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Women Can Do Pull-ups

The New York Times recently posted an article entitled Why Women Can’t Do Pull-ups (see here). In the short time since, I’ve already received emails from women asking for upper body alternatives to pull-ups. Most seem to be women who can’t currently perform pull-ups that were previously working towards them. They now question whether their efforts have been wasted based on the ideas presented within the NY Times article.

Such a response is unfortunate as I have personally helped many women work from zero pull-ups to several clean reps. Pull-ups are more than possible for men and women if they train properly for the exercise and remain consistent with their efforts. I am not suggesting that it is easy to perform pull-ups (for anyone), but that doesn’t mean the exercise should be dismissed entirely.

Unfortunately, the world seems to become softer each day. If something is hard, someone will surely tell you to avoid it. Pull-ups are the latest victim. Hopefully the videos below will help sway those who believe the bar is beyond them. As you can see, women performing pull-ups are not nearly as uncommon as some would like you to believe.

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If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves. – Thomas Edison

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25 comments

25 Comments so far

  1. Jeffrey October 26th, 2012 9:54 am

    Great that they didn’t train doing pullups!

  2. Above the Bar October 26th, 2012 9:57 am

    From the article:

    “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.”

    1.The first goal should be an underhand or neutral grip pullup, not the most the difficult one, which is the overhand pullup.
    2.In my opinion, additional isolation exercises, like curls won’t help much in pullups – especially when we’re talking about absolute novices who don’t have the basic coordination for the major muscle groups in the main exercise, which is the pullup in this case.
    3.Did they use progressive overload? For example, did they gradually steepen the angle on the incline pullups? Even one inch at a time? Or did they gradually increase the lat pulldown weights using microloading(if you can’t do one pullup, just hanging from a bar and trying to swing yourself up over and over again is VERY demanding for the CNS, the load is just too much and one ends up in an overtrained state).
    Many questions, but let’s just assume the training program probably sucked.
    3.I hope they didn’t train to failure… let alone three times a week.
    4.Three months is not that long time. This is the problem of our time, we must have everything right now and without perseverance.

    “But Vanderburgh notes that some men struggle, too, particularly those who are taller or bigger generally or have long arms.”

    I’m in the taller category, have long and not particularly strong arms(lol), yet weighted chin ups is my favourite exercise. It’s all about how thought and research along with trial and error you’re willing to put in it.

  3. Nedyalko Yankov October 26th, 2012 10:30 am

    ^ Even, if they had trained with pull-ups, I think their genes would get in the way somehow haha.

  4. Travis October 26th, 2012 10:53 am

    I’m 34 year old guy. Up until late last year, I never in my life could do pull-ups or climb a rope even though I could barbell row plenty of weight. With a combination of ‘greasing the groove’ and assistance bands, I can easily do sets of eight pullups today. Pullups require practice and patience.

  5. Javier October 26th, 2012 11:18 am

    Love the videos! Good thing these women didn’t see that article *first* they may not have attempted them. I found it funny that in the article they trained for a pullup test without doing pullups [smh]. The study showed how NOT to train someone to do pullups.

  6. Dennis Blair October 26th, 2012 1:59 pm

    Oh give me a break. What a ridiculous article (and study to boot). I have had plenty of female clients who couldn’t do a single pullup when we first started, but were able to do so after months of (as you stated) training PROPERLY. Articles like this make me angry. They suck out hope. Thanks for posting the videos showing how silly that article really is.

  7. Todd October 26th, 2012 2:01 pm

    What a sad article. Why should any conclusion be made from the fact that training improperly for something leaves you unable to do it? People should be encouraged, especially since the pullup is a low/zero cost, high efficiency exercise. It’s just another article on the heap discouraging women from any sort of strength training. Oh well (awesome videos!)

  8. Eric October 26th, 2012 2:14 pm

    Pullups are often neglected because they’re hard and difficult and a lot of people would rather focus on their strong points and feed their ego rather than focus on their weak points. Until the last few years I spent a lot of time doing pullups but I can say that what pulling movements I did helped me with this movement. I’m sure like anything the only way to get better doing pullups is to do pullups but various weight training pulling exercises probably helped me not be a total newbie to the bar. Doing dumbbell or barbell rows isn’t going to make you a pullup king but they can be used as assistance exercises. Probably better though to focus on rope climbing, double rope climbing, arms only rope climbing, actual pullups, weighted pullups, and even monkey bars and isometric pullups and hangs to improve pullups. Ironically handstand pushups will also improve pullups just as improving lat strength will improve your bench press. Superset handstand pushups and pullups for a great upperbody workout.

  9. Kevin October 26th, 2012 2:16 pm

    @Travis…How did you do it..what was your program?..How many reps sets and how many days a week did you do it? I have bands too and lift three times a week but just do not have a specific progressive chin up plan?..I’m 39 and 6’3 230 fairly low bodyfat @maybe 13% or so…

  10. wayne October 26th, 2012 11:04 pm

    Yet another reason I dont turn to the NYT for vaild information. “All the news that’s fit to print” indeed

  11. Goran October 26th, 2012 11:05 pm

    No one in article said women aren’t able to do pullups in general. It is just the article title. Someone pick a terrible and misleading title.

  12. Andy October 27th, 2012 3:02 am

    Curiously, the meat of the article supports a claim you often make, Ross, which is that a single exercise or measurement is not the same thing as being fit. Just as you have said, Tom Brady gets paid to win football games; how much he can bench press (or do chin ups) is secondary (if anyone cares at all!). But the article is poorly written, and the headline is needlessly discouraging.
    Thanks for your rebuttal and some great videos to boot! I’ll be sharing with all the women I know who are working hard and not afraid to set a high standard!!

