A HOW-TO MANUAL! Why women think they can’t do pull-ups and how to start doing them… And why men THINK they can do pull-ups ;)

As a woman in the fitness industry, I listen about the fact that women can’t even get close to where men are in terms of upper body strength all the time! How the fact that we are women automatically makes us unable to pull ourselves over a bar, and in order to be able to do it, we need to bench press twice our body weight, train our back with some insane reps, until we finally start looking like men. I can tell you right away, this CAN NOT be further from the truth! The ability to pull yourself up a bar does not depend on the volume of your muscle mass (although without adequate muscle in general, it would be very hard to pull up our own body), it depends on the amount of relative strength in the upper body and proper exercise technique. It’s a fact that women start off with genetic disadvantage compared to men when it comes to upper body strength, but with a lot more prejudice regarding its conditioning… This does not in any case mean that women can’t and shouldn’t do pull-ups! It just means that we can do it with an intelligent approach and an adequate training program.

I know a lot of women that can do much better pull-ups then many of the guys I know. And they definitely don’t look like men! To be honest both sexes are completely capable of doing pull-ups, but the reality is that very few of both actually do it correctly! Facts are facts, and it’s an honest movement, you can either relax your entire body completely in the hanging phase of the movement, pull yourself up without swinging and touch your neck to the bar or you can’t!

Of course, you can always swing yourself up and down the bar, in the form of the widely known (thanks to CrossFit) “kipping pull-ups”. To be honest, I was myself completely absorbed by this trend and for a certain period of time I was concentrated on these types of pullups for a long time (here is a quick video memory from a couple of years ago of me swinging away with kipping pull-ups: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm_ZT2sXGlI ) And if you are an enthusiast CrossFitter, you might think: What is the issue with kipping and why is she writing against this pull-up technique, considering the fact that she has done it and is actually still practicing it from time to time? The reason why is because it’s much easier to learn the actual technique of the movement, that will let you use your body’s inertia to swing yourself up and therefore, the actual strength component is not required to complete the exercise. I want to emphasize that correct kipping pull-ups are completely fine with me, as long as before that we are able to perform at least 10 reps of strict pull-ups. I know I might piss some people off with this statement, but for me kipping pull-ups are used by the so-called CrossFit boxes (bearing in mind that there is only one certified CrossFit box in Sofia as a whole) in order to be used as a money-maker! It’s a lot easier to teach someone the swinging movement of kipping instead of actual strict pull-ups, just because you don’t really need to be strong and you can learn the technique on the first day! So, the recreational athlete goes to a CrossFit box, thanks to an amazing coach as yourself, he is able to swing himself up the bar, his eyes light up and he is ecstatic by the fact that thanks to you, he can finally perform a PULL-UP! Seriously?

The problem is that kipping is perfectly fine, for someone who has a good range of motion in the shoulders and enough strength to perform strict pull-ups. Although they are completely DANGEROUS for someone, who has never been able to do pull-ups and is just a fan of his hands being covered in calluses, which he photographs, uploads them to a social network with a hashtag “no pain no gain” ( which actually ruins the chances for an adequate training session for at least 1 or 2 weeks ahead, but in the meanwhile, he can post a video of himself using all available weights in the weight room on the leg press, and then just move them by an inch using only his calves 😉 )! After a few shoulder injuries, one starts thinking about these things, but its usually already too late and it’s a lot more difficult to fix the damage.

Ok, let’s move away from the kipping pull-ups for a second and think about this: Why do we need to do pull-ups in the first place? There are a lot of people that can get strong and lean without doing pull-ups… There are hundreds of ways to develop upper-body strength and muscle gains and not one of them is “completely necessary”, in order to achieve our strength or leanness goals in this area of our bodies. But I must say, the satisfaction we dive into the moment we are able to perform a good set of 5-10-20 reps of strict pull-ups or chin-ups is a great motivation by itself! Not to mention the fact that it’s a good idea to develop overall strength with different means of exercises (using resistance/weight training and your own body-weight). The more you weigh, the bigger the challenge (you need to pull more weight over the bar) and the bigger the satisfaction afterwords 😉 Every bench-press king can bench press and curl for a gym selfie, but how many of them can pull their own body-weight correctly over a bar? 😀

