Pull-up Gender Wars

There is an ongoing and seemingly never-ending war between men and women over pull-ups.  I don’t see it as a debate; I see it as a war.  There is a constant struggle for women to prove that they can indeed do pull-ups, and even in some cases, surpass men with the ability and strength to do pull-ups.  While those in support of the misconception that men are superior at pull-ups, and that women weren’t built with the upper body strength to do pull-ups, try to hold them down.  I’m sick of it; it royally fires me up.  I want to put an end to this war.

As I’m sure many of you know, back in December 2013 NPR published an article, “Marines: Female Recruits Don’t Meet New Pull-ups Standard”, about how, effective January 1, 2013, the Marines set a new standard for women that female Marines would have to match the men’s Personal Fitness Test (PFT) standard and complete 3 pull-ups.  This article also reported that female Marines were not meeting this standard and that as a result on November 15, 2013, the new requirement was delayed until January 1, 2015. 

I am revisiting this article from this past December because this topic comes up at least once a week in conversations with my clients.  Just last week one of our class clients, who is 72 going on 73 years old this year, asked me about this subject and mentioned the article on NPR.  She stated that she was interested in 1) dead-lifting two times her body weight and 2) achieving an unassisted, body weight pull-up.

These were the questions that came to my mind after I first read this article:

Why, if men had to do 3 pull-ups for the PFT standard, then why did women only have to do a 15 second flexed arm hang?  Why were women not held to the same standard?  When I tested for my kung fu black belt the physical fitness standard was 100 military style push-ups (you had to touch your chin to someone’s fist set on the floor or else it didn’t count) in 2 minutes or less, 100 v-ups (hands touch feet) in 2 minutes or less and a 15-minute Mabu (horse stance).  The standard for men was exactly the same as for women.  How did I meet this standard?  I trained for it, like everyone else, man or woman.  If I can train for something like this for a black belt in kung fu, I think female Marines should be and can be expected to do the same.

When the Marines finally decided to make the standard for women match that of men’s with 3 pull-ups, why were so many women not meeting this standard?  Why did they not train properly for this standard if they knew they would have to meet this standard?  The fact that some women did not meet the standard of 3 pull-ups had nothing to do with their ability to do pull-ups and everything to do with the fact that they did not train properly to meet this standard OR perhaps have the necessary help to train properly to meet this standard.  Both men and women have to train in order to do pull-ups.  Yes, I agree, if you take a random sampling of men and women and have them do pull-ups right out of the gate without training for it then yes, likely more men may be able to bang out pull-ups then women, BUT both men and women have to train in order to do pull-ups.  I have had plenty of male clients start training with me and NOT be able to do a single pull-up.  They had to train for it.  In fact, if you read further along in the NPR article, you will see that one Marine states, as soon as the women started to train for the standard of 3 pull-ups, they were able to meet or exceed the standard of 3 pull-ups; some achieving 12 pull-ups!  Women, just like men, can do pull-ups, and do them well, if they train to do them or train them regularly.  However, for some reason these positive segments were overlooked and people just drilled home on the negative.

What fires me up about this situation with the Marines is that:

  1. Women were not held to the same standard as men yet they will be held to the same standard as men in the field; and
  2. All of the articles that spawned out of this situation, drilled home the fallacy, over and over again that women do not have the ability to do pull-ups.  Every time I scrolled through my Facebook or Twitter newsfeed all I saw was this:

It’s official. Men rule at pull-ups.

Most female Marines can’t even do three lousy pull-ups!”

From The Washington Post,  “The Marines’ pull-up controversy: An unexpected battle in the gender wars” 

Well, if that’s true, then I must be a man.

51 Bodyweight Pull-ups

Seriously.  Did anyone ever think that the reason why women may have a fear of pull-ups in the first place is because society and the media is constantly telling them that they lack the strength and ability to do pull-ups?

Henry Ford

How about a mainstream article that logically explains that both men and women must train in order to do pull-ups and to do them well?  If they do, then women will have the ability to meet or exceed men in the strength and ability to do pull-ups.