  13. Eric October 27th, 2012 7:05 am

    Being proficient at one aspect of fitness or one exercise surely doesn’t mean one is fit. Surely, the gymnast who can do one arm pullups/chinups as easily as most people can do the two-arm version would be an example of one who is extremely fit. However, that same gymnast might struggle to run a mile in 7 minutes. If you want to be proficient at pullups, then do pullups. Start with negatives if you can’t do pullups. Forget the lat machine pulldowns or those silly assisted pullup/dip machines. Use your legs to kick up in the positive portion of the exercise and then lower slowly on the negative. If your short term goal is to improve your pullups then make your pullup training your priority which will mean neglecting some other forms of training while you attain that goal. I say use various grips, widths, and versions of the exercise right from the start so you’ll hit the muscles from all angles. Even if you find it impossible to perform the overhand version don’t just use the underhand grip or chinup version exclusively but use both versions and perform negatives, half-reps, or even quarter reps with the overhand version. Or even use isometric pullups for each section of the exercise, the top portion, mid-range, and bottom portion.

  14. Steve October 29th, 2012 8:39 am

    That article mentions, among other things, about the importance of “shorter stature” and having shorter arms. That may help, but to indicate that longer-limbed people can’t do pullups is ridiculous. I have very long arms (my armspan is greater than my height), yet I can go into the mid-30s with regular pullups, and can also do one-arm pullups.

  15. Eric October 29th, 2012 1:38 pm

    Vasily Alexeev, the great Soviet Olympic weightlifting gold medalist from the Seventies in the Superheavyweight division weighed well over 300lbs, but yet could do numerous pullups. If someone over 300lbs can perform multiple pullups there is no excuse for some of these guys in the 220-260lb range complaining about not being able to perform enough reps in the pullup exercise to make it productive. Of course you won’t be able to ever perform 10 or more reps of pullups if you never perform the exercise, no matter how much you use on the lat pulldown machine.

  16. [...] Questions Answered: Women Can Do Pull-Ups – Ross Enamait Kinesio Tape – Does it Work? – Running Physio Top Three Fitness Myths (That Must Die) [...]

  17. Framed prints October 30th, 2012 9:21 am

    I love this – there’s this patronising article, you respond – boom! – with loads of video evidence showing that they can!

  18. RossTraining.com Blog October 31st, 2012 7:42 am

    [...] week, we heard that women can’t do pull-ups (see here). Imagine how those who conducted that bogus study would respond to the video below. As stated [...]

  19. Leah October 31st, 2012 8:15 am

    I understand that women tend to have specific handicaps in our strength when compared with men, but I am kind of tired of articles like this (and even worse ones in women’s magazines), that generalize women’s capabilities. I think the reality is that differences in body type and proportions can play just as large of a role in our abilities as gender. I am a 22-year-old female, and I have at no time in my life (since I learned what a pull-up was) been UNABLE to do pull-ups. I’m certainly not as impressive as the women in the videos you posted (someday!), but even as a 4th-grader doing the presidential fitness test, I was able to bang out 4 pull-ups. Meanwhile, my own father has never been able to do even 2 or 3 pull-ups, even in his prime as a high school athlete.
    I guess my point here is, I wish the media would stop generalizing fitness capabilities by gender…

  20. Travis October 31st, 2012 9:25 am

    @Kevin, It wasn’t something that was directly part of a workout for a specific day. The key principles, as I understood them were (1) do them often and (2) don’t go to failure. The typical example for “greasing the groove” is to have a bar somewhere. Whenever you pass the bar, e.g. use get up to use the bathroom, get a drink, etc., do some pull-ups. The “do them often” is in the context of the day. In my case, starting out, it was a band looped over a bar that allowed me to to one solid pull-up and I was done. Sometimes it would be as little as 10 minutes until the next “set”, sometimes it would be a few hours. The key is practice and stay away from failure. @Eric’s mention of the lat pulldown is dead on. You have to practice pull ups. Rows and pulldowns are good, but there’s just something missing that keep them from directly translating to pull-ups.

  21. Kasdorf October 31st, 2012 10:02 pm

    I am 6’4″ 215 and I rep weighted chins with 2 plates. Eventually the most grueling sport known to man will be hugging contests….

  22. Blank Faceplate November 7th, 2012 7:52 am

    All of this, of course, assumes that pullups are a goal to chase. On the getting normal things done scale (carrying luggage, groceries, etc, or putting/retrieving heavy-ish things on high shelves, etc), pullups don’t rate very high IMO. They’re cool, and fun to do, but the number of times that specific skill has been of benefit to me over the past decade is easily counted on a single hand. Rowing strength, OTOH, has been invaluable frequently. Same goes for overhead strength and “back” strength (deadlifts, farmers walks, etc). I have to carry things and put them away frequently. I hardly ever climb trees, scale fences, etc.

    If you *want* to do pullups, don’t let some dumb article determine for you whether you are capable. If you don’t want to do them, or find them more trouble than they’re worth, don’t let common opinion among pullup aficionados convince you they’re more important than they are. Or put another way, know *why* you’re training a particular way. Usually, “because so-and-so said this is *the way* to get real-man strong” is a bad reason.

    Just my .02.

  23. Kar Wee November 7th, 2012 6:27 pm
  24. RossTraining.com Blog July 11th, 2013 6:18 am

    [...] for it. Perhaps the best way to highlight this point is by sharing examples. I’ve done so previously and will do so [...]

  25. [...] Questions Answered: Women Can Do Pull-Ups – Ross Enamait Kinesio Tape – Does it Work? – Running Physio Top Three Fitness Myths (That Must Die) [...]

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