Why women can’t do pull-ups

The headline on the New York Times Well blog was too provocative to ignore: Why women can’t do pull-ups. Though I count myself among the many women (and people!) in this world who find pull-ups more challenging than other movements that test strength and fitness, my defenses went up immediately. Says who? They can, too! I’ll show you some pull-ups!

But when I read the piece, I ended up feeling not defensive, but enlightened.

It’s based on a study from the University of Dayton in which researchers found 17 normal-weight women who could not do a single overhand pull-up. They trained the women for three days a week for three months, working to strengthen their biceps and latissimus dorsi muscles. From the story:

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.

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.

Vanderburgh [a head researcher] 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.

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.”

When I read this, the biggest light bulb went on in my head. It’s not a lack of upper-body strength, or a lack of grip strength, or anything except for my crazy-long monkey arms making pull-ups difficult!

How long are my crazy-long monkey arms, you ask? In middle-school science class, we did an experiment meant to show how symmetrical the human body is, comparing our height to our (supposedly equal) wingspan. No matter how many times my classmates measured me on the butcher paper, my wingspan was a good two or three inches longer than my height. Also in middle school, I always failed dress-code tests that mandated that your shorts or skirt were two inches longer than the bottom of your fingertips. My fingertips almost touch my knees, people! I can still remember poor Mr. Thorne judging the appropriateness of a pair of (totally tame) shorts using those standards, and instead narrowing his eyes in confusion at how long my arms extended down my legs.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that before you write yourself off for a certain activity, you should be aware that we all have these weird quirks that give us advantages or disadvantages depending on the activity, and that it’s less important to understand them than it is to simply accept them and work around them. For me, that means buying a pull-up band, which makes it possible to crank out more than one pull-up at a time on my extra-long pipe cleaners. It also means rejoicing in the fact that when I swim, I’ve got a few inches on the competition in each stroke—every cloud has a silver lining, right?

Are pull-ups a challenge for you, or are you one of those short, muscled powerhouses able to bang out 10 at a time?

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The editor is so sorry, but she really can't bring herself to post a photo depicting her crazy-long monkey arms. You'll just have to do a pull-up workout with her to see for yourself.]

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Why women can’t do pull-ups

  1. Ann

    Thanks so much for posting this. I have only been able to eek out one pull up and I was pretty psyched about it. But my son who is really strong also struggles with pull ups. This was very enlightening.

  2. Sigh. And here I thought I was just strong. Now I know the harsh truth.
    Crazy-long monkey arms, meet Tyrannosaurus Rex Arms. I can hardly do some of the yoga poses because my arms WON’T reach without contorting other things into the totally wrong position.
    But I can do pullups. And apparently, I can wear super short skirts and justify it by pointing out that the hem is much longer than my fingertips.

    • SO FUNNY! As you can imagine, yoga is a breeze for me, thanks both to the aforementioned crazy-long monkey arms and my natural hyperflexibility. Between the two of us, you have a total of one normal athlete (and one appropriately dressed middle-schooler).

  3. I can’t do a pull-up unless I’m on the machine that helps you with the weighted knee thing. Or maybe I have monkey arms too.

  4. chasingthekenyans

    i could never do pullups. then i started crossfitting. now i can knock them out with the smallest assistance band and even do 2 unassisted! :) it feels like such an accomplishment!

  5. whitneypipkin

    Ha! So that explains why this guy at the gym said “I thought girls couldn’t do those” when he saw me doing pull-ups on Saturday. I guess I’m a mutant? (Psst, If you want to ease your way in, underhand pull-ups are an equally impressive way to start and allow the biceps to pull some weight!)

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