Pete McCall by Pete McCall

woman doing pull-upsThis recent New York Times column summarizing a research study on women’s ability to do pull-ups has set the online fitness community abuzz. I'm not a woman, but as a husband of a part-time fitness instructor and full-time crime fighter, the father of a little girl and a geek about all things strength and conditioning, I'm offended by this research. Let me explain.

First off, I love challenging my clients (both male and female) to be able to do full-body pull-ups.  Why? Because it shifts the focus of exercise from training for aesthetic reasons, (wanting to look better) to training for performance reasons (achieving a specific, quantifiable result). And pull-ups are definitely something you can measure. You can either do them or you can't, there is no ambiguity about the results.

Many years ago I realized that clients with an appearance-based goal often had a tough time with self-image. My observation was that if someone started a training program with the goal of losing a certain amount of weight or achieving a certain look it seemed as if he or she was never 100% satisfied with the outcome. The challenge is that appearance is subjective, and we are each our own worst critic. Admit it, no matter how fit you are, you always think you could lose a more weight or look a little better.

When I started challenging clients to achieve a specific performance metric such as doing a certain number of full-body pull-ups, I began to notice their focus shifted from how they looked in the mirror toward meeting the physical challenge presented to them. As clients improved their pull-ups they also increased strength and definition in the upper back, shoulders and arms. The client would be so focused on improving pull-up technique that before long he or she developed the muscular arms and V-taper to the back they wanted in the first place.

Back to the New York Times column, and why this study bothers me. This particular research study was interested in finding out whether the pull-up is a meaningful measure of fitness. The study authors identified 17 normal weight women who could not do a single pull-up and had them exercise three days a week for three months in an effort to improve their strength and ability to complete a pull-up. 

The end result of the study is that while the subjects increased their upper-body strength and reduced body fat percentages, only 4 of the 17 women tested could complete a pull-up at the end of the test period. Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of physiology at the University of Dayton and one of the study authors, said he thought more of the women would be able to do pull-ups; he was surprised at the low numbers who were actually successful. One important take-away from the New York Times column is a comment by Vanderburgh, who said "because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men." This is important to acknowledge because, in my experience, many women who could benefit from the fat-burning effects of weight lifting do not pursue it due to the irrational fear of developing too much muscle. As weightlifting enthusiasts know, it takes a lot of training to gain muscle, especially for women.

While I appreciate the comment about women and testosterone, there is another statement attributed to Vanderburgh that I find particularly objectionable. The column quotes Vanderburgh as saying women are at a biomechanical disadvantage of being able to perform a pull-up. Technically he may be correct in that due to structural differences, namely bone length and quantity of lean muscle mass, women may have to work harder than men to be able to perform pull-ups. However in my experience, anyone (male or female) can meet almost any fitness goal as long as they develop an effective exercise program for achieving that goal. 

The role of personal trainers is to motivate, encourage and guide clients toward achieving success. It may take some people longer than others to achieve a fitness goal, but if the goal is important and the exercise program effective, that goal CAN be accomplished. Failure is excusable, and in fact, it's part of the learning process. However, simply stating that "women can't do pull-ups" provides a reason for not even trying. As Helen Gurley Brown, former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, said, "The only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren’t is the willingness to work very, very hard."

As fitness professionals, we should be looking for ways to give our clients the confidence to achieve their fitness goals, not providing excuses for accepting the status quo.

Check out my friend (and former participant in my Spinning® classes) Artemis Scantalides demonstrating that women CAN INDEED do pull-ups. And yes, she does work very, very hard.

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