Posted by: Stephanie Tuck | April 29, 2015

You’ll Find Me At the Bar: Pull-ups for Women

The New York Times published a story recently that had me scratching my head. It’s about why women can’t do pull-ups and chin ups. (The story is below and also linked to here. ) I love the writer who penned it,  and her research is always up to date. And so it made me feel a bit freaky to read her story when, well, I can do pull-ups, no problem. I’ll show you:  Click here:

And so, The Times piece:

Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups

Ben Wiseman
While the pull-up has been used by everyone from middle-school gym teachers to Marine drill instructors to measure fitness, the fact is that many fit people, particularly women, can’t do even one. To perform a pull-up, you place your hands on a raised bar using an overhand grip, arms fully extended and feet off the floor. (The same exercise, performed with an underhand grip, is often called a chin-up.) Using the muscles in your arms and back, you pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar. Then the body is lowered until the arms are straight, and the exercise is repeated. The Marines say a male recruit should be able to do at least 3 pull-ups or chin-ups, but women are not required to do them. In school, 14-year-old boys can earn the highest award on the government’s physical fitness test by doing 10 pull-ups or chin-ups: for 14-year-old girls, it’s 2.

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. Men and women who can do them tend to have a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature. During training, because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men, Vanderburgh explained. In addition, they can’t lose as much fat. Men can conceivably get to 4 percent body fat; women typically bottom out at more than 10 percent.

So no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull-up tests. But Vanderburgh notes that some men struggle, too, particularly those who are taller or bigger generally or have long arms. This is related to an interesting phenomenon: if you compare a smaller athlete to an athlete who has the same exact build but is 30 percent bigger, the bigger athlete will be only about 20 percent stronger, even though he has to carry about 30 percent more weight.

“We’re a combination of levers; that’s how we move,” Vanderburgh said. “Generally speaking, the longer the limb, the more of a disadvantage in being able to do a pull-up. I look at a volleyball player and wouldn’t expect her to be able to do a pull-up, but I know she’s fit.” End —

Ha, so according to Tara Parker Pope, when it comes to pull-ups, good things come in small, fit, packages. Perhaps it’s just my genetic destiny that pull-ups and chin ups have never been a  big deal  to me – it’s like I never grew out of them from when I was a kid. Whatever the reason, I do dig ’em – I like the feeling at the top of being way up there in the air, far closer to the gym’s ceiling than I usually hover –  even if I have to suffer stares and comments from guys at the gym who are somewhere between impressed and frightened when I do a few sets. Is it really such a spectacle to see a woman on the chin-up bar?
Bottom line, ladies, is this can be done, by you, too (Tara Parker Pope notwithstanding.)  There is an expectation of failure when it comes to women and upper body strength, and I’d like us all to think twice about this. Pullups and chin ups are amazing for your upper and lower back, lats, biceps, shoulders, abs and pectorals, and they’re a great part of a workout.  They get your heart rate up in 2 seconds and you’ll feel like Demi Moore as G.I. Jane. Or better – you’ll feel like Rocky. And you know that jiggly under-arm flab that tends to make women say no to tank tops and tees? Do these and  squishy arms will be not apply to you.
Start off slowly and focus on  doing one chin up and mix in some push ups to help you build those arms and upper back. Another solid technique is to leap up using your legs and arms simultaneously so your chin is above the bar and then lower your body down slowly as you fully extend. It’s a great muscle toner and wait til you see what this will do to your yoga practice as well as your waistline. Let me know how you’re doing – you can do it, and you may just enjoy the results. xxooS


  1. You’ll find me at the bar too… Doing muscle ups:)

    Very interesting when investigating the reasons why women aren’t typically as good as men when doing pull ups. There are several reasons why that is the case. Most women are at a mechanical disadvantage compared to men because their center of gravity is lower on the there body due to the fact that they are birth bearing creatures:) Also, men may have a slight advantage because they are able to recruit more motor units to facilitate the task. The more muscles and motor units one can access- the easier one can execute the task of a pull-up.

    If one truly desires the ability to do pull ups, they need to practice the pattern of doing exactly that. One may want to start with hanging, in order to build the necessary muscular endurance to hang for long periods of time. Or hop on an assisted pull up machine to practice the overhead pulling pattern with assistance pushing you back up to the starting position.
    I remember you used to crush pull ups Steph! Have you tried doing assisted muscle ups using superbands? It’s quite the workout and right up your alley. You can check out muscle ups on my website:

    Until then keep crushing:)



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