re: Why Women Can’t Do Pull Ups, by the NY TimesBy
About a week or so ago the New York Times had written an article about why women can’t do pull ups. As you can imagine this put the fitness community in a bit of an uproar and before I write up my response here is the article in quotes.
(This column appears in the Oct. 28 issue of The New York Times Magazine.)
While the pull-up has been used by everyone from middle-school gym teachers to Marine drill instructors to measure fitness, the fact is that many fit people, particularly women, can’t do even one. To perform a pull-up, you place your hands on a raised bar using an overhand grip, arms fully extended and feet off the floor. (The same exercise, performed with an underhand grip, is often called a chin-up.) Using the muscles in your arms and back, you pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar. Then the body is lowered until the arms are straight, and the exercise is repeated. The Marines say a male recruit should be able to do at least 3 pull-ups or chin-ups, but women are not required to do them. In school, 14-year-old boys can earn the highest award on the government’s physical fitness test by doing 10 pull-ups or chin-ups: for 14-year-old girls, it’s 2.
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.
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.
“We honestly thought we could get everyone to do one,” said Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, and an author of the study. But Vanderburgh 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. During training, because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men, Vanderburgh explained. In addition, they can’t lose as much fat. Men can conceivably get to 4 percent body fat; women typically bottom out at more than 10 percent.
So no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull-up tests. But 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. I look at a volleyball player and wouldn’t expect her to be able to do a pull-up, but I know she’s fit.”
Ok now that you’ve read that, nothing taken out of context since I pretty much just copied and pasted the article and put it into that block quote thingie on wordpress allow me to show you the world I come from before speaking on theirs.
(the epicness of Melody made it here once again)
Now I’d like to point something out, yes I am aware that women do generally have a harder time then men and that some people are better built for certain things then others. Me being 5’7 am unlikely to be playing pro basketball anytime soon for example…but that is neither here nor there.
First I am aware that they are probably trying to generate a bit of controversy with their title (and hey I am no stranger to controversy after all if you’ve followed me for any reasonable amount of time), but I’d like to point out a couple flaws that I saw in the article…I’m not in the mood right now to go digging for the exact studies so I’ll just take her word for it.
Before I proceed any further the official stance of StrongFirst™ is that we aren’t saying that anyone else is wrong…it’s just that we’re right. So hopefully I won’t step on any toes of professionalism here because it is relatively early in the morning.
Now first and this goes with a lot of different studies not just the ones quoted here, the programs that they use to try to determine certain things are well…stupid is a word that comes to mind but I won’t use it because I am trying to be a good boy since so far I’ve been good enough to make it onto Santa’s nice list for a change. So let’s go with “flawed” instead since it’s a bit more diplomatic (double points since being diplomatic was one of my new years resolutions this year…and going strong)
In this article it says that they focused on exercises that focused on biceps and lattissimus dorsi and did cardio to lose body fat. Seriously? Seriously? Good grief Charlie Brown. You focused on strengthening up all the different parts and hoping that the whole will come together as a result of it? How about if you want them to do pull ups, have them practice pull ups?
Admittedly getting to that initial hump of the single pull up can be a tricky process but there are ways to do it, isometric holds in the various positions of the pull up, dynamic isometric style work and that sort of thing, but trying to strengthen individual muscles is where strength training and bodybuilding differ. For one thing Central Nervous System does more than just recognizes which muscles to fire off but it also patterns which muscles to fire when and that sort of thing. That’s why movements must be practiced and that’s why FMS checks movement to make sure it isn’t dysfunctional.
On top of that a common cause of people not being able to do pull ups is weakness in the core. Watch a person who has a hard time doing a pull up and they’ll flail around on the bar like a fish trying to free itself from a fisherman’s hook. In gymnastics there is something called the “hollow position”. The hollow position keeps your body stiff as a board so that you can move it around the bar safely, effectively and gracefully. Their programming didn’t appear to have anything that did anything for the abs…in fact from what I saw steps were taken to try to remove this from the equation even though it’s a variable that can’t afford to be overlooked. I’m not sure what their version of a modified pull up is but I get this hunch that it doesn’t transfer over to the pull up. I found that putting bands under the feet doesn’t really either unless steps are taken to modify it even further.
And cardio to lower fat to try to do more pull ups? Come on now…First of all cardio is a very inefficient way of losing body fat and if cardio isn’t programmed in properly can literally rob you of your strength, which is exactly the thing that should be avoided when doing a study on strength like this one. Get Strong First and yes that includes strength mobility/stability too From the Strongfirst site:
Until one becomes “entry level strong,” e.g., a strict bodyweight military press for men or strict pull-ups for women, no priority other than strength can be justified for a healthy athlete. Science and experience have taught us that any athlete, even in ultra-endurance sports, who has not built a foundation of strength will fail to reach his or her potential. Strength has been compared to a glass that can be filled with other qualities; the larger the glass, the more endurance, sport skill, fat loss, etc. it can hold.
Just get stronger…think of the body as a whole. Remember a pull up and all of strength training is more then just your biceps and lats and whatever excess weight is on top of that, It is the ability to make your body work as a single, coordinated unit that crushes its enemies, sees them driven before them and hears the lamentation of their women (in this case it’s women who wished they could do pull ups)
And one more thing, besides the physiology and all that mumbo jumbo strength training starts in the mind. Unfortunately do to societal mores and that sort of thing women are given easier physical tasks in gym class…girl pushup for instance. A lot of them will go through life feeling the inferior of the 2 sexes and that’s a shame really. A strongman’s way of looking at things, it starts with the belief that you can do something, the action step of doing it and the determination to say it’s going to happen, because I friggin said so. Don’t use being weak as an excuse, don’t use being female as an excuse. Get Stronger end of story.
Societal beliefs and institutionalized definitions create a “weaker” sex, not genetics. Break the belief, discard the definitions. Weakness is a myth perpetuated by those who profit from their illusory domination. Defy the tyranny of their definitions of your secondary status, and reclaim your power. – Scott Sonnon
Oh and I expect better from you next time NY Times
oh and that’s chins with 3 fingers per hand on the bar, from 3 women who CAN do pull ups…one of them being 51 years young. Sometimes the iron sisters make better men then men. Photo courtesy of LeanBerets.com