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Are Women’s Body Proportions Different From Men’s?

By Georgena Terry

georgena-terryHPQ: “I’ve heard that the proportions of women’s bodies are different from those of men’s and for that reason we need female-specific bicycles. Can you comment on that?”

Georgena: Women are definitely different than men, but what you’ve probably heard about body proportions may not be correct. When we look at men and women standing side by side, this is what we see.

 

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If they are the same height, she’s a lot “leggier” than he is. It looks as though women really do have long legs and short upper bodies for their height. (We’ll see later this isn’t the case.)

No wonder women tend to feel stretched out on a bike. That shorter upper body means she’s leaning forward quite a bit and probably experiencing neck and shoulder discomfort as a result.

The bicycle designer responds to this by using shorter top tubes on women’s bikes. And, if the bicycle line is done properly, the designer will also offer a range of sizes to fit women from about 4’10” to 5’10”, which will address the majority of women cyclists.

This observation is purely anecdotal, though. There are studies which measure the lengths of men’s and women’s legs, arms, upper bodies, and so on. These measurements show that women have shorter legs and longer torsos than men as a proportion of their heights.

When I looked at these studies in the mid-1980’s, I was surprised. Bikes that I was designing with shorter top tubes were getting great reviews. Women who rode them were thrilled to finally be comfortable and efficient on the bike. While this was a good thing, it seemed like I was “doing the right thing for the wrong reason” to paraphrase T.S. Elliot. I wanted to know what the right reason was.

For the answer, I turned to Carnegie-Mellon University, where I received my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Laura Lund, a student there, undertook the project to determine why women were uncomfortable on their bikes. She confirmed my research about women’s body proportions — shorter legs and longer upper bodies. But she also discovered that the center of mass of women’s body is not the same as men’s.

These diagrams showing the (exaggerated for simplicity) placement of the center of mass of the back help explain why a woman might experience discomfort in her low back. Intuitively, you know it will be harder to support a weight that’s closer to your head than to your lower back.  The force the weight exerts on your back is known as a “moment.”

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Putting all of this together in a diagram of a real cyclist on her bike illustrates the effect of the center of mass of different segments of the anatomy.

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The essence of Lund’s finding was this:

For a man and woman of the same height.

  • A woman must “support nearly equal or greater moments in her shoulders with muscles that on average are smaller … than those of a man.”
  • The moment supported by the small of her back is for the most part greater than that of a man.  Again supported by muscles that are typically smaller.

Some of this may not be particularly intuitive, unless you’re an engineer, but it goes to show that things often aren’t as they seem to be. Female specific bikes address these issues and are always a good place to start when shopping for a bike. But buy the bike that fits you best. That’s what matters in the long run, not whether you ride a “women specific design”.

Georgena will answer your questions about bike-fit, bike-frames, saddles, and bike-maintenance. So don’t be shy. Take advantage of her knowledge and decades of experience to get answers to any questions you have about bicycles. Email me at [email protected].

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http://georgenaterry.com/

When Georgena Terry first started designing bicycles, over 30 years ago, there were no women-specific bikes. Many female cyclists were forced to put up with neck, and shoulder pain, and other physical problems that came from riding bicycles that didn’t fit them. Georgena Terry changed that. Looking at anatomical differences between men and women, such as body mass and body strength, she began designing bike frames that optimized comfort and performance for female cyclists, with special attention to women under 5’2”.

Working out of her basement in Rochester, NY, Georgena first designed bikes for herself, then for her cycling friends. In 1985, she sparked a revolution in the cycling industry by launching Terry Precision Cycling, selling custom-built, high-quality steel frame bikes for women. Larger cycling companies sat up and took notice. Eventually following her lead, they developed their own brand of women-specific bicycles, clothing, saddles and accessories.

Today, Georgena continues her passion, designing and building custom steel bikes for women cyclists of all sizes. Contact her at georgenaterry.com

 

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3 comments to Are Women’s Body Proportions Different From Men’s?

  • Your explanation makes sense. I went to a women’s specific fit with a smaller frame than I would have expected (fitted professionally) and the difference it has made in comfort is amazing. Agree with Dragon that more research on weight distribution would be interesting & might drive more changes in frame or gear to fit even better.

  • Dragon

    Thank you for this article explaining the “moment” and how it differs between men and women. Very interesting. I’m interested in more articles like this — body mechanics and engineer’s point of view. Loved to see a follow-up article showing how geometry changes the weight distribution at the contact points.

  • [...] Cycling website, which is a great resource for women who bicycle. Here’s a copy of my November 2013 post on the Women’s Cycling [...]

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