Women’s difficulty with pull-ups is about more than biology

Photo by Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken, U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Department of Defense.

Photo by Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken, U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Department of Defense.

Being a regular consumer of mainstream news means I am well-acquainted with the sensation of feeling angry or frustrated by the talking heads on my television/computer/smartphone, but few things have made me cringe in recent memory like the flood of commentary that greeted the Marine Corps’ revelation that 55 percent of its female recruits could not meet the new standard of three pull-ups when tested at the end of boot camp.

I’ve read one comment section on this story and that was plenty. I am pretty sure I’ve had enough “see? we told you women were genetically inferior weaklings suited only for making me a sandwich” bullshit to fill my tank well into the next decade.  (Of course, that nearly half of those women tested WERE able to meet the standard throws a wrench in the whole “wimminz r weak, hyuk hyuk” routine, but hey, don’t let facts get in the way of being an asshole!)

Now, I preface this by saying that I have absolutely no experience with the military or military-style training or even exercise classes that purport to be inspired by boot camps.  I cannot say whether the standards are fair or unfair (although my first instinct is that the old standard – the flexed-arm hang – seems way too easy).  I cannot say whether the pull-up is a good standard by which to measure a Marine’s abilities in the field.  The closest I’ve come to the military is that my dad carried half my DNA in his business when he worked at the Pentagon in the 1970s.  Aside from that, no clue at all.

What I do want to write about, though, is the ongoing issue regarding women and pull-ups.  The New York Times caused  a bit of a shitstorm in October 2012 when they published an article called “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-ups.”  (The ironic thing is that those of who actually read the article and didn’t just skim the headline would have learned that about a quarter of the women who were part of the study were able to do a pull-up after just three months of a three-times-a-week resistance training program. A sweeping judgments about the physical capabilities of all womankind after a three-month program of moderate strength training that was sufficient to help 25 percent of the women achieve the goal?  Sounds legit!)

The article led to a flurry of counter-articles pointing out that, yeah, women can do pull-ups if you train them properly. (Here’s a good one at Nia Shank’s website, and here’s another good one at Breaking Muscle.)  And that continues to show up in the articles I’ve read about the pull-up standards: that if you train women properly, most of us will be able to do them.  Here’s one excerpt from an NPR article, from a former Marine, no less:

However, Greg Jacob, a former Marine, says women can build the strength they need for pullups, and he has seen it done.

He served as a Marine infantry officer in the Balkans and Africa, and now he works for the Service Women’s Action Network, a group that advocates for military women. When he was a Marine trainer in North Carolina, he required his female instructors to knock out pullups just like the guys.

“At first, a lot of women weren’t able to do it,” Jacob says. “They were able to do one, some were able to do two, but what happened was by having that standard and enforcing that standard, it made my Marines, it made the troops go to the gym and train to that standard.”

Within six months, all of the women in his company were doing eight to 12 pullups, he says.

Pretty much every article I’ve read on the subject contains a similar quote.  That’s in addition to the writings I’ve read from personal trainers who specialize in weight training, all of whom are confident that most women can do pull-ups with proper training.  Sure, biology and physiology may have combined forces to make them more difficult for us, but just because it’s more difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth pursuing.  Hell, even I can do chin-ups (which are pull-ups’ wimpier little cousin) and I’m not even all that muscular.  It can be done!

So what’s the big issue here?  If women are capable of doing pull-ups, then why are so few of us actually able to do them?

Well, I tend to have the same line of thought whenever we talk about female physical strength, which is that we live in a culture that has glamorized and sexualized female weakness, and so any analysis about the physical limitations of female bodies has got to take that into consideration or else it is worthless.  (This is the thesis of The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling, by the way.)

Women are told it is unfeminine and gross to have muscles and to cultivate strength, which in turn leads them to actively avoid doing things that will build muscles and strength, which then makes them even less capable of doing things that require strength, which the critics then use as proof of women’s inherent physical frailty.

And so the cycle continues…

The frustrating thing is that it keeps happening, not just with the Tracy Andersons of the world but with people who should know better. Just the other day I posted a link on the blog’s Facebook page to a status from Tara at Sweat Like a Pig, in which she called out a popular male trainer for posting the following:

“An upper body only day is a waste for the ladies. What girl do you know has a burning desire to spend 45 minutes pumping up her traps, lats and guns? None I know.”

