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How Women Can Train to do Pull-Ups WELL.
A few weeks ago I went to a local yoga studio to take a TRX class (you know, because sometimes the trainer/instructor likes to go TAKE a class instead of teaching a class ;))… When I walked in the door to the TRX class, three women and the instructor were discussing pull-ups and one of the women was trying to do a pull-up. She declared that she was determined to do a pull-up before she turned 40 next year. My first thought was, “I wonder what sparked this conversation…” As I stood there and listened, they all turned to ask me, “can you do a pull-up?” to which I replied with a big grin (because I love pull-ups!), “yes, I can.” The instructor replied jokingly, “Oh good, because you can only take class if you can do a pull-up :)”.
When I came home after class I logged online for the first time that day and saw multiple posts by fellow RKCs and other fitness colleagues about a blog article that was published in the New York Times entitled “Why Women Can’t do Pull-Ups.” . I had a gut feeling that this article was what sparked the women’s discussion earlier in the day about pull-ups. Upon reading the title of this blog article and subsequent content of the article, the response in my brain was “WHAT???!!! What a horrible message to send to women”.
Clearly the woman who wrote the article has never in her life tried to actually do a pull-up or worked towards achieving the ability to do a pull-up. Women CAN do pull-ups and YES, most women (and MEN for that matter) have to train in order to do them successfully… but YES, women CAN do pull-ups. I am going to tell you my story of how I trained to become successful at doing pull-ups, but first I am going to briefly summarize what bothered me about this article.
Aside from the blatantly belittling and sensationalist title to catch people’s eyes and shock them into reading the article, there were so many things about this article that bothered me:
- The Title. The word “can’t” is one that I do not recognize. It’s like the quote from Henry Ford, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Stating that women CAN’T do pull-ups just sets them up to fail before they even try to do one or work towards it. In general, thinking that you can’t do something right from the get-go is a horrible thought process to have; how about, “I’ll give it a shot and if I am unable to do it at this time, if it’s something that I really want, I will work towards achieving that goal.”
- The Title vs. the Content of the Article. The title is misleading. The title leads you to believe that the article will be about why women are incapable of doing pull-ups when in fact the article goes on to describe how it is more challenging for women to do pull-ups than it is for men. However, based upon the poor writing in this article, and inaccurate presentation of the topic, at the end, it leaves the woman reader to believe that achieving a pull-up is a nearly impossible task.
- The study (and the poor referencing of this study on behalf of the New York Times author) used to back up the author’s statement.
- News Flash #1: There IS a skill to doing a pull-up and yes, training is required, woman or man. The author referenced a study within which the participants engaged in strength training exercises to “strengthen the biceps and the latissimus dorsi” and appeared to perform an assisted pull-up drill with an “incline bench”. I have never before heard of the method of using an “incline bench” for assisted pull-ups. Furthermore, I would have looked deeper into the study to see if the study described how this tool was used and perhaps included pictures that demonstrated the technique, however, the author of the New York Times article only referenced that the study was from the University of Dayton. The author of the New York Times article did NOT include the name of the person who completed the study, the journal that it was published in, OR the year that the study was completed.
- News Flash #2: The pull-up is a TOTAL BODY exercise that uses more muscles in the body than lats and biceps AND specific training for pull-ups, including pull-ups (assisted if necessary – not using an “incline bench”, to my knowledge anyway) must be performed in order to achieve a pull-up. Also within this study the participants only trained for 3 months.
- News Flash #3: Typically it takes more than 3 months of consistent pull-up training to achieve a pull-up and to see gains in pull-up strength. By consistent, I mean pull-up specific training EVERY DAY, or at least 4-5 times per week. Not just 3 days of doing bicep curls and lat pull-downs as I am assuming that these were some of the exercises that were used to train the pull-up in this study. If you want to do a pull-up you have to actually practice the actual movement of a pull-up in order to do one and you must have patience and dedication to achieve this goal.
