Biology of Sex Differences
Optimal function of the abdominal muscles is necessary for several life functions including lifting and carrying tasks. Sex differences in strength and fatigability are established for many limb muscles and back extensor muscles, but it is unknown if sex differences exist for the abdominal muscles despite their functional importance.
Eighteen females (24.3 ± 4.8 years) and 15 males (24.1 ± 6.6 years) performed (1) isometric trunk flexion maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs) in a range of trunk positions to establish a torque-angle curve and (2) submaximal (50% MVC), intermittent isometric contraction (6 s on, 4 s off) until task failure to determine fatigability of the trunk flexor muscles. Dual X-ray absorptiometry quantified body fat and lean mass. Physical activity levels were quantified with a questionnaire. Torque-angle curves, electromyography (EMG), MVC torque, and torque steadiness were compared with repeated measures ANOVA with sex as a between-subjects factor.
For the torque-angle curve, MVC torque was reduced as the trunk angle increased toward flexion (p < 0.001). Males had greater MVC torque than females at the extended positions (31% difference), with no sex differences in torque in upright sitting (p > 0.05). Time-to-task failure for the submaximal fatigability task in upright sitting was similar between males and females (12.4 ± 7 vs 10.5 ± 6 min). Time-to-task failure was positively associated with strength (r = 0.473, p = 0.005) and self-reported physical activity (r = 0.456, p = 0.030). Lean mass in the trunk was positively associated with trunk flexor strength (r = 0.378, p = 0.011) and self-reported physical activity (r = 0.486, p = 0.007). Finally, torque steadiness [coefficient of variation of torque (CV)] during submaximal isometric contractions decreased with contraction intensity and was similar for males and females across all intensities.
Unlike many limb muscle groups, males and females had similar fatigability and torque steadiness of the trunk flexor muscles during isometric contractions. Stronger individuals, however, exhibited less fatigability. Lower self-reported physical activity was associated with greater fatigability of trunk flexor muscles. The relationship between strength and fatigability of the trunk flexor muscles and physical activity supports the importance of abdominal muscle strengthening to offset fatigability in both males and females.
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