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.