie directors/etc., engineering fields, and so on). And THAT needs to be concurrently addressed as a societal issue, even as we as HEMA trainers and trainees strive to provide an egalitarian and supportive environment for each other regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, fringe group affiliation, favorite way to prepare squid, or what the hell ever.
Anecdotally, I have trained with over a dozen women who were just as committed as me to our shared activities. A few of them (but not all of them) could squat, lift, push-up, or pull-up more than me. I currently room with a friend who went for Marine OCS, and her workouts rountinely see more pull-ups than all the 40+ people in my fencing club do -- combined!
Barring specific personal medical/physical conditions, all men and women are generally capable of striving for and achieving similar or better results.
It would be rule-of-thumb true to say, "Men are statistically nearly twice as strong as women in every way that matters."
It would also be true to say, "0.0006% of all American men (the top 1000 out of 97,000 male competitive MMA fighters in the US) may have a reasonable chance of lasting a round with Rhonda Rousey." (this is being generous to American men, since Rousey has demonstrated handily throwing Bas Rutten!)
Or for the historically inclined to state the absurdly evident, "No modern person will ever have the time to spend an entire recreational lifetime in wrestling and stick fighting, as well as a working lifetime of casually harder physical labor than even most of our laborers today will see, thanks to power equipment and vehicles replacing the need to haul hods of brick, sink fence posts, ride horses for 4-8 hrs a day and weeks at a time, dig up 110 lbs of potatoes a year, or dress out 400-lb wild boar." Even groups like the Amish today benefit indirectly from technology, so no one in an industrialized country is off the hook.
Such statements are eminently unhelpful for training and motivation, however.
That is not the same as saying that there are no differences, or that differences don't matter -- just train harder. Those are two equally inappropriate blanket statements, born of frustration with overly wrought discussions like the current one.
So how should we individually tailor our training methods?