Home Exercise 101 Why Women DON’T Do Pull Ups, and How to Change That

Why Women DON’T Do Pull Ups, and How to Change That

by Erika Nicole Kendall

So, call me late, or whatever.

A couple of years ago, an article came out about how and why women can’t do pull-ups, and I was so surprised by how badly it missed the mark.

It starts off talking about how, in the Marines, women aren’t required to be able to do a pull up. Cue my “My eyes are squinting because I can’t see the logic in your foolishness” face. It then goes on to discuss how teens in their early years have different pull-up requirements in order to obtain the highest fitness level for the Presidential Fitness Test – 10 pull ups for 14 year old boys, a mere 2 for girls.

But then, it gets all awkward and science-y:

To find out just how meaningful a fitness measure the pull-up really is, exercise researchers from the University of Dayton found 17 normal-weight women who could not do a single overhand pull-up. Three days a week for three months, the women focused on exercises that would strengthen the biceps and the latissimus dorsi — the large back muscle that is activated during the exercise. They lifted weights and used an incline to practice a modified pull-up, raising themselves up to a bar, over and over, in hopes of strengthening the muscles they would use to perform the real thing. They also focused on aerobic training to lower body fat.

By the end of the training program, the women had increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by 2 percent. But on test day, the researchers were stunned when only 4 of the 17 women succeeded in performing a single pull-up.

“We honestly thought we could get everyone to do one,” said Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, and an author of the study. But Vanderburgh said the study and other research has shown that performing a pull-up requires more than simple upper-body strength. [source]

Ya don’t say?

Let’s face it: many women don’t do pull ups because strength displayed in women is often seen as gross. Weight lifting is seen as “men’s activity.” The “women’s section” of the gym is in the cardio area. Many women are eating carrots and celery, avoiding protein, and dieting to such an extent that they’re wearing away any muscle they might’ve otherwise obtained through training. Either that, or they’re so sedentary that the muscle they had wears away over time, leaving just enough to manage regular daily tasks.

Pull-ups are full body exercises. It’s not you, dangling from a bar like a lifeless branch of leaves, and hoisting it all up against gravity until your chin hits above the bar. You have to engage your everything – your legs, your core, your chest, your neck, everything. And the nature of “fitness” for women means that, in that “everything,” you won’t find much in the way of muscle.

Also, let’s say that these women were so petite, that all it really took was training your upper back (latissimus dorsi) and your inner arms (biceps) to make it happen.

It would take more than three months to build up the amount of muscle necessary to do it.

Let me repeat: it would take far, far longer to build up the amount of muscle necessary to do it.

When it comes to muscle development, get out of your mind the myth that you can build ten pounds of muscle in a month. You can’t. The average person can maybe get in a good 5lbs as a beginner, and even then that’s tenuous because one of the biggest challenges beginners face is commitment. The more consistent you are with your training, the less muscle you can build in any given month, eventually tapping out around 2-3lbs per month.

I’m inclined to believe the 2% body fat reduction that the women experienced in three months time – by the way, wow – doesn’t amount to a 20 lb increase in muscle development.

Furthermore, there’s literally no mention of diet in the write-up, and I’m inclined to believe it was excluded because it wasn’t included in part of the research. As we all know, proper protein consumption is essential to our ability to build muscle. All the lifting in the world, and no protein? That merely equals a world of pain. Pain, improper healing, extended soreness, and – guess what? Impaired muscle development. If the women who were studied failed to eat all of or the correct amount of protein, then what kind of progress do you expect the women to make?

There’s something else that’s aggravating me about this. In the beginning of the article, it speaks about how young girls only have to be able to complete two pull ups to be seen as “fit” by the PFT’s standards.

Okay, so let’s get frank about this: why would that be? Why would there be an 80% reduction in expectations for girls in completing a pull-up in comparison to boys? Would it be, perhaps, because so many young girls are struggling with eating disorders, or just general purpose disordered eating? Maybe a little body image issue or two that discourages them from doing any kind of exercise other than cardio?

For many young girls, their fitness knowledge comes from their parents, and woe be unto them if their parents are particularly brutal. “Shape up, honey… you want to find a husband, don’t you?” “Why don’t you go run for a little while? It’ll help you get those pounds off!” and there’s my personal favorite “If you don’t stop eating, you’re gon’ be big as a house.”

