Is it True that Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups?

You’d think it’s a leading question, but there’s legitimacy to it.  A recent report in the New York Times checked into it.  It’s a long-standing stereotype that women can’t do it, something that shouldn’t jive with exercise science and much of the can-do attitude modern people have toward everything.  Science tends to affirm to us that more is possible than we would think, but in this case the research is confirming the odd idea that women are just not good at push-ups.  For some reason, they can’t do them as easily, as frequently and something not at all in comparison to men.

climber pull-ups

That study at the University of Dayton tried to bulk up a group of women over the course of three months to prepare to take a pull-up test.  Before the fitness program began, the women tested poorly on the pull-up bar.  The researchers thought that for sure their scores would improve, but were astonished when it didn’t turn out that way:

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.

So is there absolutely no hope?  It’s not impossible to build your strength and reduce your fat as a woman.  There are plenty of super-fit women out there.  Do they need to do pull-ups?

Girl pull-up

The keys for you should be to keep up your cardio to keep fat down and not to be afraid of doing upper back exercises.  Women tend to have a shorter stature than men in general (which should help with pull-ups), but it doesn’t seem to help.

The thing that pull-ups are for are exercise – not showing off.  Just like the women in the research above, you can gain strength in the same muscles pull-ups work without having to do these.  Here are some alternatives that can get the job done for women who can’t manage substantial pull-ups.

1. Lat Pulldowns

These are exactly what they sound like – reverse pull-ups. Instead of pulling the entire weight of your body up, you can select a lighter weight to pull down. This exercise is also especially important for men who tend to overexert themselves. Pull-ups are challenging. Time spent on pulldown machines can help build up your strength for more successful pull-ups.

lat pull down

2. Upright Rows

Your arms, shoulders and upper back will thank you for this one. While it might present a risk for your wrists, you can make progress by adding as little as no weight to the bar. As you get used to the exercise, including the grip, start adding some weight (not a 45-pound super weight, but 5s and then 10s). Again, your arms and back will handle this better than your wrists, so be careful with this exercise. Check out this vid to get an idea on how it works:

3. T-Bar Rows

This doesn’t have be a heavy exercise (the video below is working with more weight than you need). The shoulders and back will work to constantly pull the bar up.

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