Women out there who may be discouraged about your ability to do pull-ups and even more discouraged after reading this blasphemous and poorly written blog article published in the New York Times, do not fret, I am going to tell you my story of how I came to not only love pull-ups… although I never hated them… but also how I came to be successful at doing pull-ups. Hopefully my story will demonstrate that, contrary to the aforementioned New York Times blog article, women can train to do pull-ups really well (perhaps better than some men out there) AND learn to love doing them while they get better at them.
As you read this keep in mind that this is what worked for me. What worked for me may not work for you and I am not claiming that this is the universal solution for women to magically be successful at doing pull-ups. However, I am providing some knowledge based upon personal experience for you to add to your toolbox. Furthermore, I had a baseline of strength and skill for the pull-up and I realize that not everyone has this baseline of strength and skill for the pull-up. Subsequently, I provide suggestions for how to start from square one if you are unable to complete at least one pull-up rep with any grip, (e.g. prone, neutral, or underhand, see examples below for reference…).
Underhand Grip (often referred to as a “Chin-Up”)
Why I love the pull-up.
The pull-up is an amazing and challenging total body strength exercise that provides anyone with a sense of accomplishment. A person must apply focused, specific and consistent training in order to achieve a pull-up. Furthermore it provides personal training clients with a specific strength goal to works towards that has them watching their strength gains with movements and weights during each session rather than a weight loss or body transformation goal that has them watching the scale or constantly analyzing their bodies in the mirror. As a result of focusing on the strength goal rather than the scale, the client naturally achieves the body that he or she wants by building strength and muscle through training for the strength goal.
How I fell in love with the pull-up.
The first time I did a pull-up, I didn’t think and I just did a pull-up. I can’t ever remember a time that I was unable to do a least one pull-up, HOWEVER, this is because my mentality is when someone asks me to do something or when I challenge myself to do something I just do it. That doesn’t mean that I always succeed, but it DOES mean that my mind is on my side when I set out to do a task, even a physical one like a pull-up. Have you ever heard that any physical task is 80% mental and 20% physical? Yes, your mind is a powerful thing and I will refer to the Henry Ford quote again, “If think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” … or as Bruce Lee used to say, “You are the commander of your mind.”
I started to incorporate pull-ups into my own personal training program about five years ago. I did not have a consistent training program with a specific goal as I do now (and will explain what that goal is shortly), but at the time I did train pull-ups 1-2 times per week.
Five years ago I could do at least one, maybe two pull-ups prone grip (refer to previous pictures for example) per set for multiple sets and I could do three to five pull-ups neutral grip (refer to previous pictures for example) for multiple sets. So, when I trained pull-ups as part of my own personal training program I completed as many repetitions as I could per set for at least three sets. That means, if I was only able to do one prone grip pull up, I would do sets of one prone grip pull up for at least three sets. I would train what I could do, whatever that was, knowing that at some point, I would be able to do more.
I would also train all grips, not in the same session, but from session to session – so sometimes I would train prone grip pull-ups, other times I would train neutral grip pull-ups. If I had someone available to assist me through the last rep or two in the set that was challenging, I would have that person give me a little push. I will admit that I never trained chin-ups (a pull-up with an underhand grip – refer to previous pictures for example), flexed arm hangs, band assisted pull-ups, or negatives; however, I do use band assisted pull-up training, flexed arm hang training and negatives with my current clients to help them works towards their pull-up goals.
I would also incorporate “jump” pull-ups (NOT kipping pull-ups. I NEVER do kipping pull-ups, nor do I recommend them) into my training in that I would jump up into my first pull up rep and get a little assistance that way and then try to complete a second rep from a dead hang position. After many times practicing pull-ups this way, soon I was able to complete more and more additional reps from the dead hang position.
How I started to become successful at pull-ups.
Enter my RKC Level I Certification…
I registered for my RKC Level I Certification in October 2010 and the training was scheduled for April 2011. Training for my RKC Level I Certification added a whole new meaning to my pull-up training. Even though the RKC Level I Certification only requires women to complete a 15 second flexed arm hang, they do have a choice to do pull-ups and I wanted to test with pull-ups.