Extended cardio is, basically, the enemy of muscle. If you grow up thinking that being a cardio warrior is going to be the way to go, then no, you shouldn’t expect to be able to have enough muscle to do a pull up. You should hardly expect anything less than 4-8 months of a full body strength program can deliver results… and that’s for someone who is relatively small, no matter how high their body fat percentage.

One more thing – how tall were these women? It takes longer to get the same kind of results on a 6′ woman as it does a 5′ woman. There’s less of a frame to build upon! When I tell people it took me years to build 40lbs of muscle, they’re dumbfounded – I’m exceptionally tall. There’s a reason why so many bikini and figure competitors are short, and why many of the taller ones have been lifting for years longer than their less-tall counterparts. The more body you have, the longer it takes to build muscle. Was that accounted for?

Listen. I can fully accept that science is a moving target. What I cannot accept is gendered research that doesn’t consider sociological, societal, and otherwise sexist contributors to the outcome of their research… or – what’s more – be so sexist in their initial research that they overlook the fact that the very same things that can affect women, affect men every day: improper nutrition, prior sedentary living, dieting, disordered eating.

That being said, I still need to go practice my pull up.

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Kv August 2, 2014 - 9:07 AM

In my past experiences, many trainers told me women bodies are not meant for pull ups, head stands, and etc. This was coming from men and women trainers during a complimentary session. In the future, trainers should be more educated on how to train women’s bodies for different goals. Protein is very important for recovery and foam rolling. My goals are to be able to do pull ups, head stand, cart wheels etc. I like using the battle rope so far. My goal is to work on my nutrition. After having plenty horrible dietitians who push massive amounts of protein powders, I hate the taste of protein powder. Do you think calisthenics would give you the same results as weight training?

Erika Nicole Kendall August 2, 2014 - 12:50 PM

Calisthenics IS weight training! Don’t let ANYONE tell you anything otherwise!

Wendy@BlushandBarbells August 2, 2014 - 2:03 PM

I’m still working on this. I’ll get there, little by little, no matter how long it takes!

Sica August 4, 2014 - 4:49 PM

So what kind of program would you recommend to someone who’s already lifting but can’t for the life of her even begin to do a pull-up? Your article got my hopes up again (upper body strength has always been my weakness, so hearing that it’s not all about it makes me feel better)… I’m especially envious of the men at the gym who seem to be lifting less than me but can still manage to do pull-ups. Not fair!

Erika Nicole Kendall August 5, 2014 - 1:22 PM

Looking at how much others are lifting in one particular exercise is misleading because people can effectively train using low weights, but use different kinds of exercises for the same muscle group so that they train that group in different ways.

You need a program that targets your full body in multiple ways, not just a bunch of individualized exercises that train your biceps one day, your calves the next. Use the assisted pull up machine. Do deadlifts. Do “naked/Turkish get ups.” You HAVE to train your full body together.

Sica August 6, 2014 - 6:31 AM

My last remark was just me throwing a little fit, the only person I actually compare myself to at the gym is my old self (as cliché as that sounds) =] My gym doesn’t have an assisted pull up machine, but I already do deadlifts and will start incorporating turkish get ups in my routine. I’m glad you put an emphasis on full body, compound movements because that’s what I’ve been doing. Thank you!

Erika Nicole Kendall August 6, 2014 - 8:19 AM

I understand! But I also know that for every joking thing someone says, there’s someone out there who is honestly like, “Yeah!” and I wanna squash that before it gains steam. LOLOL

T August 5, 2014 - 1:50 AM

Hi Erika, was there a piece in your write-up that spoke to how to change the fact that women don’t do pull-ups? I was interested in that when I read your title but I may have missed the section that spoke on it.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 5, 2014 - 1:16 PM

Start with all the things that the researchers didn’t account for in their trial, and make sure they’re accounted for in your OWN training. Without accounting for all those factors, you won’t ever be able to make it happen yourself.

MLS August 5, 2014 - 12:34 PM

Great article Erika! I’m so glad I found your blog after the XOJane yoga kerfluffle.

