Women should train for pull-ups for more than three months".

A recent New York Times blog post was entitled “why women can’t do pullups.”  Another news article states “even fit women can’t do pull-ups“.  These are interesting headlines, especially to women who can do pullups. The headlines refer to a study at the University of Dayton (can’t find the study itself, sorry) that attempted to train women to do pull-ups over a short period of time.

Women and girls work on pull-ups at CrossFit Seven in Fort Worth, TX.

Yes, women and girls can do pull-ups.  The study mentioned in the Times only looked at women who could not do pull-ups to begin with, and then only trained them for three months.  Three months may not be a long enough training period. Hanging by your fingers and pulling your entire body weight up is not an everyday activity for most people.  It is not only muscles that would need conditioning, but tendons too.  And possibly the neural circuits that would be able to figure out “yes, I can do this action without tearing myself.” and allow the action to proceed.

“Women can’t do pull-ups” vs. “Women should train for pull-ups for more than three months.”


Even so, nearly 25% of the women who completed the training were able to do at least one pull-up after three months.  I wish the headline had read “Most women should train for pull-ups for more than three months.”  For me, my ability to hold onto the bar seems to be the limiting factor.  I tend to drop off after 20 or so even though I’m not fatigued muscle-wise.   If you are working on pull-ups keep at it and don’t let words like “women can’t do pull-ups” discourage you.   The most important factor in pull-ups may be lean body mass (Johnson et al. 2009.)  Not gender. Not body fat (although this will matter too.) Women will have less lean body mass (for the most part) than men.  And that takes time and effort to build.  Especially for women. But this doesn’t mean you can’t work up to it.
Be stubborn.  That goes for men too.

As far as the researchers who did the study are concerned, please note that research is often grabbed and misrepresented by well-meaning journalists.  We are glad they are studying women and fitness.  Hope to hear more from them in the future.  If only the headlines had read “many women cannot do pull-ups after training for 12 weeks at the University of Dayton” instead of “women can’t do pull-ups.”

A very tall husband-wife team bend their knees to avoid hitting the ground while doing pull-ups.

Johnson D, Lynch J, Nash K, Cygan J, & Mayhew JL (2009). Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to maximal lat-pull and pull-up strength in men and women. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 23 (3), 1022-8 PMID: 19387371

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