Now, let’s get to the most important topic – how do we start doing CORRECT pull-ups if we actually decide doing it? There are a lot of ways to achieve that goal, considering the fact that the main muscles, which are used in the pull-up technique are: the lats, traps, rhomboid, teres major, infraspinatus, pecs, erector spinae and external oblique. Now as a start, if there is not an adequate amount of muscle and strength in these areas, we will not be able to perform the pull-up movement! Here are some suggestions and techniques (all exercises involving the above mentioned muscles will help you develop the strength need to pull yourself up correctly) to increase the amount of strength in the upper-body so that we can start doing pull-ups or increase the number of our strict pull-ups:

  1. Band-assisted or assisted pull-ups:

When we are unable to do a singe pull-up, it’s a good idea at the beginning of the progression to incorporate the actual movement itself, with some kind of assistance – for example with the help of a coach, who would be able to assist in the actual movement, when you start struggling. This is the better option for me personally, since a good coach will actually decide more adequately when to interfere and when to leave the movement to the trainee. The other very good option is using a band, considering the fact that it would be a good idea to use different level of resistance bands and to scale them – when we can do 5 strict reps, we can move to a lighter resistance band. The key here in order to achieve the wanted effect with the bands: We have to perform the pull-ups with as less swinging as possible and to hold our position in the upper position of the movement for 3 seconds. Here is a short video, dedicated on doing this progression (please ignore the running and screaming people in the background) 😀 https://youtu.be/PtCoPzjKBnU

  1. Negative pull-ups

We get to the top position of the pull-up and we slowly lower ourselves to the bottom position with our hands straight (we can use a box or something else to jump to the top position over the bar). The key here is for the lowering movement to be as slow as possible – 10-seconds in duration would be perfect. A short video with an illustration of the progression: https://youtu.be/twZIAdSLn6M

  1. Horizontal ring pull-ups:

A very good option for simulating the actual pulling movement. This progression can be scaled very easily, as we only need to change the foot position (as lower our body is, the harder the movement), or we can elevate our feet on a box. The key here is to hold for 3 seconds in the top position of the movement. Video of the movement: https://youtu.be/8Yeo8L1ornw

  1. Bumbell/kettlebell/barbell rowing:

If done correctly, this option has a great effect mainly from the perspective that we are strengthening the actual grip – something, which if not strong enough, can actually jeopardize the whole exercise and even if we are strong enough to do a pull-up, the grip can ruin our attampt. Short video below to illustrate: https://youtu.be/2V8o1r3czD0

  1. As Pavel Tsatsouline says – More reps!

His theory about pull-ups called “Greasing the groove” leads to amazing results with a number of athletes, which he works with, including his own father, who, at the age of 60 decided he wants to increase the number of his consecutive pull-ups with this program – bearing in mind that he has been exercising his whole life. The progression is based on the idea that you need to do as much reps as possible without fatigue – so if your maximum number of pull-ups is 5, whenever you have time during the day, or during your workout, you do half or 40% of them – 2 or 3 in this case. Then you do a long rest (30 min, 1 hour, 2 hours) and then you do 2 more, and so on. Tsatsouline’s father started doing between 25 and 100 cumulative reps per day, when after a few weeks, he tested his maximum consecutive pull-ups. They had increased to 20! Something which he had not achieved since he had been a young lat 🙂

  1. Last point – Lose fat!

The higher our body fat percentage, the less muscle we have, the harder it would be to perform a strict pull-up. Again, you can see that things are connected in our lives… After all, while performing a pull-up, we need to pull roughly 85% of our own body weight, therefore, the lower our body fat % compared to the lean muscle, the easier it would be to be successful. 🙂

These are some common principles, that we can add to our list of techniques and exercises in order to start fighting our prejudices about women and pull-ups. I am certain that every person is able to learn how to perform a proper pull-up as long as they have the will to learn, try out new things and be consistent! If not, the torn up calluses are always an option if you are trying to hit on Instagram girls… I think there still are some of them left which are actually impressed by something like that (don’t send them this article) 😀

References:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21068680

2. https://www.t-nation.com/training/strengthen-your-strict-pull-up

3. Tsatsouline, Pavel – The Naked Warrior, 2003 Advanced Fitness Solutions, Inc. ( can be found on www.amazon.com )

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