If you’re a woman who regularly works out, there may still be one exercise that remains elusive: the pull-up. In 2012, the New York Times reported that researchers who documented women on their fitness journeys found that only a small percentage of them were able to perform the exercise — even though the group had increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by two percent.
So why do many women struggle do a pull-up, even if they’re exceptionally fit and capable of other challenging exercises? According to trainer Tony Coffey, founder of Bloom Training, one challenge is the distribution of muscle.
“Biological sex is definitely a massive factor for how challenging pull-ups can be,” Coffey explains. “The movement requires total upper-body strength to complete. Biological males naturally have larger frames, with a greater potential to hold more lean body mass and muscle, which helps support all upper-body movement.”
Data also show that “females naturally carry more lean body mass in their lower bodies, whereas males naturally tend to hold more relative lean body mass in their upper bodies,” Coffey says.
Michele Olson, a senior clinical professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Alabama, notes that specifically, “[biological] men have larger shoulder girdles and larger muscles,” while women “have larger hip girdles and comparable muscle.”
Yet just because women tend to have less muscle strength in their upper extremities — making pull-ups a challenge — doesn’t mean that they have to miss out on all of the benefits a pull-up can provide. The exercise strengthens your arms, but also your shoulders, core and back. If you want to work your way up to a pull-up, the experts suggest trying different exercises first, which all have their own strengthening benefits. Coffey notes that inverted rows can be a “solid starting exercise” for people who want to work their way up to pull-ups.
Olson shares that “negative pull-ups” are also a great starting point.
“Use a chair or bench. Hang from a pull-up bar in the flexed (ending/up) position,” she explains of the exercise. “Then, lower yourself slowly. Repeat.”
Whether or not you ever master a pull-up, experts say not to stress about it: It isn’t a barometer that you need to focus on when it comes to fitness.
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