Women Can’t Do Pull-ups… Right?

Originally Posted On October 26, 2012

Lately I have been seeing an article circling the internet about a study that was done with 17 average women who could not do a pull-up. They trained three times a week over the course of three months by doing modified pull-ups at an incline, lifted weights, and performed aerobic training to lower body fat. At the end of the three months, only 4 out of the 17 could perform a pull-up. It goes on to summarize that standards should be lowered and women should feel a sense of relief because it is most likely due to their lack of testosterone, higher body fat percentages, and lack of ease at building muscle that is to blame for their inability to do pull-ups.

After I got done shaking my head, rolling my eyes, and being irritated with the article as a whole, I decided to write about my opinion on the topic. Now I have no idea what their three workouts a week consisted of, but I will just make assumptions.

Reasons why these women could not perform pull-ups:

1. The Prescribed Workouts were Poorly Designed– I have no idea who wrote the training protocol and it may have been extremely difficult and well thought out, but I am assuming it wasn’t. First of all, there are many ways to modify a pull-up and they listed the one way they were modifying the exercise, but I am confused as to why they would repeatedly use the same modification instead of mixing it up at least every 3 weeks. Why not perform jumping negative pull-ups or band pull-ups which are probably the most common exercises for those who cannot perform pull-ups with their own bodyweight? I am also curious as to what other kind of weight lifting exercises they were doing. Were the exercises focused on strengthening the muscles that help in pulling up the body, were they lifting heavy weight with low reps, or were they lifting light weight and high reps (the less effective method)? Were they simply not doing enough work in general?  Were they performing full body movements like squats, deadlifts, or push presses which would help strengthen the lats, back, grip, and core? What about lat pulldowns or dumbbell rows?

2. Lack of Intensity– If the program was designed appropriately, then a big factor to consider is if the women didn’t have an understanding of the level of intensity that is required to make gains in three months time.  If they are unfamiliar to lifting heavy, not only would they have to adjust physically to the demand, but also mentally as well.

3.  Needed More Time– Going from zero pullups to 1 can take a lot of work and it is possible that these women simply needed to work for a longer period of time than prescribed.  It could possibly just take longer than three months for some of them to be able to perform a pull-up…and that could go for male or female.

4. Lack of Fat Loss- They never stated whether or not the 17 women lost body fat because if they didn’t, then even more reason why we should question whoever designed the training program for this study. First of all, they should be lifting heavy in order to try to increase muscle mass which helps burn more calories and increase their metabolism–and no they won’t put on so much muscle mass that it would hinder their ability to do a pull-up. Secondly, why would the women be doing aerobic exercise when they could be performing high intensity interval training (HIIT)? HIIT has been known to burn more calories for longer, increase metabolism, preserve muscle mass more so than aerobic, and is healthier for the body (less cortisol release–stress hormone).

5. Not Activating Appropriate Muscles– A pull-up engages the back muscles (lower and upper), abs, and arms. For those new to pull-ups, sometimes it is just the lack of understanding of how to engage the lats while trying to pull your chin over the bar, not to mention keeping a tight core.  After a lot of modified pull-ups (multiple different ways in a variety of rep/set ranges), their muscles will learn how to activate, eventually leading to strength gains and bodyweight pullups.


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