If Kacy Catanzaro proved anything on her butt-kicking run to become the first woman to ever complete the final obstacle course on "American Ninja Warrior," it's that women can most definitely do a pull-up.
But it's certainly not easy. When I was in middle school, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test rewarded 14-year-old boys who could do 10 pull-ups and girls of the same age who could do... two. (The government has since reworked its youth fitness program.) And as the January 2014 deadline approached for its new physical fitness guidelines, the Marine Corps announced that 55 percent of female recruits failed its three-pull-up test, while only 1 percent of male recruits failed, NPR reported.
Setting aside the debate about whether or not that meant women were fit for duty, the Marine Corps news sparked a number of questions, chief among them: Why are pull-ups so hard for women? But it also provided some relief for pull-up-challenged non-Marine women like me -- if even female Marine recruits struggle with pull-ups, at least I'm not alone!
National fitness expert and HuffPost blogger Chris Freytag, founder of Get Healthy U, assured me recently that I'm definitely not alone in my quest to do a pull-up. Pull-ups, she says, are among the most challenging of bodyweight exercises, and being able to do even just a few is proof someone is seriously strong.
Despite fitness stereotypes and disappointing statistics, though, there isn't necessarily anything special about a Y chromosome to suggest that I can't -- one day -- become capable of doing one (or more).
WHY ARE PULL-UPS HARDER FOR WOMEN?
Pat Davidson, Ph.D., a former exercise science professor and current director of training methodology at Peak Performance in New York City, says he doesn't buy the "same old answer" that women simply don't have the upper-body strength it takes to complete a pull-up. Yes, in general, we are usually slightly smaller than men, but, pound for pound, there's not much difference in what we're able to do. "If I were to extract a muscle fiber from a person, I would have no ability to discern if it was male or female under a microscope," he says. "A female muscle cell is identical to a male muscle cell. It is more of a psychological, sociological and emotional factor that creates these discrepancies."
"A female muscle cell is identical to a male muscle cell. It is more of a psychological, sociological and emotional factor that creates these discrepancies."
These obstacles, however, are deeply enmeshed in our cultural definition of what makes women attractive. Women generally carry more body fat than men -- for obvious, child-bearing reasons -- and may simply struggle more with pull-ups because of it, even if all other measures were equal, Davidson says. Women also tend to carry more of their weight in the hips and legs than men, he says, which can also make pull-ups more difficult. (Of course, there are also men who carry more weight in their lower bodies who also struggle with pull-ups, he notes, like offensive linemen in the NFL.)
But because women tend to have more body fat through their hips and thighs, many prefer to target those areas during exercise, hoping to make changes to their appearance. In the process, many women may come to avoid the upper-body exercises some worry will make them look like men, when the truth is women simply don't have enough testosterone to bulk up like they fear.
Research suggests that the seeds for a woman's aversion to a tough workout may be planted early on. In a 2009 study, Baylor College of Medicine and Duke University researchers found that parents encourage more vigorous activities in boys than in girls. "There still is gender bias on encouraging boys to participate in certain sports and strenuous activities more than girls," lead author Cheryl Braselton Anderson, Ph.D., said in a statement.
"We're shortchanging young girls in this country with our expectations of what they are capable of."
Any variance in upper-body strength, therefore, may stem not from physiological differences, but rather a "cultural bias of accepting women and girls not exercising with the same intensity relative to their personal 100 percent capacity," says Davidson. "You have to be pretty fit and pretty strong to do a pull-up," he says. "We're shortchanging young girls in this country with our expectations of what they are capable of."
ARE YOU WILLING TO WORK FOR IT?
While these cultural norms are undeniably disheartening from a social standpoint, high-intensity workouts of the moment like CrossFit and women like Catanzaro may be slowly changing the atmosphere. "One of the things that CrossFit has been able to demonstrate is that women can do pull-ups, they can do these big movements -- Olympic-style lifts and squats and deadlifts -- and they compete with one another," says Davidson. "I think the reason is that women who do CrossFit work really, really hard."
Truthfully, anyone who wants to be able to do a pull-up will have to work really, really hard, which may be where studies suggesting women can't do pull-ups have erred in the past. In a much-criticized 2012 article, The New York Times reported on a small University of Dayton study that found that after three months of three-times-a-week training sessions, 13 of 17 women still couldn't do a pull-up. But there isn't a "best" number of training days, says Davidson, and it's virtually impossible to know how study participants carried out their workouts.
"I try to tell people, 'You have this number of opportunities to do the most perfect lift for this particular exercise.’ … Otherwise, you're simply counting bad performances."
Rather than focusing on days or sets or reps, Davidson recommends focusing on making every effort your best. "I try to tell people, 'You have this number of opportunities to do the most perfect lift for this particular exercise,'" he says. "Otherwise, you're simply counting bad performances." Indeed, says Freytag, everyone is different, so there's no way to predict how long it will take for someone to work up to a pull-up.
WHAT DOES THE PERFECT PULL-UP LOOK LIKE?
The ideal pull-up starts with a good grip, with the thumb wrapping around the bar and the hands wide enough so that your arms form two right angles at the elbows when you pull. (By the way, pull-ups use an overhand grip on the bar. An underhand grip, often called a chin-up, is an easier way to begin because “you get to pull more bicep into it,” says Freytag. Performing some chin-ups can also help you build up to a pull-up.) Keep the chin tucked and concentrate on moving forward through the exercise, as the shoulders move back and down.
It'll take strong and stable back, core, arm and shoulder muscles to get there. Davidson recommends women especially try “exercises where they keep their spine, rib cage and pelvis still while they create force through their arms,” he says, like a push-up. In the coming weeks, I'll be focusing on these muscle groups in my quest to do a pull-up, drawing on advice from Freytag and Davidson and my own background as a certified personal trainer. With any luck, I'll be reporting back having completed at least one pull-up -- but hopefully three.