Last week an article in the New York Times caused a bit of an uproar through the fitness industry when it published an article called “Why Women Can’t Do Pullups.” Now granted, women tend to have a harder time doing full extension body weight pull-ups compared to their male counterparts, but to make a blanket statement like this is pretty bold. A better title may have been “Why women have difficulty doing pull-ups,” but I digress.
The article, written by Tara Parker-Pope, called on a study from 2003 by Flanagan et al in the journal Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport called “Training College-Aged Women to Perform the pull-up Exercise.” The goal of the study was to see if the pull-up was a valid and reliable marker for testing to gain acceptance into professions like law enforcement, fire fighting and the military for female recruits, and whether there would be better alternatives to gauge fitness. Previous attempts to study the concept of doing pull-up to determine fitness in the Marines failed because most of the new recruits were not able to successfully complete any number of reps, which meant they would have to go to the flexed arm hang for time.
The study had 20 college-aged female recruits go through a 3 month strength training program, broken up into 3 phases:
Weeks 1-2: Testing and teaching phase, where participants would learn the exercises to be done and go through a basic adaptation phase
Weeks 3-7: Specific adaptation phase, where participants were to complete 3 sessions per week and did 3 sets of 9-12 reps of a pull-up trainer, bench press, hammer curls, squats (I’m guessing not barbell free squats), and crunches
Weeks 8-12: Strength phase, where the loads increased and volume decreased from 6-9 reps down to singles
So the research program had a testing parameter of completing a single rep with body weight, yet only 4 workouts in the entire 12 week program had the individuals working towards completing a heavy single exercise, and only 2 exercises (pull-up trainer and hammer curls) had any possible carry-over to completing a pull-up? And you’re telling me this was the best some academics could come up with??
Now interestingly, they were able to show a mean increase in strength on the program of 36% for the pull-up trainer, and a decrease in mean body composition of 2%, which is actually quite good considering it was in such a short period of time. The pull-up test was actually quite well done as well, with one participant increasing her number of pull-ups from 2 to 11, once increasing from 1 to 8, and 4 others go from not being able to complete any to being able to complete reps unassisted.
The study then looked at predictive values to see what would give the best indication of who would do the pull-ups, and found that those who lost the most body fat and who had the best strength to fat-free mass ratio would do the best in the pull up tests, which is kind of a no-brainer. The stronger someone is and the leaner they are, the more weight they can move and the less weight they have to move.
Now interestingly enough, the majority of the research used as references for this 2003 study were from the early 1990′s, late 1980′s and even dated as far back as the mid-1970′s. I would like to think the researchers had access to articles from a more recent time period where strength training protocols would be considerably different compared to the date range they used, and that may have had a drastic impact on the strength training program and the results the were able to get, but I’m just speculating here.
Now in the New York Times article, the improvements made by the study participants seems to have been, well, reduced significantly. To quote the article directly:
By the end of the training program, the women had increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by 2 percent. But on test day, the researchers were stunned when only 4 of the 17 women succeeded in performing a single pull-up.
That’s a riot, because of the complete mis-representation of the facts listed in the article. First, there were 20 participants, 2 of them could do reps on the first day and they increased their number significantly, and second there were six women who could perform pull-ups on test day, not 4. Not only is this statement misleadingly negative, it’s completely inaccurate. I’m guessing she also skimmed over the point where one woman increased her pull-ups from 2 to 11, or a 550% increase, as well as the woman who increased from 1 to 8, an 800% increase in number of reps.
I’m frankly surprised this article was published in the state it was, as the fact-checking was totally bogus and the article was written in a tone that was completely off for the results generated. The title of the article was “Why women can’t do pull-ups,” yet it showed that women could do pull-ups, and didn’t provide any real postulates as to why women have a difficult time doing them other than the safe-holds of levers and testosterone.
Maybe it has something to do with the most common strength training programs used by women, such as higher reps and lower weight that don’t transfer well to performing pull-ups, or the fact that more than 50% of the population is considered sedentary. It could also be that the neural efficiency of females is slightly less than males, meaning more of the neural impulse generated to the synaptic gap is actually transferred into the muscle to result in more contractions and more powerful contractions. Maybe it’s posture-related, as females tend to have greater thoracic kyphosis than males due to the fact that women have bigger chests that cause them to be pulled forward. This kyphosis reduces the scapular retraction and depression strength, which would impact pull-ups.
What wasn’t mentioned is that pound for pound, females tend to have greater lower body strength and muscular endurance than males, who have greater power but a sharper power decline over time.
In conclusion, this was a terribly written article that somehow made it through editing to be published simply to provoke controversy. The title is misleading, the research was inaccurately quoted, and the conclusions the author drew were not based on known science or any knowledge of training potential.
While the research article the author used was successful in showing a training effect and getting women to do more pull-ups, the end result was not statistically significant to their original hypothesis, which meant the hypothesis used didn’t match up to the study design. Had the study been 6 months in length, there would have been a much greater effect, and also if the research intervention had used a longer period of time working on maximal strength instead of as long of a hypertrophy phase the results would have been much different.
The kick-back from this could be everything from outright anger from trainers and fitness enthusiasts to a sense of hopelessness from those who took this as gospel and have given up on their goals of performing a pull-up.
Again, this was a terrible article, which reinforces the need for people to understand what they are being told by the media. The general public will take this at face value, whereas only a few
incredibly handsome and sexy nerds will look for the original article and go through the intervention and results like I did.
The media has to do a better job at delivering a message than this.