Lats, traps, guns: all of the muscles used in pull-ups.  And a pretty prominent authority in the fitness community saying that he knows of no women who want to work these muscle groups!  I’m sure that he has been hearing this from plenty of women (because what woman who lifts hasn’t heard the Greek chorus of gender police anxiously warning us not to “bulk up” or to let themselves get “too big” in case we start “looking like a man”), but rather than using his position as an authority to correct his clients, he in turn gets on his blog and writes that women shouldn’t bother with upper-body only training days.

And so the cycle continues…

If we want to know what women are truly capable of, we have got to stop with this bullshit that says physical strength and its signifiers will somehow diminish a woman’s beauty and femininity.  (Ideally it would be nice if we could stop acting as though beauty and femininity are the only things women have to offer the world, but baby steps, yo. Baby steps.) This idea that upper body strength is reserved only for men, and that women shouldn’t dare investigate it for fear of blurring the supposedly rock-solid gender binary (seriously, for something that is supposedly so deeply ingrained in nature, it sure does require a lot of hard work and effort to keep it in place), is ridiculous.

Right now we live in a world where women hear that muscular arms are gross, that we shouldn’t lift weights in case we get too big, that we should only do exercises to elongate our muscles, that we should never eat anything that isn’t a salad, or if we do eat cheeseburgers and steaks, we should make sure we never weigh more than 120 pounds.  And then that same culture turns around and says, “Ha! We told you you were weak! This is why you shouldn’t be allowed to do anything but have babies and make sandwiches.”  There is simply no way to win this game, which is why I – and lots of other women – find it easier just to opt out and do our own thing.

So until the words “but I might bulk up!” pass a woman’s lips for the last time upon seeing a barbell, I’ll be taking the bleating about women’s supposed physical weakness with a kettlebell-sized grain of salt.

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71 responses to “Women’s difficulty with pull-ups is about more than biology

  1. Great post Caitlin…I think so much of mainstream health news (and esp. the NYTs) consists of stories and headlines stating what they think people want to hear vs. what is really true (less exercise is fine! don’t stretch, you don’t need it! women can’t do pull ups so don’t try!) I’m living proof of what you describe: I was not able to do them at first because it never crossed my mind to try–but I started, then around my 3 1/2-4 month mark of strength training, 3 days/week, I have been able to do them. Not fast. Not too many. Probably not the best form. But I can. And I’m 44….it just takes will to try. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Most of the female clients I have (I make a good majority of them practice pull-ups with band assistance) are actually thrilled about the prospect of being able to do a pull-up.

    Even women I have that are afraid of bench press (because they fear getting huge arms) are typically okay with pull-ups. This doesn’t mean that they don’t express disbelief when I tell them we’re going to work up to one. Most of the time I get a “oh I could never do that.” There’s a little fear, a little nervousness, but underneath it you can just see that hope, that small little thought in the back of their head “it’s possible that I could actually do one of those?”

    And then when they finally try one with the band, the excitement gets loose. Now that they’ve done the movement itself, they see the clear path of pull-up domination laid out in front of them. It’s pretty awesome.

    ….Uhhhh…moral of the story being that women can totally do pull-ups and most don’t even see it as a hurly burly manly bulky exercise. I can’t think of many other exercises my clients feel more empowered completing than a good old pull-up.

    • I can totally see how your clients would be excited about that. When I did my first chin-up, I actually jumped up and down and clapped my hands with excitement. Once you feel how your muscles work to bring you up and over the bar…it’s pretty awesome.

  3. I’ve been powerlifting for nearly 5 years and I attempted pullups for only the first time yesterday (I couldn’t do them). Why haven’t I trained them before? Honestly, because my coach hasn’t put them on my program before. Not because he thinks women shouldn’t do them – I follow the same programs my male squadmates do, and we just didn’t do pullups before. I train bench & accessory stuff at least twice a week, just not pullups.

    And I’m someone who WANTS to be bulky :-)

    I guess I’m going to have to start doing them more often, if my coach is putting them into my programs now. Maybe they just don’t feature so much in powerlifting programs? (We do a sort of mix of 5/3/1, Westside & EliteFTS), but coach does all our programming for us.