At the time I could complete multiple sets of 3-4 prone grip pull-ups and multiple sets of 6-8 neutral grip pull-ups. My main focus was to improve the number of prone grip pull-ups that I could complete. I wanted to be able to successfully complete three sets of 5 reps of thumbless prone grip, dead hang pull-ups.
I started training pull-ups four times per week. It was the first exercise that I started all of my own personal training sessions with. I would train both grips, prone and neutral, (not within the same session but I would alternate them session to session) and I would complete whatever repetitions I could complete that day for at least three sets.
By the time I left for my RKC Level I Certification on April 28, 2011 I could complete an easy set of 5, thumbless prone grip, dead hang pull-ups on any given day at any time of day. When I completed my strength test at my RKC Level I Certification I chose to do a set of pull-ups. I completed 5 pull-ups plus one for good luck that day and that was the first time I had ever completed 6 consecutive thumbless prone grip, dead hang pull-ups.
As with any training, you must be extremely consistent, focused and patient in order to achieve gains in pull-up skill and strength.
How I started to do pull-ups better than some men 🙂…
Enter the Iron Maiden Challenge…
When I returned from my RKC Level I Certification I decided that I wanted train to do the Iron Maiden Challenge. For those of you who do not know what that is, the Iron Maiden Challenge is one within which the woman must complete a pull-up with a 24kg (52.8lbs) kettlebell, one arm overhead press a 24kg kettlebell, and pistol squat with a 24kg kettlebell. The equivalent for men is the Beast Challenge with a 48kg (105.6lbs) kettlebell.
In order to begin training for this challenge I incorporated weighted pull-ups into my training program in May 2011. I had never in my life trained weighted pull-ups before. I decided to see what I was capable of with an additional 10lbs strapped on to me. The first time that I attempted weighted, thumbless prone grip, dead hang pull-ups I completed a set of 4 pull-ups the first set, a set of 3 pull-ups the second set and then two sets of 2 for the third and fourth sets.
I trained with 10lbs for my weighted pull-up practice for 8 months, until January 2012 when I was able to complete three solid sets of 5 reps with the 10lb kettlebell. From May 2011 to January 2012, I would occasionally try some sets with either 15lbs or 18lbs, but some days were good with these weights in that I would be able to complete a solid three sets of 3 repetitions with them and then other days I would struggle to complete sets of 2 repetitions. Therefore I mainly stuck to training with the additional 10lbs because I was always successful with that weight. Also during these 8 months, I continued to train body weight pull-ups on some days. I would train two days per week weighted pull-ups and then two days per week, body weight pull-ups.
In January 2012, I increased the weight that I trained my weighted pull-ups with 15 to 18lbs. Some days I would train with 15lbs and other days I would train with 18lbs. I would always complete three sets of 3 repetitions when I trained weighted pull-ups and I would always complete three sets of 5 repetitions when I trained body weight pull-ups. I still continued to train pull-ups at least 4 days per week, if not 5 days on some weeks and I would train two to three days per week weighted pull-ups and two days per week body-weight pull-ups.
Also in January 2012 I registered to attend my RKC Level II Certification in April 2012. At the time women were tested on their ability to complete a pull-up and there was a whole section of the training dedicated to pull-up technique. I completed the pull-up for my testing successfully. In addition, during the pull-up technique section of the training, when we were all presented with pull-up bars to practice the technique taught, I achieved a body weight pull-up PR and completed a set of 8 consecutive thumbless prone grip, dead hang body weight pull-ups and I achieved a weighted pull-up PR of a pull up with a 16kg (35.2lbs) bell on my foot. I was able to get the bar below my chin to about my collarbone. Not to my chest, but I felt really good about the pull up attempt. You can read more about my training for and my RKC Level II experience HERE.
