Women Can Do Pull Ups

Recently a column was written in The New York Times Magazine entitled  “Why Women Can’t Do Pull Ups”.  Several clients emailed it to us at Ambition and I also saw it being passed around on Facebook.  There is a lot I don’t like about this article so let’s get started from the beginning.

First off, the title.  It’s negative.  Too much finality.  Not, they’re difficult or, why women struggle with pull ups, just a plain old can’t.  Like my friend Max likes to say at the gym, “Well not with that attitude.”  The fact that it’s written by a woman leads me to believe that Ms. Tara Parker-Pope has never successfully done a pull up and now has an excuse to stop trying, or never put in the effort in the first place.  Let me paint you a picture.  A woman walks into Ambition Athletics for the first time and we discuss her training history and potential goals, at which time I explain to her “why women can’t do pull ups”.  That certainly doesn’t set a positive tone.  What if her goal was to do a pull up?  Way to set “the bar” high Tara.  This negative talk is the exact reason women are likely to be intimidated at the gym and banish themselves to the elliptical or treadmill in an effort to reach their body composition goals, or worse yet, strength goals!  I believe that a more appropriate title would have been “Why Pull Ups Are More Difficult For Women Than Men”.

The researchers that are referred to in the article found 17 normal weight women who could not do a single pull up and for 3 months, 3 days a week they followed a specific training protocol.  First off, although 3 months can seem like a long time, I would argue that yes, it may take longer than that for a woman to develop the strength to perform a pull up.  We don’t know from just reading this column if some of those women had training experience or not.  All we know is that they were “normal weight”, which in today’s society means exactly, ?????????  I would expect that a woman without training experience would in fact take longer than 3 months to do her first pull up, but that does not mean can’t.  The second part I question is the training protocol.  We don’t know exactly what it was but it is vaguely outlined.  What I would argue is that taking time as they did to strengthen the biceps is not too effective or efficient as my most recommended bicep strengthening exercise is pull/chin up variations as well as bodyweight inverted rows.  Well, they couldn’t do pull ups so they 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”.  Well it looks like the researchers also hoped wrong in thinking that said incline would be an effective alternative.  I often harp on the fact that repeated, focused practice is the best way to get better at something.  What we have found works best for our female members at Ambition Athletics is to give women (or men for that matter) assistance from below the ribs so that they can successfully do a pull up.  At that point we emphasize an isometric hold at the top and a slow eccentric.  We “practice” this often.  Sometimes it takes just weeks, sometimes it takes several months or longer to achieve a pull up but it can be done.  Lastly, the women in the study also focused on aerobic training to lower body fat.  Although that could be potentially helpful, to lower body fat, the women were already of normal weight.  I do not believe someone needs to be underweight to do a pull up.  I also would suggest that healthier eating habits would likely be a superior tactic vs. aerobic training based on the goal at hand here.

I would agree, as the article states, no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull up tests.  But as the original research set out to find just how meaningful a fitness measure the pull up really is.  The answer prior to and after the study is, IT DEPENDS.  In my opinion it is very meaningful.  If a woman can perform a pull up I consider her strong.  Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful.  Would the researchers consider 2 push ups, 20 squats without weight, a 100 lb bench press, or 200 lb rows on a machine, strong?  We don’t know.  Some of those feats are meaningless if you ask me.  It depends who you ask.  I believe the pull up is a meaningful measure.  In this case we are asking a researcher whom we have no clue if he or his colleagues  have any real coaching experience.  He”thought” that the results would be better.  Is this guy an expert in getting people results?  I don’t know but its unlikely.  I respect his research but to take this information as Tara Parker-Pope did and come to said conclusion is irresponsible.  How did she sneak this one past the NY Times Magazine people?

Finally, after furiously reading through this article the first time I compiled a list of 23 women members of Ambition Athletics who can perform a minimum of 1 pull/chin up.  We have less than 100 members of which roughly 60% are women.  I think 23 is a solid number and that number is growing on a weekly basis.  These ladies work hard and take their pull ups seriously.  I am proud of these ladies and it brings a smile to my face as it does theirs each time another joins the “Can Do” club.  Below is a video of just a few of them.  Yes, some women took longer than 3 months, but they’re getting it done.  If you’ve read this far I suggest you also read Coach Dean Somerset’s take on the matter.  Dean actually dug into the research a little and exposes some important information that seems to have been left out of the NY Times piece.  I didn’t read his piece prior so as not to be influenced by it, but he actually answers some of the questions Ms. Parker-Pope failed to.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciJ2-Z7eTD4&list=UUeIRdxRkoivtvjQf6OsyUwQ&index=1&feature=plcp]

– Mike Baltren

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  • Cheryl

    Oh yes, I remember reading that NYT article and getting really pissed off at the title. I'm a woman. I can do pull-ups. It took me more than 3 months to achieve a pull-up, but I can do it, and that title was offendingly chauvinistic. I still remember the day I achieved a pull-up, I had been doing assisted pull-ups on the machine for a few months, but never seemed to be able to do a pull-up properly. Finally, one day I tried it without the assisting bench, and managed to get myself all the way to the top! I looked around but no one had noticed, so I just did a silent leap of joy inside and smiled the rest of the way home!

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