    • You’re right, the majority of powerlifting programs don’t have pull-ups built into them. Mostly because the programs will kind of leave assistance exercises up to you. The assistance you do is based on your particular weaknesses, typically. But there are tons of articles on T-nation about the merits of adding in pull-ups precisely because they don’t seem to be done too frequently.

      As well, there are plenty of powerlifters in the superheavy weight class that likely can’t do enough pull-ups to warrant putting it down as an assistance exercise option. And when you’re training in groups, it’s easier to program in dumbbell rows than trying to figure out the band assistance level everyone in the group needs to get 3×8 pull-ups.

      P.S. Super jealous of your getting to train under a coach with a group!

      • Thanks, but TBH no need to be jealous, it was an accident ;-) I just happened to sign up at a gym (as someone who’d never exercised before) where that’s all they offer!!

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  5. Great post. I (of course) love your social analysis so much and your reference to Dowling’s The Frailty Myth. When we’re so discouraged from training hard by the ungrounded fear of bulking up, which is instilled in us from a young age by a barrage of cultural messaging that comes at us from all directions, and then judged as weak because (surprise surprise) we’re not training to be strong in that way–well, it’s just another version of the double-bind. Why don’t we read more about the women who, with proper training, were able to do 8-12 pull-ups (and probably didn’t end up looking like the incredible hulk in the process). You put it so well. Thanks for writing this. p.s. I LOVE upper body days, always have.

  6. Great post as always, and thanks for the mention. I’ve managed to get almost all of my female clients doing pull-ups. It can be done with the right training and it is sexy and empowering when they finally do something they’ve always thought they could never do. Lately I’ve been focusing more on my upper body strength as there’s nothing cooler than pressing more than the guy next to you (in a serious weight lifting gym, no less).

    My training partner is the strongest woman I have ever met. She can deadlift 180kg, squat 155kg and overhead press 70kg. Yet she can’t do a single pull-up. Not even half a pull-up. Does that make her weak? Absolutely not. There are certainly reasons why someone might find it difficult to do a pull-up, but by no means is it based on gender.

  7. You’re my sister from another mister. :-)
    So glad there other women out there putting out good health and fitness info and challenging the misconceptions and stereotypes out there.

  8. I read the Washington Post article a couple days ago … and liked it. Yes, it comes across as sexist … but the media is basically just commenting on women *wanting* to join the military and wanting to prove they’re capable of fulfilling the requirements (while slapping on an attention-grabbing headline to pull interest … and clicks). Besides, there are some great quotes in there that tell me I CAN do a pull-up if I train for it. What’s not to like about that?

    The uber-sensitivity to genderism, racism, obesism, and every other -ism is, itself, a cultural phenomenon. And, frankly, it’s exhausting. As a result of our collective focus on wrongdoing, I now feel more anxiety over NOT participating in the public condemnation of all protected-group slights than I would feel by participating in a male-dominated career/sport/hobby.

    This phenomenon is clearly a result of our generation’s elementary education in Title 9 and the Civil Rights Era and other themes of equality. Those themes were well-intentioned (and much-needed). Times have changed, though. No longer does “not speaking up” equal acceptance. Attention has been brought. We all know that judgment and exclusion are wrong. What will really lead to change is: less talking, more doing. Breaking those boundaries with our actions and our participation.

    Are we very surprised that some people still see women as weaker than men? No. Should we respond to these with a battle-cry and a call to arms? Probably not. Who cares? Things have been worse. Parents and grandparents can tell you horrible stories of how women were treated at work, each and every day. We should be aware that things don’t change rapidly. There are still some horrifying, “This is America?” civil rights transgressions in many parts of the country. Do the majority of Americans wish to return to that part of our history? No. We have learned from those experiences and we’ve progressed.

    You can shame a culture into change, but don’t set your hopes on trying to pull every individual along with you. They’ll fight ever harder to prove that their perspective is still valid. Personally, I believe that maybe we shouldn’t waste our energy taking every offender to task. Instead, show them what they’re missing out on by not adapting like the rest of the world.

