Few exercises are more daunting than the common pull-up, especially for women, who've been led to believe that this particular domain has been reserved only for the manliest of dudes. In fact, you may even remember a recent statistic that caused a lot of controversy: a whopping fifty-five percent of US Marine female recruits could not pass a minimum three pull-up requirement, which led many a journalist to conclude that women could not do pull-ups at all (I kid you not- the New York Times headline that got tongues wagging was "Why Women Can't Do Pull-Ups.")
When this New York Times article was published, I'd advanced to being able to do three full unassisted wide grip pull-ups, and therefore felt simultaneously smug and enraged while reading it. We women have been grossly misled about what we should be focusing on in fitness, as well as where our abilities lie. Through my own experience in rebuilding my body, I've uncovered two massive truths that fly directly in the face of what we've been taught:
a) We ladies DO belong in the weight room, and we'll find what we're looking for by lifting the heavy stuff.
b) We CAN and SHOULD hold our own with the boys. Screw "training like girls."
That said, women are still avoiding one of the best exercises in the world for developing the arms, back and overall level of fitness, and when we first attempt a pull-up, we often find that our efforts are futile. Here are a few common reasons why:
1. Women have up to 40 percent less muscle mass in their upper bodies than men. Women also tend to have a higher proportion of slow twitch oxidative muscle fibers, which are recruited for endurance activities like higher repetitions of an exercise or a long run. However, these slow twitch Type I fibers produce less force than their Type II counterparts. Due to these factors, it's more challenging for women to move their bodies upward against gravity in comparison for men. "Tough" is by no means synonymous with "impossible"- it just means that we have to work a little harder!
2. When starting out, both women and men have a tendency to rely on the muscles of their arms, rather than engaging the latissiumus (lats) muscle of their back, which should serve as the primary source of power. This is often confusing, because many of us have never even felt our lats and therefore struggle to activate them. You can become intimately acquainted with your lats by doing many sets of wide grip pulldowns and paying close attention to form. With that in mind, here are a few exercises I recommend incorporating into your training to strengthen the latissimus dorsi, as well as the infraspinatus, teres minor, and teres major muscles.
1. Wide Grip Pulldowns
2. Underhand Close Grip Pulldowns
3. Straight Arm Pulldowns
4. Seated Cable Rows
3. Women are unfortunately conditioned to believe that the pull-up (and many other feats of strength) is an unattainable goal for them. To increase your physical strength, you must rely on your mental muscles as well. If you don’t believe that you can do it, you very likely won’t!
So, now that you know IT IS POSSIBLE, what steps can YOU take to be able to execute a perfect pull-up? Here's the quick and dirty:
Step 1: Low Bar Pull-Ups
Begin practicing pull-ups on a low bar. Most playgrounds have one variation or another. In the initial phase, perform pull-up movements with your heels on the ground and knees bent, which will provide added support. Be sure to keep the back straight, chest upright and core tight. Avoid tensing your neck! Once you progress with the bent knee low bar pull-up and are able to complete 15-20 consecutive reps with proper form, you can then move on to practicing them with extended straight legs. When you can complete two sets of straight leg low bar pull ups at 15-20 reps, you're ready to move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Band Pull-Ups
Purchase a thick rubber band specifically made for pull-up training. I use the Functional Fitness band, available on Amazon.com, and you can also purchase bands through MovementFirst.sg, a fantastic online fitness supply store right here in Singapore. These bands come in different resistances, and are usually sold in a package of 3, so you can start off with the easiest one and eventually progress to the minimal resistance band.
Loop the band around a pull-up bar and "kneel" into the band as you're holding the bar, with both knees centered in the middle of the band. Palms should be facing forward. You can either use a wider grip or regular grip. Both grips target your lats, but wide grip pull-ups take a bit of strain off the shoulder while close grip pull-ups tend to target the lower back a bit more. Some fitness pros believe that a wide grip actually widens the back, but that's up for debate.
Pull your torso up, arching your back just slightly and pushing out your chest. Focus on squeezing the back muscles while keeping the torso stationary. The only thing that should be moving are your arms. The full pulling movement is completed once the bar touches your upper chest. Hold this contracted position for a second, and slowly lower yourself back down to starting position. Repeat! Once you are able to complete 15 pull-ups with a particular band, you can advance to the more difficult band. After you've been able to do 15-20 reps on the most difficult band, you're ready for the UNASSISTED REAL DEAL PULL-UP. WOOHOO!
Step 3: Owning Your Status as a Lady Boss- the Real Deal Pull-Up
Jump your hands up to the bar, palms facing forward (away from you). Do not grip the bar too tightly, as this can add strain to the forearms. Employ the same form you used in Step 2, crossing one leg over the other, as shown in the photo. As a reminder, arch your back just slightly and puff out your chest, which will help activate the right muscles and take some pressure off the biceps and forearms. Pull upward until the bar touches the top of your chest, and hold this position for a second. Slowly lower yourself back down to starting position- a slow speed here is important, as this will boost muscle growth during the eccentric action of a movement. Don't just drop down, even if you're feeling fatigued. Repeat the full movement and begin setting some big goals for yourself!
I am currently up to being able to do three sets of 8 unassisted pull-ups on a good day, and I struggle through these once or twice a week. By the end of the year, I'd like to be able to do three sets of 12-15. Last year at this time, I was able to do.... ZERO!!!! I'm sharing this with you to highlight that we all start at the beginning. If you put your mind to what you wish to achieve, a world of possibility becomes yours for the taking.
Have a question or comment on this post? Is there a topic that you'd like me to address? I love hearing from you- leave your thoughts below!