I’m a woman. I can do pull-ups.


There has been quite a bit of discussion on today’s article in NY Times, entitled “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-ups”. In the article, a research team trained 17  women for three months in an attempt to make them strong enough to do a single pull-up.

If we are being strict about definitions, pull-ups involve a wide overhand grip, with palms facing away, while chin-ups involve an underhand grip, with palms facing towards you. You can see me doing pull-ups in my recent application to the Epic Racing Arena.

The training included weights and cardio, as well as specific exercises, engaging the muscles working in a pull-up. On test day, only four women were able to do a single pull-up. At least that’s what the researchers said… “only” four women. The study’s conclusion was that doing pull-ups requires more than simple upper-body strength. Further, authors suggest that individuals who can do pull-ups are not only strong and lean, but also short – to decrease the length of the lever.

At 5’9, I am by no means short. I do have more upper body strength than an average woman, yet I have not always been able to do pull-ups. In fact, it was not until I could perform ten chin-ups with good form that I was finally able to squeak out one pull-up.

There is no doubt that men have an easier time with this particular exercise. You should see my baby brother banging these out. Zero effort, as he casually maintains conversation. Of course, men also have an easier time with push-ups, shoulder presses, planks, and even crow pose (see below). On average, men are stronger than women. On average, women are more flexible than men. I taught bootcamp and yoga to both men and women. There is no surprise there.
Women have a love-hate relationship with pull-ups. A special relationship that the guys don’t really understand. Like with chocolate…

Women love the idea of pull-ups, but hate the fact that they cannot do them. For women, pull-ups are elusive, pull-ups make bucket lists.”One day I’ll be able to do one”, we say wistfully, watching yet another guy (probably my little brother) crank out twenty.

We have our reasons too: My arms are too weak. (Probably. Easily fixed though).My butt is too big. (Probably not. Your butt is awesome.) Girls can’t do pull-ups. (Watch me). Girls are not supposed to do pull-ups. (Eff you).

I found the readers’ comments more interesting than the article itself.  Most agreed, that an article title, suggesting a particular group CANNOT do something is probably a bad idea. I’d like to see an article entitled “Why Men Cannot Take Care of Children”, and see how well that goes over. The scandalous nature of the title is intentional, of course, as here I am typing away… attention captured, heart rate raised.

CrossFit chicks seemed especially outraged at the suggestion. “I do 100 pull-ups before my paleo breakfast!”, they exclaimed. Given the emphasis CrossFit places on this one exercise, that is to be expected. Now, a minor (major?) correction… While I love Fran or Cindy once in a while… kipping pull-ups ARE not pull-ups. Sorry.

An actual pull-up requires a vertical pull, using the muscles of your arms and back. In a kipping pull-up, you swing the body to position it at such an angle, so as to introduce a horizontal pull, and therefore, make it easier. The proponents of a kipping pull-up would argue that it is more efficient for getting your chin above the bar. Ummm… sure. I sincerely hope that is not your main goal for doing pull-ups.

I loooooove kipping pull-ups. Probably, because I cannot do them. Seriously. I cannot figure out this damn hip swing. Elusive = attractive. See?

At the end of the day, if your goal is to do pull-ups, you have to train to do pull-ups. As I started incorporating pull-ups into my training, I was shocked to discover that I could no longer crank out as many chin-ups. Because I stopped doing chin-ups! 

And you have to do actual pull-ups. With a thick resistance band at first, with your hands shaking at first, with your elbows barely bending at first… And three months later, you may be able to do a pull-up. Or not. It may take longer than three months. So what? Do you want to cross the damn thing off your bucket list or not?

And here’s a pull-up.


Signing off,

Posted October 25, 2012

25 responses to “I’m a woman. I can do pull-ups.”

  1. Jean Snowden says:

    LOVE those shoulders, and the woman who worked hard to sculpt them!

  2. you are awesome! this is a great post, screw NYT for posting such an ignorant study. Clearly they didn’t train these women properly. Maybe they should have you train them and see what the results are after 3 months.

  3. Monica says:

    I saw the article too and wondered what exercises they were having them do. Our gym went band free for a couple months and members who didn’t have pull ups focus exclusively on active hangs and full ring rows. So many people were pushing out pull ups in two months.
    Big booties unite!

  4. Teresa Hoien says:

    Well said!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great post Solo. From your pic I can see ‘lats’ the way you do a perfect pull up.

  6. Dan Krueger says:

    Excellent post. My wife can do pull-ups 🙂

  7. Sean says:

    Hey! Great article! I can’t agree more with your over all point. Basically anyone can do pull ups with the right training. It’s in our DNA!

    Just wanted to share my opinion on the kipping pull up and Crossfit. I would say Crossfitters do sincerely want the most efficient way of getting their chin above the bar. As you know, Crossfit is about functionality and applicability. “Actual” pull ups lose functionality relative to a more efficient approach to the same task. Sure they will tone specific muscle groups more, if that’s what you want, but this is not what crossfit is about . When a more efficient appraoch is possbile, real-world applicability would dictate you use it.

    Also, why is efficiency something you sincerely hope is not a principal reason for doing a pull up? I’m actually curious what you would say is a valid reason for wanting to do pull ups? Just because it’s elusive? I would agrue the ability to move your body from point A to point B efficiently is a key and reasonable rationale for many people in their work out routines.

    That said, in Crossfit actual pull ups and wieghted pull ups are still recommended to build on a more efficient (useful) pull ups.



    • Solo says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Sean. As much as I love CrossFit, the one thing that I have an issue with is the overemphasis on number of reps in a limited amount of time. That automatically encourages emphasis on “efficiency”. E.g. if you see CrossFit burpees (they make me laugh), instead of having a good form push-up at the bottom, most simply collapse the chest to the floor. I guess you are right, and whatever your principal reason is to do a pull-up, it should be fine. Kips take away from the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing an actual pull=up though. 🙂

  8. Alex says:

    Great post!
    -little brother

  9. Aja says:

    Yes!! I am part of the cant-do-one-YET club, but you bet your booty my genders’ natural disinclination toward this exercise does not stop me from training like a beast – with resistance bands, negatives, etc. – all the damn time. Yeah, they may not come as easilyto us ladies, but that will just make the final victory (chin over bar!), that much sweeter!

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