    Like this! Here’s a better article – on what women can do, and have been doing! This is hope and hope is how we make progress. http://www.womensadventuremagazine.com/blog/top-ten-adventurous-women-2013/

    ** I love your articles and YOU! I think that you, personally, are doing a fantastic job of the “doing” part of making changes in the way society sees female athletes, and female roles in general. I always read your articles through to the bottom because you write so well (even when they’re about topics like cycling or triathlons – not my primary interest.) I am a dabbler in Crossfit (working toward my own pull-ups) and a wannabe pilot – an industry where only 6% of pilots are female like me. I hate to throw any negativity on what you’re doing, but I felt the need to comment because this is an example of what I see being expressed in our culture and I disagree with this method of exacting change. Keep posting! I’ll read it all.

  9. I *really* want to be able to because I hate not being able to do something. I didn’t get around to it last year, but this is the year, dodgy shoulder permitting! Actually, I’d take a chin up to be honest.

  10. as an ex-gymnast we had to do insane workouts like 50 pull-ups in a row, handstand push-ups etc. so i have always loved doing conditioning exercises especially for upper body and i have rarely touched a barbell. i also was on the university rowing team, where again upper body strength building was emphasized. So yes, i have a very strong upper body and can do pullups. It does amaze me how often my arms/upper body get pointed out as looking “crazy big” or “huge arms” or guys like to say how they are scared of me and my huge biceps…to the point where i have almost always worn long-sleeved shirts to cover up. I am proud of my strength, and yes, i can do pull-ups (because i have spent a life training them), and i love that i can lift heavy things etc., but it has taken time to get over all the negative attention from both guys and girls about my muscles. It has always amazed me as we would as a society never go to someone who is really skinny and say “wow, you are soooo skinny”. I’m a shy, introvert and as much as i love my natural strength, i don’t feel comfortable walking around in tank tops as i get so many stares and comments, which is a shame. maybe one day more girls will be rocking strong arms and it wont seem so strange and different.

    • I totally get what you mean about the self-consciousness of your own muscle. When I was a teenager, I had quite prominent stomach muscles (I was much fitter then than I am now!). I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable about getting changed for P.E. because my stomach looked so different from everyone else’s, and the other girls would comment – usually not negatively, stuff like “wow, look, Nicola’s got a six-pack”, and at least once “is it hard? can I touch it?” In a way I didn’t mind because I was proud of how my body looked – it was a manifestation of how far I could run and how many sit-ups I could do, after all! But at the same time it was weird having it pointed out that my body was an anomaly.

    • Kerry Lee, I totally relate. I am proud of my strength and enjoy lifting weights, doing pull-ups, etc. However, I’m on the shy side as well and I’m also self-conscious when it comes to my arms. I hate that I do it, but whenever I wear short sleeve shirts, I worry if the sleeves are short enough to see my muscles. I’ve purposely shopped for shirts with longer sleeves so I don’t have to worry about it. I wish I could get over it, but I don’t like the attention either.

    • Kerry Lee, that one day is now. Just adjust your mindset and internal filter. All I really remember are the compliments on my muscles. Anything else is water off a duck’s back. It actually makes me chuffed that I occasionally stand out. Can I ask, did you ever master the mystical one-hand chin-up?

  11. I’d love to be able to do pull ups and know I could if I actually trained for them! However, my training is more aimed to be fit for roller derby so I’m not concentrating on lifting weights too much. Although I might be missing a trick by doing so. :)
    Screw everyone’s goddamn “beauty standards” and screw everyone who thinks women can’t/shouldnt do something!

    • I hear you. My progress on pull-ups stopped when I started focusing my training for my upcoming marathon. If someone can figure out a way to keep making strength gains while training for long-distance endurance events, I’m all ears/eyes/whatever!

      • It’s true, the vast majority of women avoid the weights room and are often glued to the treadmill. Usually I am the only woman in the weights area. I am 5.4 and a size 6 with a body fat level of around 18%. I am trying to put on more muscle, I eat well and never starve but it’s sooo slow. Its almost impossible for women to end up “bulky” without pharmaceutical help.
        when I first started trying to do pull ups I could only hold on and could not do a single one without the assistance band. Now, I can do about 5 chin ups and 3 pull ups, my arms are long so I guess that puts me at a disadvantage. I can do 10 parallel dips though.

