Why Women Have a Harder Time With Pull-Ups

11/01/2012

Pull-up photo

I remember distinctly in the 5th grade wanting nothing more than to be able to do a pull-up. I could run fast, reach my fingers well past my toes, and do ample sit-ups; but pull-ups constantly evaded me. I was never able to get my head above that infamous pull-up bar no matter how hard I tried. 

It seems easier for men across the board to do pull-ups and researchers recently answered the question why. 

A recent article in The New York Times discussed the difficulty. Performing a pull-up means placing your hands in an overhand grip, arms fully extended and feet off the ground. Using the muscles in your arms and back you have to pull yourself off the ground and over the bar. 

Researchers at the University of Dayton wondered why it’s so much more difficult for a women so they looked at 17 normal weight girls who could not do a pull-up. Three days a week for three months they worked the muscles needed to do a pull-up, including biceps and the latissimus dorsi in the back. They focused on aerobic activity to reduce body fat. 

Over time the women increased strength by 36 percent and reduced body fat by two percent but by the end of the trial only four out of the 17 women could do just one pull-up. 

The New York Times reports:

[Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, and an author of the study] said the study and other research has shown that performing a pull-up requires more than simple upper-body strength. Men and women who can do them tend to have a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature. During training, because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men, Vanderburgh explained. In addition, they can’t lose as much fat. Men can conceivably get to 4 percent body fat; women typically bottom out at more than 10 percent.

So it seems no matter how hard I trained in 5th grade gym class I may never have been able to do that dreaded pull-up. And considering this data, maybe I should stop worrying about it.

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Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.


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