I remember reading that article and thinking who thinks that’s enough training to make these women able to do a pullup. You rarely even see men doing unassisted pullups in the gym. Curls, yes. All kinds of curls. Pullups, no. Because they are HARD.

One of my goals is to be able to do unassisted pullups and bench press my bodyweight. It’s taken a little bit of time getting used to the weird looks from both men and women in the gym, but whateves. I feel fantastic and will feel even better once I can literally pull my own weight.

Caitlin Burke October 12, 2014 - 10:16 AM

Agreed — that NY Times article is awful. (Tara Parker Pope has also written about it being “impossible” to keep weight off without becoming miserable and food-obsessed. She could probably use a thoughtful, well informed coach.) I don’t think the cardio-starving complex is the reason for the disparity, though.

Girls get a lot of bad messages about cardio and starving, and we see the effects in 9 and 10 year olds, but they’re not usually getting those messages when boys are building a base for pull-ups — from the very beginning. Some of the gendered training kids get today is aggressively harmful (particularly around toys and games) compared to experience in the 70s and 80s, but the pull-ups divide was still being set up back then, too.

In the 70s, we had roughly the same recess activities (more jump rope but still a lot of bars and jungle gym play), and a lot of girls did tumbling and gymnastics (ie, would be able to do pull-ups and dips for bar mounts as they continued with it). We just never, ever got the expectations in gym class that boys did from day 1, and that divide got starker with age. The further you fall behind, the harder it is to catch up — kinda like the wage gap!

Then as we have gotten older, many people sincerely believe that there is something so substantially different about women’s bodies that they can’t do a pull-up (or, for that matter, throw a baseball). This is beyond “girls shouldn’t LIFT 105; they should WEIGH 105.” This is a(n absurd) belief about female anatomy, comparable to the 60s claim that women shouldn’t run marathons because their “uteruses could fall out.” (People don’t say this stuff about tennis serving, even though it’s “limited” by the same issues, but tennis players almost always get formal instruction, and many kids get their base of experience with pull-ups and baseball with each other or gym teachers of inconsistent quality, who may just blow off kids they aren’t competent to help.)

I’m an endurance athlete with a powerlifting total of 500 — I bet that combo is pretty common among triathletes and rowers, and those that are not doing weight training could probably build that total quickly. True “cardio warriors” like me — especially lat- and trap-rich swimmers and rowers — can do pull-ups when they train the movement (and probably do them as part of training). *Cardio* isn’t the problem, but low-resistance gym machines with rails that rob people of even more work opportunity are a pretty bad deal for anyone who isn’t in rehab or starting from scratch fitness-wise. That is a somewhat different problem from girls being steered away from strength sports and strength display. In fact, I would even say that’s a weakness of teaching people that “workout” is something that only happens *in* a gym. I can never cheat on balance or self-pacing outside or in the water like someone can on a treadmill!

Erika Nicole Kendall October 14, 2014 - 10:43 PM

“I don’t think the cardio-starving complex is the reason for the disparity, though.”

You can’t say it doesn’t contribute at all, though, when both cardio and starvation diets are anti-thetical to the development of what these women actually need in order to complete the task at hand.

“but they’re not usually getting those messages when boys are building a base for pull-ups”

There’s research out that challenges this *right now* discussing where/how young girls develop harmful relationships with their bodies. So, I’d have to beg to differ.

“We just never, ever got the expectations in gym class that boys did from day 1, and that divide got starker with age.”

I think this also is a contributor to that cardio-starvation complex that you mentioned – it has to be perpetuated SOMEhow. The girls who grew up believing that pull-ups are boys work reflect that in their teachings and experiences with the next generation of girls. It’s just another component of the perpetuation of the diet mentality.

“True “cardio warriors” like me — especially lat- and trap-rich swimmers and rowers — can do pull-ups when they train the movement (and probably do them as part of training).”

But, as swimming and rowing both build and require strength to maintain competency, I’d expect you to be able to do a pull-up. I can understand what YOU mean when you say “cardio warrior,” but it’s not what I mean when I say it – it’s meant to imply someone who ONLY does cardio (by way of a treadmill or elliptical) and never does any other kind of training. That’s clearly not you.

Great comment! Thanks for sharing!

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