  12. There are some ridiculous quotes I would like to pull from that article “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups”. The first one is this little nugget: “So no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull-up tests. .” I would like to talk about this AS A WOMAN who is able to do at least 10 pull-ups in a row (and over that number for reverse-grip chin-ups). MY fiancé and I work out together 5 days a week, so we are a bit extreme but I had never been able to do a pull-up in my life so it was my goal to be able to crush them. This quote that no matter how a fit woman is, we are far worse at pull-ups blows my mind because I can actually do MORE pull-ups that some of the dudes in the gym!
    Crap like this is why I’ve pretty much stopped participating in that part of society ;) BUT I will tell you that crap like this is what fuels my art and makes it have more meaning- because it’s something that fires me up just like it fires you up, and so many other women. Rock on girl, I’m glad I found your blog!

  13. I was thinking about skipping Stage 6 of NRoL4W, which is focused on pull-ups, but I think you’ve just changed my mind. :)

    I figured going into lifting that I would be good at squats and not so good at everything else (because lady body, right?) but it turns out that I’ve improved my upper body strength by great leaps and I have impressive strength there that I never dreamed I’d develop.

    It makes me so angry when “everyone knows” keeps people from working towards fulfilling their potential.

    • Right! It’s like it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy! I understand why people make generalizations about the world, but the problem is that by allowing those generalizations to set your self-definition, you lose out on finding just what it is you are capable of.

      Also, not surprised you’d be killing it with the upper-body stuff. I look forward to hearing about how Stage 6 goes!

  14. If an alien were to land on earth it would probably conclude that the feminine ideal is extreme weakness, frailty, flab with zero muscle with the ultimate goal of broken hips, hunched backs and disability in old age. Just about all of my mum’s peers, in their 70s and 80s, have had broken hips, ankles and a laundry list of other medical conditions that would have been preventable with strength training and proper nutrition.

    I have tried to coax my mum into exercise and a healthier lifestyle but to no avail. She has osteoporosis, hypertension, high blood pressure, aches and pains. She is convinced that I am harming myself with weight training, typical attitude of women her generation/culture. It seems that to them strength and good health are an evil and frailty and disease are age appropriate. Oh well, one can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink.

    That’s why I vowed never to end up like my mother.

    • It’s unfortunate that your mother has that attitude, especially since it has been shown time and time again that the best treatments for many of her conditions is physical activity, including weight-bearing resistance training. Plus there’s also a lot of research out there that shows regular physical activity can slow the pace of aging. I feel like I see proof of this all the time when I’m out racing and I see all of these really energetic, youthful looking people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

    • My mom is convinced I’m going to get arthritis at a young age. Maybe she’s right, but even if I am taking on that risk I am also minimizing my risk of osteoporosis. You make choices with everything you do, or don’t do, with your body.

  15. I’m a fairly young women who has no qualms about “bulking up”- and I’m also one of the few women who DOES bulk up. Even running on flat ground adds inches to my calves. I’ve done p90x and worked up to using 20 lb dumbells from 8 lb dumbells, and used up to 50 lbs for some chest exercises before I set weight training aside in order to train for a 5K.
    I still, despite devoting days to arms, back, biceps, and triceps for months on end, cannot do a pullup. I have a friend who does crossfit, squatting and powercleaning more than her own bodyweight. She also had great difficult with pullups, training for more than year just to achieve ONE pullup. What do we have in common? We’re both short and curvy, with wide hips and, in my case, a full chest. Perhaps a low center of gravity is at fault? For a lot of women, perhaps the training programs they’re using just aren’t long enough.
    I find it VERY condescending that you’re assuming some sort of mental block. For a feminist, that seems to display a rather low opinion of women, especially women who are specifically attempting to achieve a stereotypically masculine feat in a stereotypically masculine career field. Perhaps I’m taking this rather personally, but after months of dangling from a bar it’s galling to be told that it’s all in my head.

    • Hey, I’m sorry if this came across as condescending. That was not my intention. Rather I was hoping to shed some light on some reasons why more than half of the female Marines failed the pull-up standard that have less to do with their supposed physical inferiority and more to do with the kind of culture in which all of us are raised. If anything, I think that those people who are making the argument that the failure of 55 percent of female Marines to meet the standard is proof of women’s innate physical weakness are the ones being condescending. However, I can see how you would take it that way.