Even though pull-ups are one of my strengths, I did not pop out of my mother’s womb with the ability to train multiple sets of 8 to 10 pull-ups.   I trained for it.  I started with one pull-up and worked up to 3 and then 5 and then so forth.  And then I got crazy and started to load my pull-ups!

20kg (44lbs) Pull-ups – 1 set of 3 reps

Anytime that I have helped a female client train to be able to do her first pull-up, she has always approached the bar with fear and trepidation; fear that society and the media has instilled in her from constantly drilling home that women lack the strength and ability to do pull-ups.  Very rarely do I have a female client who wants to do a pull-up walk up to the bar and attack her first pull-up, assisted or not.  A huge part of helping a woman to be able to do a pull-up is to instill the confidence that she can indeed do this and to attack the flippin’ bar!  ATTACK IT! That’s what I tell women.  “What are you afraid of, attack the bar!  Attack that pull-up!”

I hope that at some point society, the media, and the Marines stop holding women to a lower standard for pull-ups and stop inaccurately drilling home that women can’t do pull-ups for whatever reason, because we can meet and even exceed the strength and ability of men to do pull-ups.  I am living proof of that as are all the Iron Body Studios’ clients in this video.  They are all living proof that women can meet or exceed the strength and ability of men to do pull-ups.  Thank you Meghan, Alexa, Melinda, Dori, Lilibeth, Debbie, Liz, Lisa, and yours truly.  Maybe the Marines need to send their female recruits to come train with us so we can show them how it’s done?

(This is a long video, but it is worth watching every single second, and every single pull-up… there’s a good soundtrack to go along with it too ;)…)

4 Comments on “Pull-up Gender Wars

  1. Thank you. Great article.

    For the most part I’ve been surprised at the amount of support I’ve received from men while training and learning how to lift. But, as I continue to strength train I seek out gyms when I travel and it’s interesting the ones who don’t call me back even after repeated contacts. I haven’t been able to figure out if it’s because I’m forty and female or just not a teenage or college athlete. These are large well-marketed facilities. Gender equality is crap and thank you for so resoundingly crushing this ridiculous pull up argument.

    Beyond the pull ups, I think it’s do cool that someone in their 70s wants to deadlift twice their body weight and that you understand how to get them there.

    And, I’m curious what your long distance training rates are for pull up consultation. I love the guy I train with but he helps me with Powerlifting more. I would like to learn how to progress from regular pull ups to weighted. I’ve gotten a chin up but haven’t trained for that or pull ups regularly and would be interested in a plan. Thank you!!!!



  2. This post is dead on. It wasn’t until the last 3.5 months that I have been to complete a full deadlift bodyweight pull-up. Through the fall months of 2013 I began training my pull-up and struggled with trying to get my chin above the bar with twitching and jerking and kicking the entire way. Very quickly there was a point when I felt so defeated. I just couldn’t reason how in the world I can look and be so “strong” (multiple push-ups, v-sits, deadlifts, and squats with perfect form and all loaded) yet couldn’t get my chin over the flippin’ bar with control! Then I read your posts about perfecting the hollow position, engaging my lats before the pull, and power breathing. So I revamped my training and incorporated these pieces along with other pull exercises like the flexed arm hang and negatives. By the start of November 2013 I still could not do a full pull-up under control but I could at least eliminate the negative space in my hollow position while hanging. I went on vacation at the end of November with my husband. That time off must have been the sealing deal for my muscle memory. My first day of training back from vacation I trained the pull-up and on December 31st, 2013 I dominated it! Since then I’ve put this big barn-door back to work. I’m now able to do sets of 3 deadlift bodyweight pull-ups WITH control.
    I wish I could upload the video clip as evidence!
    With that said, with proper training, any and every woman can train and master the pull-up.
    Consistency is the key.

  3. Jenny, when I worked for a commercial gym I would have similar reactions from men when I trained. They would look at me in fear or like I was a freak. One time, when I asked a man if I could work in on the pull-up bar with him to do some pull-ups, he looked at me wide eyed and hesitant and replied, “As long as you don’t do more pull-ups than me…” I replied, “I can’t promise you that :)”… Conversely, outside the commercial gym I’ve had great support from men. So I guess it just depends on the environment you are in. I will email you about Distance Coaching :). ~Artemis

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