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.
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