      I’ve heard from a few people who have been involved with training Marine recruits and they have said 1. that the program is not sufficient at helping women reach their goals and 2. that a lot of the women, despite their passion for succeeding in a male-dominated environment, are still subject to and still experience a lot of the same internal conflicts about their bodies that I wrote about in this post.

      Again, I’m sorry to have caused offense. Not my intention at all.

  16. Loved this post. Last year, one of the guys I was living with had a pull-up bar. One time when he was working out in his room, I asked if I could try a pull-up and managed two (that kind of training isn’t usually part of my normal workout). He was really surprised that I could do them, and I was kind of surprised that he was surprised.

  17. Loved this article. I rock climb so have to train upper body pretty hard. I’m naturally very slight – 5’3”, size 6 and don’t put on muscle that well but I worked up over 6 months or so to be able to do 6 reasonable chin ups and 3 reasonable pull ups. I think I could do more if my life allowed me to train more! Most of the guys I know find it kinda surprising at first but think it’s cool that a ‘girly looking’ blonde can and does do pull ups. (I didn’t bulk up masses, but do sweat and strain a lot and go very red in the process though!)

    Yes, I find pull ups harder than most ‘fit’ men I know, but some men I know are so heavily muscular they can only do 5-10 pull ups anyway. I think my light frame helps as I don’t have big boobs or hips to lift, also the motivation that I’m training to do the sport I love. I know a few other girls that climb that also do a lot of pull-up training, similar build to me.

    I think people with different body shapes will find pull ups more or less easy – women I know of my approximate stature who put on muscle better than me can do more pull-ups than me. But I also see masses of women at the gym totally ignore the weights/pull up bars (maybe for fear of ‘bulking up?’) and I think that’s a huge shame, everyone can improve their strength and if you assist with a resistance band most ‘fit’ people could do a few pull-ups or chin-ups. It’s actually useful if life to be able to lift things/move your body weight, plus great in case you ever get caught in a blockbuster-style cliff hanging scenario where you have to pull yourself back onto the cliff/skyscraper/helicopter by your fingertips!

  18. How odd. I’ve been able to do pull-ups since…um, i think i played around on monkey bars and climbed trees…so a little kid? How many I can do has changed depending on my lifestyle. Just a few nights ago I was hanging out on the porch with someone and started doing pull ups on a rafter for fun. She was amazed I could do them because she’d “never me a woman who can do pull ups!” Weird.

    To note: the only “exercise” I do these days is farm work…which, to be honest, is sometimes more of a work out than going to the gym. Stronger than I’ve ever been.

  19. I agree with you! Women are just not doing pull ups as part of their training routine, why would we all of a sudden be able to do three? (even though three seems like a low number, pull ups are hard for everyone). We may be able to do a hundred squats and hundreds of sit ups, but pull ups are just not on our lexicon. I know that with proper training it’s easily doable, we just need the time (as men do) to get there.

  20. At 40, I have discovered the joys and triumphs of rowing, which is also a “macho” sport, LOVE feeling like a bad ass and, while I don’t have “guns” yet, I do have “pistols.” I also have tons of new found confidence in my strength, which is just awesome!

  21. Plus – I think we should all learn to love and embrace our muscles as we’ve worked for them and they show our strength! I love the muscle tone I have, I want to get more defined muscles and am inspired by the gorgeous strong women out there, check out some female ‘rock stars’ like http://www.sasha-digiulian.com/. (Like you said in the article we have more to offer the world than beauty and femininity but baby steps…)

    I was initially really scared of entering the ‘man’s section’ of the gym and thought they’d look down on me for not being able to lift as much as them. I have not found this to be the case, I’ve had no issues and some guys have been really nice, showing me how to use certain equipment etc. Maybe the ‘fear of the unknown’ and ‘fear of being laughed at’ are other factors why women don’t train in this way, not just fear of bulking up?

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  23. Testosterone is a steroidal hormone that allows an increase in muscle mass. Men have more of it than women. Case closed.

    Saying that women are physically capable of becoming just as strong as a man is fine, because it’s true. But saying that it’s just as easy is pure ignorance. It’s a scientific fact that if a man and a woman with the same physical characteristics (strength, body build, etc.) did the EXACT same workout routine the EXACT same way, the man would develop quicker due to the higher levels of testosterone.

