The New York Times Thinks Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups. They Forgot To Ask Me and My Friends.

why women can't do pull ups

It’s a good thing I didn’t read this piece in The New York Times Magazine when I decided I wanted to learn to do pull-ups. Tara Parker-Pope‘s ‘Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups‘ assures the weaker sex that we shouldn’t fret over not being able to do pull-ups like the boys do, because, after all, we don’t have as much testosterone and are fatter (I’m not kidding; read the article).

When I walked in the door of the gym–a woman who couldn’t do a push-up, let alone a chin-up (palms facing in) or pull-up (palms facing out)–I was inspired by the many women there who could, including a 48-year old who could bang out eight chin-ups. With dreams of Rocky-style training, I wanted more than anything to learn to do chin-ups. A (male) trainer took me seriously and worked with me twice a week on the chin-up bar, where I used assistance bands to help raise my bodyweight up to the bar. I didn’t do anything else to help prepare – no incline modified pull-ups “in hopes of strengthening the muscles they would use to perform the real thing” like the women in this study. I just practiced the real thing with a trainer who didn’t doubt I could do them.

women can do pull ups

Yes, that's a woman (me) doing a <em>weighted</em> chin-up, folks.

I cried in the beginning when I learned how hard they were. But six weeks later, I did my first unassisted chin-up. I may as well have walked on the moon I was so ecstatic. For me, this was the defining moment in transforming into a woman who was strong, confident, could do things. Knowing I could do a chin-up ignited the fire that set me doing everything else I later accomplished.

One wasn’t sufficient though. I kept going. I’d do one, rest, then another one a minute or two later, until I could do two in a row. I got a chin-up bar for Christmas. Before long I could do three. Within a year I could do 10 chin-ups. For fun, I’d strap on weight, doing a single chin-up with as much as 30 pounds of weight added on, because nobody ever told me I couldn’t, that I wasn’t strong enough, or capable. While I was at it, I learned to do a one-arm push-up.

Yes, I became a competitive powerlifter, so not your typical female population, but upper body strength was never my strong point. My bench press is equal to my body weight. That’s good, yes, but certainly not earth-shattering. And plenty of women who weren’t strength athletes at my gym could knock out chin-ups. Try telling a female rock climber that women can’t do pull-ups.

The first workout I attempted after having back surgery earlier this year was a chin-up. It was my original barometer of strength and ability, grew into a measure of badassery, and remains my favorite exercise. I am not back to being able to do 10 yet, but you can bet I will. When women ask how they can get my arms, I tell them to do chin-ups and push-ups. I’m only sorry that now (really, what year is this we’re living in?) they’re told they can’t. Please, don’t listen. Just go practice your pull-up.

Photos: New York Times; courtesy of Dana McMahan

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    • Rachel

      She didn’t say all women can’t do pullups, she just explained why it’s especially difficult for women. Even fit women who train to do them. If you understand why a particular move may be very difficult, even impossible, then it might benefit your training, your self esteem, and your fitness.

      As a fit little kid, I always felt terrible when I couldn’t do a pullup. I could run the mile, do the situps, and (barely) do the stretches that would qualify for a presidential fitness medal. But never the pullup.

      After reading this article, I realized it’s probably my body type. I’m lanky (my wingspan is well over 6 ft, and my inseam is 35″) and tall. So I actually feel better about myself after reading this article. I’ve been fit and an athlete my entire life, but no amount of work ever allowed me to do anything but sorta hang from the bar with my elbows bent.

      Lots of women are like me. Lots of women are like you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Tara Parker-Pope pointing out that there are physical reasons why some people (women AND men are mentioned in the article) can’t do pullups.

      I’m envious that you and your friends can do pullups. That’s awesome. You’ve worked hard and it shows. (Though I might point out that you mention upper body strength as not being your strong suit as important, when TPP specifically says it’s not about pure strength, it’s about your build and where you carry your weight.)

      But TPP wasn’t telling us that ALL women can’t do pullups. She was just explaining why A LOT of women can’t. I spent a lot of time trying to do things like pullups, because I thought that I should be able to. If I had read this, it wouldn’t have discouraged me from trying, but it might have made me more realistic about reaching that particular goal, which in the grand scheme of things, is kinda arbitrary.

    • Mary

      I’m a girl. I can do about 20 on a good day!

    • Tiny east

      Did the author even read the article she’s commenting on?

      • Rachel

        That’s what I was thinking, tiny. I tried to say as much in my very long winded post yesterday, but I should’ve just asked that question.