Women Can’t Do Pull-ups?! Oh, Come On!

There was an article recently published in the New York Times entitled “Why Women Can’t do Pull-ups.”

Obviously, this is an inflammatory title and the article contains various inaccurate and untrue assumptions.  Furthermore, the circumstance under which the study was performed resulted in conclusions that leave a precarious, at best, sense of validity.

To start, the hypothesis presented is this:  women have a harder time performing a pull-up than men.   As a former biochemist (Kim) who spent many hours in laboratories it leaves me agog that they restricted the study to women only (instead of comparing them to men). Setting up the study with just women leaves too much room for the “researcher’s” bias to influence the results in a self-fulfilling way.  If the hypothesis is that women have a harder time performing the movement than men, why were no men included in this study? Secondly, the sample size of this experiment was 17. Not 50, not 100, not 500, but 17. I can safely say that this is most likely NOT a sample size that one would have been considered adequate in an academic setting,  It is a mystery to me that this study met acceptable criterion to be published in the NY Times. Another point that I find to be inadequately discussed is that  these women were said to be of “normal-weight”. By what standard? What is “normal?” There is no mention of their previous movement experiences (I would say that a gymnast has a better shot at learning a pull-up than a couch-potato as gymnasts do movements that require pulling themselves up) aside from the fact that these women were unable to perform a single over-hand pull-up. Before the study had even started, it was terribly flawed.

On to the study itself. These women were directed to practice exercises to strengthen the appropriate muscles used during a pull-up.  BUT… Just because you strengthen the muscles that are supposed to be involved in a particular exercise, doesn’t make you better at that exercise. I could strengthen my left glute and make it as strong as I want, but that doesn’t mean I could do a one-legged squat on my left leg, there are WAY more factors to account for. I would actually have to … try a one legged squat! Also, one’s relationship to gravity plays a VERY important role. If they were practicing on an incline (as in the study), they were NOT practicing pull-ups, where you are vertical. In addition to this, it seems that he only trained the women using open kinectic chain exercises. This does not often prepare us well for closed-chain exercises, such as pull-ups as we are required to move our bodies through space as opposed to moving an object through space. If I have a female client who wants to do a pull-up (which I have), I know I can teach her how to do it. Why? Because I know how to train her. This trainer did not. There is also a mental/emotional aspect to exercise.There was no mention of the emotional/mental attitude of the women involved and whether or not the trainer was able to properly motivate them or if they even had any desire to do a pull-up or if they were given biased information to begin with (if they were aware of the hypothesis, this would certainly affect performance). Current exercise sciences and methods, such as Movement Efficiency Training, show that neurological and emotional factors are critical to success

The author continually makes statements that should make readers question his credibility. He discusses the impact of body fat percentage between men and women…. as if this matters? Weight definitely plays a factor in the ability to lift yourself off the ground. Weight, yes. Body fat? Maybe not. It all depends. If we are sure that muscle weighs more than fat, body fat percentage is almost a non-issue… His concluding statements about human movement are questionable.  The author proposes that we are a combinations of levers, which WOULD be true if we were machines. We are not machines, modern science will tell us that fluids and other body processes play ENORMOUS factors in movement.

It’s never too soon to start training. That’s the motto Kim’s 2 and a half year-old daughter, Mya, lives by. Anybody who knows Kim is not surprised.

Lastly, and perhaps more significantly than all other points discussed, there is the insidious, sexist subtext that underlies the entire article. His conclusive remark is reflective of the sexist thinking that has been a challenge to women in the fitness industry:  “I look at a volleyball player and wouldn’t expect her to be able to do a pull-up, but I know she’s fit.”  Wow, really?  He knows she’s fit, because he sees a body-type that in his mind he finds attractive/acceptable?  Is this what leads him to the assumption that she’s “fit,” despite the pull “limitations” of her upper body?  How generous of him to acknowledge her athletic prowess otherwise!  He’s making a sweeping assumption that all volleyball players have the same proportions (interesting since, oddly enough, he uses body proportion as a criteria for whether or not one can do a pull-up). Critical thinking skills time!  What happens to this statement, made by an “expert” when you see a woman who doesn’t have the physique he’s talking about (that we can only assume he’s envisioning from the popular female volleyball players out there) who can run around and do a pull-up?  Does this make her more fit than the other volleyball player he talks about?  Does this fly in the face of his research? Would he say that a man who couldn’t do a pull-up is “fit?”  Would he rely on the visual assessment for a man the same way?   Actually, the conclusion you should be drawing is this: This man doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows and should stop trying to make assumptions on women’s health and fitness until he is able to clear the convoluted and patriarchal lens through which we are sure he enjoys watching professional women’s volleyball.

Who let this guy write for the New York Times and what University allows this man to teach exercise physiology? Please tell me so I can tell all of his students where they can study to avoid misinformation.  Ladies, don’t be fooled by this article. There is NO REASON why you can’t do a pull-up if you want to. Just please be sure that you don’t have a sexist trainer that makes absurd assumptions.

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