    • Check it out – I actually agree with you. Nowhere in my post did I say that it would be just as easy, and in fact I said the following:

      Sure, biology and physiology may have combined forces to make them more difficult for us, but just because it’s more difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth pursuing.

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that I think it should be just as easy, because I never said any such thing.

    • Meh, it’s like if we constantly told older people that they can’t become as strong as younger people because with all other things equal, they have more growth hormone. Who cares? It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do anything, there are other factors to consider. Also some men have less testosterone than women, or their bodies can’t use it properly, and vice-versa and I don’t think it’s right telling them they’re not really men/women.

  24. Is there a reason why the training regimens can’t be different for both sexes? Strength bases for men and agility bases for women seem to work well, especially when you look at Ninja Warrior for example.

    (FYI I am a male with an extremely small frame with little room for strength, as my specialty is concept and design, strength is a small hindrance, many women are stronger than I am.)

    • I honestly don’t know, and any answer I give would be straight up talking out of my ass, because I have no experience with anything that has to do with the military, so I don’t know if having women do one regimen and men doing another one would cause issues. I would think, though, that divvying up agility/strength groups based on gender would run the risk of overlooking someone like yourself, who may not be as physically strong as some women but who has a build that is well-suited for agility.

      I do think agility is often underrated as a marker of fitness, and that a lot of emphasis is put on strength and endurance while ignoring all of the other dimensions of fitness/physical abilities. Whenever I do exercises aimed at improving agility, I notice two things: 1. that they tend to be really enjoyable and 2. that I suck at them. :)

  25. Excellent analysis, again! As a swimmer I am very insulted by that “trainer’s” comment. Without my “lats, traps and guns” I’d be dead in the water! Keep up the great posts!

  26. GREAT post. A friend directed me to this post after I wrote one along the same lines. It’s so nice to read about so many other women who feel the same way. I’ve learned that it’s best not to read the comments following any news article, so it’s nice to be able to read all of the comments here from much wiser people. :) I will have to check out more of your past posts now!

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  29. I just got around to reading this article this afternoon and I had just performed my first full pull up this morning! I only had to “train” for a week (I’ve been strength training for the past year–just hammer curls, overhead presses and the like; nothing too tough) by holding myself up for 5 counts for multiple reps and then jumping up and slowly lowering myself down. Then, I just got up the courage to try a real full fledged pull up and succeeded! Now, I am a petite, small build gal and if I can do it, then any woman can train to do them. The main reason that I wanted to start doing pull ups is to help build up my lat/back muscles. Toned is sexy! Thanks for the great article.

  30. One of the gyms in my city had a chin-up challenge specifically for women this summer. The program focused on training the muscles necessary for a chin-up. I can do those just fine, but I’m still working on the pull ups. Can’t wait for the day I write a blog post about finally conquering them.

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  33. I came across your post and absolutely loved it. I couldn’t agree more with it. Like so many things the majority of women are never trained to do this sort of thing nor are they encouraged. So why is it then that people are surprised when women can’t do them? Last year I did my first, assisted pull up with a band and the feeling I had was amazing. Being able to do a pull up on my own has now become one of my goals.

    Thank you for writing about this though. It helped to shed light on this issue and let us know that we’re not alone for wanting to do a pull up or any other fitness goals we may have.

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  35. Em-passionate post Caitlin. I utterly love, admire and respect physically strong, capable women. I have never really understood why a woman would inhibit her ability to build strength just to stay lithe and skinny. Skinny isn’t useful. Skinny isn’t necessarily healthy. It’s kickass that you are able to do chin-ups! Though I feel the best way to counter all these claims that women are weak is to actually walk the walk and be all bite rather than just bark. I feel the best way to make your feelings heard is to lead by example! If you are not that muscly Caitlin, make yourself stronger! If you can’t do pull ups, actually train to achieve that! Do it for your fellow women and be a proud representation of your gender! Any good woman worth her salt is behind you and believes in you! Walk the walk :)

    • I hear you, and I’m working on it! It’s difficult for me to really build upper body strength right now as I am so focused on training for an ultra, but I do a lot of upper body work aimed at becoming stronger and eventually doing overhand pullups. It will happen!

