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Caitlin Constantine Headshot

Women's Difficulty With Pull-Ups Is About More Than Biology

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Being a regular consumer of mainstream news means I am well-acquainted with the sensation of feeling angry or frustrated by the talking heads on my television/computer/smartphone, but few things have made me cringe in recent memory like the flood of commentary that greeted the Marine Corps' revelation that 55 percent of its female recruits could not meet the new standard of three pull-ups when tested at the end of boot camp.

I've read one comment section on this story and that was plenty. I am pretty sure I've had enough "see? we told you women were genetically inferior weaklings suited only for making me a sandwich," bullshit to fill my tank well into the next decade. (Of course, that nearly half of those women tested WERE able to meet the standard throws a wrench in the whole "wimminz r weak, hyuk hyuk" routine, but hey, don't let facts get in the way of being an asshole!)

Now, I preface this by saying that I have absolutely no experience with the military or military-style training or even exercise classes that purport to be inspired by boot camps. I cannot say whether the standards are fair or unfair (although my first instinct is that the old standard -- the flexed-arm hang -- seems way too easy). I cannot say whether the pull-up is a good standard by which to measure a Marine's abilities in the field. The closest I've come to the military is that my dad carried half my DNA in his business when he worked at the Pentagon in the 1970s. Aside from that, no clue at all.

What I do want to write about, though, is the ongoing issue regarding women and pull-ups. The New York Times caused a bit of a shitstorm in October 2012 when they published an article called "Why Women Can't Do Pull-ups." (The ironic thing is that those of who actually read the article and didn't just skim the headline would have learned that about a quarter of the women who were part of the study were able to do a pull-up after just three months of a three-times-a-week resistance training program. A sweeping judgment about the physical capabilities of all womankind after a three-month program of moderate strength training that was actually somewhat successful? Sounds legit!)

The article led to a flurry of counter-articles pointing out that, yeah, women can do pull-ups if you train them properly. (Here's a good one at Nia Shank's website, and here's another good one at Breaking Muscle.) And that continues to show up in the articles I've read about the pull-up standards: that if you train women properly, most of us will be able to do them. Here's one excerpt from an NPR article, from a former Marine, no less:

However, Greg Jacob, a former Marine, says women can build the strength they need for pullups, and he has seen it done.

He served as a Marine infantry officer in the Balkans and Africa, and now he works for the Service Women's Action Network, a group that advocates for military women. When he was a Marine trainer in North Carolina, he required his female instructors to knock out pullups just like the guys.

"At first, a lot of women weren't able to do it," Jacob says. "They were able to do one, some were able to do two, but what happened was by having that standard and enforcing that standard, it made my Marines, it made the troops go to the gym and train to that standard."

Within six months, all of the women in his company were doing eight to 12 pullups, he says.

Pretty much every article I've read on the subject contains a similar quote. That's in addition to the writings I've read from personal trainers who specialize in weight training, all of whom are confident that most women can do pull-ups with proper training. Sure, biology and physiology may have combined forces to make them more difficult for us, but just because it's more difficult doesn't mean it's impossible or not worth pursuing. Hell, even I can do chin-ups (which are pull-ups' wimpier little cousin) and I'm not even all that muscular. It can be done!

So what's the big issue here? If women are capable of doing pull-ups, then why are so few of us actually able to do them?

Well, I tend to have the same line of thought whenever we talk about female physical strength, which is that we live in a culture that has glamorized and sexualized female weakness, and so any analysis about the physical limitations of female bodies has got to take that into consideration or else it is worthless. (This is the thesis of The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling, by the way.)

Women are told it is unfeminine and gross to have muscles and to cultivate strength, which in turn leads them to actively avoid doing things that will build muscles and strength, which then makes them even less capable of doing things that require strength, which the critics then use as proof of women's inherent physical frailty.

And so the cycle continues...

The frustrating thing is that it keeps happening, not just with the Tracy Andersons of the world but with people who should know better. Just the other day I posted a link on the blog's Facebook page to a status from Tara at Sweat Like a Pig, in which she called out a popular male trainer for posting the following:

"An upper body only day is a waste for the ladies. What girl do you know has a burning desire to spend 45 minutes pumping up her traps, lats and guns? None I know."

Lats, traps, guns: all of the muscles used in pull-ups. And a pretty prominent authority in the fitness community saying that he knows of no women who want to work these muscle groups! I'm sure that he has been hearing this from plenty of women (because what woman who lifts hasn't heard the Greek chorus of gender police anxiously warning us not to "bulk up" or to let themselves get "too big" in case we start "looking like a man"), but rather than using his position as an authority to correct his clients, he in turn gets on his blog and writes that women shouldn't bother with upper-body only training days.

And so the cycle continues...

If we want to know what women are truly capable of, we have got to stop with this bullshit that says physical strength and its signifiers will somehow diminish a woman's beauty and femininity. (Ideally it would be nice if we could stop acting as though beauty and femininity are the only things women have to offer the world, but baby steps, yo. Baby steps.) This idea that upper body strength is reserved only for men, and that women shouldn't dare investigate it for fear of blurring the supposedly rock-solid gender binary (seriously, for something that is supposedly so deeply ingrained in nature, it sure does require a lot of hard work and effort to keep it in place), is ridiculous.

Right now we live in a world where women hear that muscular arms are gross, that we shouldn't lift weights in case we get too big, that we should only do exercises to elongate our muscles, that we should never eat anything that isn't a salad, or if we do eat cheeseburgers and steaks, we should make sure we never weigh more than 120 pounds. And then that same culture turns around and says, "Ha! We told you you were weak! This is why you shouldn't be allowed to do anything but have babies and make sandwiches." There is simply no way to win this game, which is why I -- and lots of other women -- find it easier just to opt out and do our own thing.

So until the words "but I might bulk up!" pass a woman's lips for the last time, I'll be taking the bleating about women's supposed physical weakness with a kettlebell-sized grain of salt.