January 29, 2015

Women can’t do pull ups? I call shenanigans.

“Why women can’t do pull ups.” This was the title of an article written in the New York Times. Since it made headlines two years ago it has been the topic of numerous articles by many different newspapers – all with slight variations of course, but the premise in each was the same: women are incapable of doing pull ups.  According to leading researcher Paul Vanderburgh that is. As you can imagine, there has been some backlash of this article and I am thus throwing my hat into the ring, so to speak.

After reading an article in the Globe and Mail which was based on the original in the NYT, I was outraged that they would put this as headlining news, for all women to see, to justify that it’s ok that you can’t do a pull up because we aren’t meant to. It’s ok if you can’t do a pull up, you don’t need justification for this, yes men and women are built differently, yes some women who train can do pull ups, yes some women cannot, it is a fact of life. But to say that women in general can’t do pull ups? That’s just an excuse to not try.

I feel as though the original journalist did no research into the actual research! It appears as though she had an interview with Paul, but it’s hard to think that someone of his caliber would make a generalized statement like that. So to learn more, I read his research paper (Egads! People do that now?!).

What I found was pretty simple stuff. They had a base of 20 women, all college aged, never been in collegiate athletics and their activity levels ranged from sedentary to active. All this seems pretty standard, yes? In the end, one girl had to drop out of the program so we are left with 19 women. Over a course of 3 months, training three times a week in which they had to complete 33 out of 36 training days these women ran (1-1.5 miles), did squats, bench press, hammer curls, ab work and the all important pull up trainer! I mean really – of course you want to use a pull up trainer if you are training to do pull ups. Paul even stated in his paper that they considered using lat pull down exercises, but they didn’t make sense to the program.

So, of the 19 women, 2 could do at least one pull up to begin with (yay!), and by the end 4 more could do a pull up. So that means on testing day, 6 of the 19 did at least one pull up. Note that these are dead hang pull ups – there is no sway to their bodies while doing it and certainly no kipping (not saying these are wrong but they didn’t fit into the scope of the test). Mr. Vanderburgh also noted that during training, there was an additional 2 women who did at least one pull up. That means 8 women in total! That’s double the number the original journalist claimed. Also, if you wanted to know, one of the girls did 11 by the end (she started with 2).

I love Paul right now, I do, because although statistically he can’t count the two women who didn’t get the pull ups on test day, but did during training, he gave them props for being able to do it. He also knows that those two  were probably over trained for the time of testing. Which is great to note because not everyone trains the same way and some people get over trained faster than others, and some it takes longer, anyway you get the idea…He also stated that several of the women came as close as 7-10 cm away from the bar – they were so close! And was confident they would have been able to complete a pull up if there was more time.

There you have it, 8 of 19 women completed at least one dead hang pull up over a 12 week training program (I think that’s pretty darn good!). If you don’t train for something, how can you expect to achieve it? It may take you longer to get someplace than it does for your friend, but do you give up? No. You keep fighting for it because you want it, because you deserve it. If you don’t think you can do a pull up – try training specifically for it, that is your main focus, do the exercises that are going to directly affect you getting there.

If you would like to read the original article from the NYT magazine, click here.

Flanagan S, Vanderburgh P, Borchers S, Kohstall C. Training college age women to perform the pull-up exercise. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 74(1):52-59. 2003.

Melissa Beals is an RMT with Whole Therapy.  Melissa works extensively with athletes of all levels with a goal in mind to increase their athletic performance through education and understanding of their bodies.  More about Melissa here.