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Why Women Struggle With Pull-ups

Pull ups

My achilles heel of the CrossFit world is without doubt strict pull-ups. It seems that no matter how often I fly through the kipping kind in a WOD the conditioning just doesn’t crossover when performing strict pull-ups.

In the past I have blamed my long, double-jointed arms for inhibiting my ability on the pull-up bar, but I always secretly thought that with a bit more practice, patience and dedication the day will come where I can muscle my way up the bar continuously and effortlessly.

Well recent research has shown that this day may never come for me and a large portion of the fit, female population. Exercise researchers from the University of Dayton conducted a study with 17 female participants (with no prior pull-up experience) in an effort to measure the ability of women to perform a strict pull-up.

The study was conducted over a period of three months where the group of women were required to train three days a week focusing on bicep intensive exercises. In addition, the group isolated their latissimus dorsi in various workouts in the hopes of strengthening the large muscle, which is activated during the pull-up.

Their exercise regime consisted of weights, assisted pull-ups and for good measure some aerobic training to reduce body fat. At the conclusion of the study the women increased their upper body strength by 36% and even managed to reduce body fat by 2%. There is no denying the fact that these are exciting results, but when it came time to put their pull-up to the test only four women triumphed leaving the researchers stupefied.

The New York Times captured one researchers amazement in a recent article. “We honestly thought we could get everyone to do one,” said Paul Vanderburgh, an author of the study and professor of exercise physiology at the University of Dayton.

Professor Vanderburgh admitted to the New York Times that the art of a pull-up does not come down to upper body strength alone. He says that a combination of physiological factors come into play which can determine one’s success on the pull-up bar. According to Vanderburgh, the more favourable attributes include strength, shorter stature and low body fat.

As expected the study affirmed prior beliefs that pull-ups are naturally more difficult for women than men because they have lower levels of testosterone, making it harder to build muscle.

More interestingly, (for me anyway) was the finding that those with long arms were more likely to struggle with strict pull-ups than those with shorter arms. So there is finally some evidence to support my theory!

In conclusion the study confirmed that despite the level of physical fitness, women will always fare worse than men when putting their pull-ups through its paces.

While these results do have some degree of merit, I know women within the CrossFit community who can out pull-up their male counterparts (sadly, I’m not one).

CrossFitters aside, according to the study pull-ups pose a great physical challenge for the majority of women and it’s an exercise that we may never be able to accomplish. Here’s hoping this kind of research doesn’t validate and foster a defeatist attitude.

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The Rx Review is an independent fitness website, reporting on the Sport of Fitness, functional fitness news, The CrossFit Games, health and diet related information, and also provides reviews on sports performance products.