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Don’t believe study: women can do pull-ups

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Last year, The New York Times published its article about the infamous study on why women apparently can’t do pull-ups.

They chalked it up to a lack of upper body strength and low testosterone. As a female athlete who loves doing pull-ups and as a trainer who has helped dozens, if not hundreds of women reach this goal, I am somewhat perplexed.  

In the experiment, they took women who could not do a single pull-up and trained them for three months, and none of them could do a pull-up at the end of the study.  They focused on cardio training in the hopes that the ladies would lose extra body fat, and they included exercises to strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscles.

There’s our first clue that something has gone awry. Excess body fat will certainly be a burden when training for pull-ups, but stressing your joints and taxing your adrenal glands generally will not help the situation. The next mistake they made was to take an isolated approach to strength training for pull ups.  

Ladies, don’t believe it.  I am here to tell you that women can do pull-ups.  Here’s how. Losing excess body fat is a good strategy, but a clean diet free of processed foods and sugar will go much further than cardio.  Next, ensure that you have a good base of strength to build upon.
Core work, such as planks and hollow holds, are an important first step toward building strength for a pull up. More importantly, build shoulder stability. This means learning to pull back your shoulder blades and holding them in proper position while doing any type of strength training.

Once you have a solid base established, start working on holds. This might include holding the top of the pull-up position with your chin over the bar, as well as holding a solid active shoulder position while hanging from the bar. The next step after holds are negatives.

This essentially means lowering yourself down from the bar in a controlled manner. You may need to get assistance to get up over the bar, then, as gravity pulls your body weight down, it is your job to resist and count how long you can control your body weight on the way down. A good place to start is five seconds, aim to eventually get to a 30-second negative.

In the meantime, you’ll also want to work on assisted pull-ups, these can be done with a partner holding some of your body weight, or by using a resistance band for support.  As you work on these functional pull-up variations, you’ll want to make sure that you continue your core and shoulder stability work. This might include barbell, dumbbell or cable rows, rotator cuff exercises and mobility work.   

Pull-ups aren’t easy, but if you seriously commit and do the work for long enough, you will eventually be able to do pull-ups, regardless of shape, size or gender.

Tania Tetrault Vrga is owner and head trainer at CrossFit Winnipeg. Send questions to her at www.crossfitwinnipeg.com

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