      Thanks for the comment!

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  37. Keep going on that Caitlin. Just think pull those elbows downwards powerfully.
    As to the discussion, you don’t have to do pull-ups. But if someone asks why I want to pull my chin up over the bar I answer, “because it’s there” – ha. Also I don’t like this grouping, “women can’t do this”, “men can do that”. Statistically things like can usually be modelled by a bell curve. Putting these graphs together we would see some men weaker than the average woman and some women stronger than the average man (modesty prevents me from saying who ;) ). I am lucky enough to be able to do many pull-ups (genetics plus training). Unlike the stereotype sketched out for female physical ability my legs are strong but my upper body is bloody strong. I love the feeling of my body surging upwards purely under the power of my arms. Now I do occasionally flick through a bodybuilding magazine and I remember one off-season male bodybuilder could not complete a pull-up. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

    • I will do that next time I hit the gym. I’ve been really working hard at the pull-up over the last few months, and I can do a band-assisted one but that’s about it. It will happen, though. I have faith.

      The thing I remember most about being able to do chin-ups was how much core strength was involved. I try to remember that when I do my pull-ups/chin-ups workout instead of just expecting my arms to do all the work.

  38. Caitlin, remember progress is usually not linear but sometimes happens in quantum leaps. So you suddenly might find you can pull yourself up. It’s very satisfying to find what was once hard now easy. Finding the balance between too much or too little, too light or too heavy, too often or too seldom in training is an art that takes experience to acquire. I’m still working on it. An intelligent approach will surpass a grunt and strain approach.

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  40. Hah! What a bunch of crap! So basically you are saying that the reason that most women in the military of the USA are unable to do even 3 pullups is because society glamorizes that they are weak? Rather, if you as a woman see another woman portrayed as weak on TV ext, what do you do? Do you start working out in order to gain more strength or do you feel sorry for yourself and then watch some Oprah where she talks about “strong women”?
    But even if most women on TV are shown as weak, isn’t this just a reflection of real life? A man’s brain make him more aggressive than a woman (not more violent) and men have generally larger bodies and more muscles. If you see a monster movie or a Zombie movie, men react aggressively because that is how they are wired and they have a higher chance when fighting due to their strength. On movies where humankind are pitched against such ridiculous threats as a viewer we have a hard enough time to suspend disbelief even when we see men survive “against all odds”. Put a woman into the role as the “asskicking” hero and all of a sudden the already cheesy movie becomes as ridiculous as the threat the humans are facing. No matter how much you suspend disbelief, there is no way in hell that a woman would be able to pull off even half of the ridiculous feats that men are able to pull off when they are forced to do so. Bare in mind, I’m not saying that such women could not work in movies, but when they do they aren’t actually women anymore, they are superheros/super beings and can no longer be considered humans anymore. As such it is no longer a monster/zombie movie, but a movie about superhumans. So when making a movie that wants to keep at least some amount of realism, then you can’t recast women as super strong asskickers unless it is “that kind” of a movie.
    But I digress. You article was about the pull ups.
    Thing is, a woman COULD be trained to do 3 pull ups, maybe even 10 pull ups… but that still makes them comparatively weak. If a man and a woman received the same training he would still be stronger than her (unless the woman in question was that superhuman russian girl).
    So women are generally weaker than men and if they can’t do pull ups it isn’t because of society, it is because they are lazy.

    • I write a post just talking about women and pull-ups and you respond with a rambling bit of nonsense that is two-thirds comprised of dribbles about movies, which – as I last checked – are fiction? Come back when you are capable of a) reading my post, b) responding to the content of said post and c) discerning the difference between reality and fiction.

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  42. I remember when I was in high school PE we had occasional tests of our strength and athletic ability, and at the time, even when I had very little knowledge of physical fitness, I thought it was bananas that we had to improve our running a mile time or our ability to do three pull-ups when our actual PE activities weren’t geared toward increasing our fitness at all. No regular running. No weight training whatsoever. But standing around on a soccer, football, or softball field for most of the hour was somehow supposed to increase our performance in actual fitness.

    How many of these recruits are getting the opportunity to increase their strength to meet these goals? My sister was in bootcamp years ago. She did a lot of running in combat boots, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning doing weight training.

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