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Women and Pull-Ups

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I came across an article in the New York Times, "Why Women Can't Do Pull-Ups." As a female CrossFit athlete who loves doing pull-ups, I was obviously intrigued by this claim. I've heard the "I can't do pull-ups" claim before out of the mouths of women, but I'm calling bologna on this. The New York Times must be sleeping under a rock if they think that women can't do pull-ups. Don't believe the hype. Ladies, you can do pull-ups and I'll tell you how.

Man vs. Woman "L" Pull-Ups

A pull-up is a "compound" exercise, an exercise that involves a large number of big and small muscles -- most notably your lattisimus dorsi and biceps. For those of you who don't have a lot of time, but want to maximize your results, pull-ups are a great addition to your workout repertoire.

In addition to working multiple muscles at the same time, the pull-up is also a multi-joint movement, an exercise that causes more than one joint to move. During a pull-up, your wrists, elbows, and shoulder angles will all change.

Ladies, we've been conditioned by the evil people who say "I can't" to believe that we are incapable of doing a pull-up. Well, New York Times, I'd recommend you walk yourself into any CrossFit gym in the world and you'll see five-plus women who can do five-plus strict pull-ups. So what are these ladies doing that you're not? Training the right way and believing.

Now, before you say, "I can't do that because it's so intense," or "I can't do CrossFit because I can't do a pull-up," or simply "I can't" -- start believing. There are 20-plus women at my CrossFit gym (CrossFit South Bay) that can do pull-ups. That's right, New York Times, drink it in. Most of them couldn't even do a pull-up before they walked in the gym. So how did they do it, America? I'll show you how.

How do I do a pull-up?

So now you're asking yourself, how do I do it? Your hands should have a pronated grip (overhand). (An underhand grip = supinated = chin up.) The first part of the movement calls for scapular retraction. This is a fancy term for drawing your shoulder blades together and down. Think of someone's hand in the middle of your back, and you want to pinch that hand with your shoulder blades. You can practice this by hanging from your pull-up bar and bringing those shoulder blades in. This movement engages your lattisimus dorsi -- or lats, the larger muscle in your back -- as well as critical supporting muscles.

The next portion of the pull-up requires drawing your body upward. This requires flexion of the elbow joint, or the bending of your arms. In order to flex the elbow joint, the biceps and supporting arm and back muscles are called into action.

The last part of the exercise requires you to lower yourself, where your triceps and shoulders kick into gear. And let's not forget that grip strength needed just to hold onto the bar.

To improve your pull-up, former Navy Seal Stew Smith recommends strengthening the muscles utilized in a pull-up. Let's take a look.

Here are five exercises to help improve your pull-up:

1. Assisted Pull-Ups: Wrap a band around a pull up bar and put your foot in the bottom like so or on a chair to offset your body weight. With your feet on an object, you are offsetting some of your body weight. Then, pull up!

2. Lat Pull-Downs: Using a lat pull-down machine, grab the bar, sit down and pull the bar in front of you to your collarbones. Then slowly raise the bar back up and repeat. Do not pull down behind your head as this movement is dangerous to your neck and shoulders.

3. Negative Pull-Ups (lowering yourself from the bar): Start with your chin over the bar (you can get up there by standing on something). Then, slowly lower yourself all the way down. Gravity's going to want to push you right now, but try to slowly count to five while lowering yourself.

4. Bent-Over Row (also hits biceps): Bend over and support your lower back by placing your hand and knee on a sturdy surface such as a bench. Place a dumbbell in your opposite hand and pull the dumbbell toward your chest in a rowing motion.

5. Jumping Pull-Up: Stand underneath the pull-up bar with your hands on the bar like you are going to do a pull-up. Jump up so that your chin is higher than the bar. While you jump, you also want to squeeze your lats and pull yourself up. As you get stronger, you'll use your legs less and less.

Here are four ways the pull-up will help you feel confident on the beach and in your daily activities.

1. Functional Strength: As humans, we perform a wide range of movement activities on a day-to-day basis including standing, walking, pushing, pulling, twisting, turning, etc. To improve your functional strength, you are working to train the relationship between the nervous and muscular systems. The pull-up is a dynamic compound (using multiple muscles and joints) movement, which helps improve your functional strength.

2. Posture Improvement: If you envy the posture of a ballerina, pull-ups are here to help. As you strengthen your back and core muscles, this allows you to have the strength to hold yourself up with better posture. When your posture improves, this makes you appear longer and leaner.

3. Back Pain Alleviation: If you're like most of us, you sit on your drive to work, you sit in front of a computer all day, and then you sit driving home from work. You might even sit on that couch once you're home (although I hope you're in the gym sweating out the day's stress!). All of this cumulative sitting increases the physiological load on your back. By strengthening your back and core muscles with the pull-up, you are drastically reducing your chances of future pain and injury.

4. Better-Looking Physique: Want to look great in those (or out of those) tank tops for summer? Pull-ups to the rescue! It will define your back and biceps, which in turn makes your waist look smaller. Guys -- this is that "V" shape you're working toward. Ladies -- this will help define that waist so you feel comfortable when your husband puts his arms around you. You will also be working your core with every single rep. Plus, your back is a huge muscle, so the more developed it is, the more calories you burn at rest. Burning calories while you're doing the exercise and after it? Sounds like a win-win situation!

Before you know it, you won't need the help of these modifications and you'll be doing pull-ups on your own in no time. Take that, New York Times.

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