Note: I mention there is a skill and technique to completing pull-ups. You will see how I do pull-ups in the videos at the end of this post. I will not go into details about the technique that I use (e.g. how I brace my abdominals and cross my legs) but I will suggest that you contact an RKC Level II or an SFG Level II preferably who received their Level II Certification in April 2012 or earlier in order to learn this technique.
Further Weighted Pull-Up and Iron Maiden Challenge Training Progress:
Upon returning from my RKC Level II I was inspired by my own strength from my consistent and safe training. At the time, I continued to train weighted pull-ups, now with an 18lb kettlebell for three sets of 3 repetitions 2-3 times per week. I also still trained body weight pull-ups 2 times per week. Note: I did not jump right on a heavier weight for my weighted pull-ups just because I achieved a PR at my RKC Level II. Safe and patient training is the reason for this.
At the end of June 2012, almost two months after returning from my RKC Level II and after continuing to consistently train weighted pull-ups I decided to attempt a pull-up with a 16kg kettlebell again. This was the result:
and a second attempt for good measure (or a good laugh ;)):
I was not able to complete a weighted pull-up with a 16kg kettlebell that day but I was able to complete a weighted pull-up with a 14kg kettlebell that day:
Also around that same time, about a month earlier a few weeks after I had returned from my RKC Level II, I decided to max out a set of body weight pull-ups. As I did at my RKC Level II Certification, I completed a set of 8 body weight pull-ups:
Since these videos were taken in May and June 2012, I continued to train pull-ups 4-5 times per week. 2-3 times per week I trained weighed pull-ups with an 18lb kettlebell, three sets of three for 3 repetitions and body weight pull-ups two times per week for sets of either three sets of 5 repetitions, or three sets for repetitions of 8, 7, 6. I always start all of my training sessions with get -ups and pull-ups, ALWAYS.
At the end of this past September 2012, I decided to try a max set of body weight pull-ups. I achieved a PR and completed a set of 10 body weight pull-ups. Towards the end of October, I started to feel even stronger with my pull-up progress and I raised the number of repetitions for my body weight pull-ups to three sets of 8 repetitions. On November 9, 2012, I had my boyfriend, fellow RKC and SFG and co-owner Iron Body Studios, Eric Gahan, take a video of me completing a max set of body weight pull-ups. I completed 12 consecutive body weight pull-ups although only 11 are shown because Eric started filming after I had completed my first repetition, but you get the point :):
A few days prior on November 7, 2012, I had Eric take a video of me complete a pull-up with a 16kg kettlebell. I completed it with ease and could have completed at least one if not two more repetitions. To me it felt like doing a body weight pull-up. Note, this was 4 months since my last attempt and I only trained with an 18lb kettlebell in order to achieve this:
SO, you see it is possible for women to do pull-ups and do to them well, even better than some men in cases. Below I have summarized some suggestions for people training to improve their pull-up strength and skill. Ladies, do you want to be strong and lean? Then Lift Heavy Things, EAT REAL food, cut back on the Cardio AND DO Pull-ups.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
First I will repeat what I stated earlier in this post:
As with any training, you must be extremely consistent, focused and patient in order to achieve gains in pull-up skill and strength.
If you are able to complete at least one pull-up:
- Train whatever repetitions you can complete successfully. By doing this on a regular basis you will eventually be able to do more.
- Train different grips: prone, neutral, underhand.
- Train with assistance if necessary: use bands for assistance, a training partner to give you a push to help you finish the pull-up, jump up to the bar using the momentum as assistance to help you complete your pull-up.
If you are unable to complete at least one pull-up:
- Train flexed arm hangs if you are unable to complete one full pull-up of any grip and if you are able to train assisted pull-ups.
- Train negatives: start in the finish position of the pull-up and slowly lower yourself down until your elbows are completely extended; control your descent. Repeat.
Finally for both categories, find the RKC II and/or SFG II in your area, preferably one who received their Level II Certification prior to April 2012, and train with them to improve your pull-up skill and strength.