If you’re a woman who exercises regularly, there may be another elusive exercise: the pull-up. 2012, New York Times Researchers documenting women’s fitness journeys found that only a small percentage of them were able to perform the exercise — despite a 36 percent increase in upper-body strength and a 2 percent decrease in body fat in this group.
So why is it so difficult for many women to do pull-ups, even when they are perfectly fit and able to perform other challenging exercises? One challenge, according to Bloom Training founder and trainer Tony Coffey, is muscle distribution.
“Gender is definitely a big factor in how challenging pull-ups are,” explains Coffey. “This movement requires the full strength of the upper body to complete. Biological males naturally have larger frames and are more likely to maintain more lean body mass and muscle, which helps support all upper body movements.”
The data also showed that “women naturally carry more lean mass in the lower body, while men naturally tend to maintain more relative lean mass in the upper body,” Coffey said.
In particular, Michele Olson, senior clinical professor of exercise science at Huntington College in Alabama, noted, “[biological] Men have bigger shoulder girdle and bigger muscles,” while women “have bigger hip girdle and similar muscles.”
However, just because women tend to have weaker upper-body muscle strength — which makes pull-ups a challenge — doesn’t mean they have to miss out on all the benefits that pull-ups can provide. The exercise strengthens your arms, as well as your shoulders, core, and back. If you want to do pull-ups your own way, experts recommend trying different exercises first, each of which has its own strengthening effect. Coffey notes that handstand rowing can be a “solid starting exercise” for people who want to get their own way into pull-ups.
Olsen thinks “negative pull-ups” are also a good place to start.
“Use a chair or bench. Hang from the pull-up in a bent (end/up) position,” she explains the exercise. “Then, slowly lower yourself. Repeat.”
Whether you’ve mastered the pull-up or not, experts say don’t stress it: When it comes to fitness, it’s not a barometer you need to focus on.
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