Tracy can do pull-ups, therefore, “women can’t do pull-ups” is false

Part of my workout routine at personal training involves pull-ups. Up until yesterday, they were always assisted by a rubber band. Paul has been changing to bands that offer less and less resistance, until finally a few weeks ago he said, “That’s it. Next time we’re going to no band.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, because I’d read that women can’t do pull-ups. You can see stories about that research here and here. The report says:

exercise researchers from the University of Dayton found 17 normal-weight women who could not do a single overhand pull-up. Three days a week for three months, the women focused on exercises that would strengthen the biceps and the latissimus dorsi — the large back muscle that is activated during the exercise. They lifted weights and used an incline to practice a modified pull-up, raising themselves up to a bar, over and over, in hopes of strengthening the muscles they would use to perform the real thing. They also focused on aerobic training to lower body fat.

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.

Now, the pull-ups we do aren’t quite the same grip as the canonical overhand grip. So maybe I can’t do the standard pull-up. But still, even though I am gripping a bar that is perpendicular to my body, I’m pulling up my body weight.

So what happened when Paul took away my bands? Well, first he offered to put his hand under my right foot “just in case.” But then he thought the better of it and asked me to see what I could do.

It turns out I could do eight pull-ups!  And not just once. Working in between sets of one arm dumbbell rows (with 35 pounds), I managed to do three sets of eight pull-ups. This completely shocked me. I know I’m stronger than I used to be, but I really don’t consider myself especially strong. And here I am, able to do pull-ups without a band.

I confess that Paul offered a little bit of assistance, putting a finger in the middle of my upper back and, when the going got tough, applying a little bit of pressure. But seriously, mostly it was me. And that’s pretty awesome. I felt sort of like a rock star for a few minutes!

So as Audrey said, “That readers digest mag article can shut up while I do some pull ups.

What’s your relationship with pull-ups? Do you do them, want to do them, or have you let the research influence you to cross them off your list?

11 thoughts on “Tracy can do pull-ups, therefore, “women can’t do pull-ups” is false

  1. Rock star! I can’t do pull ups unassisted. I’d need to change my bodyweight. But I do them with bands and on the gravitron with assist. But I’ve always attributed that to weight not being a woman!

  2. Great, congratulations! 😀 I am envious! 😉
    I’ve never believed articles telling me what women can’t do, having watched GI Jane as a girl. 😀
    Like push-ups, pull-ups are something I want to be able to do, and my goal is to be able to do ten in two years. I can’t do one, never could, and am currently focusing on push-ups. Once I can do 100 of those, I’ll add a pull-up regimen to my training. Going slowly and tackling one fitness goals at a time has proven to be better for me. I used to try to do everything at once and failed every time. 😉

  3. Those articles are hardly scientific. I see lots of women at my gym doing pull-ups, and one of my goals is to do them unassisted. 3 sets of 8 is awesome! And dumbbell rows in between? Whoa.

  4. I am furious that that’s counted as science. I normally do 50 completely unassisted pull-ups as part of my standard upper body day (5 sets of 10, with 30 second rests between sets). My trainer insists on it. Right now I have a torn labrum and sprained bicep tendon and I am nursing them for a fight and I still do 20, which counts as my light work. Plenty of other women at my gym also do them (though not as many as me – yes I am bragging 🙂 ).

  5. 8 pull ups is great! It took me a long time (2+ years) to get my first pull up and then a year to go from 1 to 5, which I just did last week. Not only can women do pull ups, but master’s athletes can do pull ups.

  6. Hmmm. I hadn’t seen that research, but I have very little upper body strength and pull-ups have always seemed quite difficult. That seems like a LOT of work to achieve a single motion, which has never interested me. But I suppose it’s more like lifting weights than doing a push up or sit up. Maybe if I thought about it that way I would be more interested.

    Major kudos to you! That’s a huge amount of work. 🙂

  7. I am achieving assisted pull-ups (band) with my trainer. I read something similar last year about how women “can’t do” pull-ups, so I asked my trainer to teach me (don’t tell me I can’t do anything!). The past month I have added pull-ups when I swim; that is, when I get to the deep end I pull myself up out of the water beginning with arms close then moving out to arms wide. Thanks for writing about this. I’ll be sure to keep going and report back in the new year!

  8. I can also do 8! Like you, Tracy, in sets with other stuff, x3, so 24 over the set. More than most guys I know. And a reminder to the FFI community: I weigh a quite normal 173lb, for a tall and strong female.

  9. I started lifting weights about five or six years ago using the New Rules of Lifting for Women (modified, because I was at home) and after the section where the goal is to do an unassisted pull-up at the end of that section and was able to do it right on schedule.

    I then lost five pounds in six weeks due to diet shenanigans and was able to do five.

    I’ve since gained back that five pounds (plus some more, see above diet shenanigans) and am now quite a bit overweight according to BMI, but I can still do five pull-ups on a good day despite the extra weight and have to be really exhausted to not manage at least one — I suspect if I was in the middle of the range that I’m “supposed” to be in I’d be able to do a lot more, because as I discovered, even five pounds makes a huge difference.

  10. Don’t be caught up with general statements. Some men can’t do pull-ups. Some women can. Three things help (one changeable, two unfortunately not). 1) Smart and committed training. 2) Natural ability – some women have more but smart training can overcome this. 3) Practising when you were young.
    Now we had monkey bars in our backyard and I would swing on them a bit. So I guess I have 2) and 3) covered. So in Year 7 our class did the chin-ups test in PE. The top three amounts were 13 (David), 13 (Ray) and 14 (me). Yes, I won. And they of course wanted to see my muscles. So I indulged them with a flex. My biceps were quite impressive for a 12 year old. My advice for now – keep your workouts regular – probably 3 per week and listen to your body. Next you’ll be telling me women can’t armwrestle – ha.

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