A Girl's Guide to Pull-Ups

Pull-ups and ponytails are a common sight in any Volt-equipped weight room.

Pull-ups and ponytails are a common sight in any Volt-equipped weight room.

Back in October 2012, the New York Times published a controversial article that just about blew up the blogosphere. It was called, “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups.” I get that the incendiary title was meant to offend people into reading the full text—which, indignant with feminist ire, I did. But the article itself proved, actually, pretty mild: citing some common-knowledge statistics on differences in body composition between the genders, researchers tested a group of women and found that fewer than 25% of them could perform a full pull-up, even after a three-month strength training regimen.

In conclusion, women can’t do pull-ups, they said. Science, they called it.

(BRB while I do a few sets of anger pull-ups to my DMX Spotify station, so I can deal with this whole…thing.)

Yeah: I’m a girl, and I can do pull-ups. But I couldn’t always. I had to work really hard for a long time, but, eventually, with enough time and training under my belt, I could do one. Then two. Then four. 

My problem with this NYT article isn’t its snarky little click-bait title—it’s that it gives every girl out there an excuse to stop trying to do pull-ups.

Ladies, you just plain can’t do pull-ups like the dudes can, this article told me. You should just quit trying.

And the thing is—THE THING IS—that they only tested seventeen women for this “research!" That’s it! That’s their whole test group! A whopping 1-7. By the end of the three-month training period, four of these women could do a full pull-up—fewer than 25% of the group. So they wrote it up and slapped a cool little trickster title on it and said WOMEN CAN’T DO PULL-UPS and called it gospel.   

What an insipid, irresponsible, poorly-researched piece of (pardon my French) POOP. Shame on you, NYT, for citing statistics based on a research group of 17 total participants. And—most importantly—shame on you for telling girls everywhere that they can’t do things that boys can do.

Let’s set the record straight, girls. Men and women might be different, but you can—and totally should!—train to do pull-ups. Building your physical strength is important in the world of athletics, but building your psychological strength as a female is just as important in the world of life at large.

(If you’re not already feeling mega-empowered, read on.)

VENUS & MARS

I live in Seattle, attended a liberal arts college, and consider myself a passionate feminist—but there are some pretty dang big biological differences between boys and girls! (If you’re not sure what I mean, stop reading right now and go call your mom.) So while I believe that men and women should, for example, earn equal pay for equal work, I am the first to acknowledge that we are NOT equals when it comes to average muscle mass, testosterone production, and body fat percentages. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, women have, on average, 50-60% less upper-body strength than men (but only 10-20% less lower-body strength). Men produce about 20 times more testosterone (which helps build muscle and bone) than women. And while the male metabolism burns calories faster, the female metabolism tends to convert more calories to fat, which we store in our hips, breasts, butts, and subcutaneously under our skin (yippee!).

So, DUH—it’s really, really hard for women to do pull-ups! Thanks, New York Times! Our upper bodies just aren’t as strong as our lower bodies. Fact.

But that doesn’t mean that girls CAN’T do them! It just takes us a bit longer to get there, that’s all.

In Coach Jace’s (awesome) recent blog post about pull-ups, he talks about all the benefits they bring: increased relative strength, improved shoulder function, and greater upper-back development. So if you’re a lady out there looking to stick it to the New York Times AND reap all the awesome rewards that come with the ability to perform a full pull-up, let’s do it! Here are 3 easy ways you can start working on your pull-up strength today.



1. A NEGATIVE EQUALS A POSITIVE

If you love being sore after a workout, you’re going to ADORE negatives! A negative is a really slow eccentric contraction (when the muscle lengthens slowly under resistance), and it’s top-dog when it comes to building strength and neuromuscular adaptation fast. Use a box or jump up to the bar until your chin is hovering above it. Then, slooowly lower yourself down to a full hang, and reset. Eccentric contractions are brutal since they cause more micro-tears in the muscle (more so than concentric contractions, when the muscle shortens under resistance), and will make you mega sore and awesome. But all those micro-tears force a lot of fast adaptation and muscle remodeling, so you’ll see gains in your pull-up strength faster than you can say I’M SO FANCY. Aim for 2-3 sets of 8-10 10-second negative pull-ups, resting completely between sets. OUCH!

2. BAND-AID

Another great way to work on your pull-up strength is to utilize a band. Most gyms have big rubber/latex resistance bands. By looping one end of a band around the bar, and the other end around your knee or foot, you allow the band’s elasticity to help carry you up to the bar. This is an awesome method for practicing the full range-of-motion required for a pull-up without being limited by strength at either the top or bottom of the movement. Try 3 sets of 10-12 banded pull-ups, resting 2-3 minutes between sets, and focus on maintaining a contraction in your lats throughout the full movement. The only key here is to avoid getting smacked in the eyeball.

MODIFY: No bands handy? Make a new friend and ask him/her to be your band! Using the buddy system to complete a few sets of assisted pull-ups will help you develop the strength needed to perform them unassisted, and will also help your new friend get a little extra upper-body resistance training in the process.

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3. CORE IS CORE IS CORE

One of the biggest eureka moments I had when training to perform pull-ups was this: it’s not just an arm movement, it’s a full-body movement. It’s not just about how strong your arms are—it’s about how strong and connected your arms are to your torso, and your torso to your lower-body. In other words, it all comes back to CORE.

Incorporating core work into your training regimen—whether you’re training for field hockey or a desk job—will only benefit you, and will especially help you when it comes to doing pull-ups. Learning how to utilize the core strength I built in exercises like hollow holds and planks, letting that translate into the way I channeled that strength through my shoulders and into my upper body, was—and still is—crucial in my pull-up success. Adding in hollow holds, planks, side planks, supermen, and quadruped reaches at the end of your workout will help you continue to develop strength in your core and back muscles (check out the Volt Core Finisher workout!). Once that strength is developed, your body will use its muscle memory to naturally put your body into good positions when attempting pull-ups.

THE TAKEAWAY

Speaking from straight-up experience here, pull-ups are HARD! It is still way easier for me to squat 3x195# than it is to do six pull-ups. But practice truly does make perfect what once seemed impossible. I don’t want to sound like a crappy motivational poster of a kitten clinging onto a tree branch here, but HANG IN THERE! Pull-ups are tough, but so are you. And I also don’t want to sound like Meghan Trainor in “All About That Bass,” but remember: EVERY INCH OF YOU IS PERFECT FROM THE BOTTOM TO THE TOP! So crank that DMX playlist, get in the gym, and prove the New York Times wrong.


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye