How Women Can Master Pull Ups

A new study shows it's harder for us to nail this exercise. So it's even more awesome when we do.

An article in The New York Times today confirmed something most women already know: For us ladies, doing a pull up is really flippin’ hard.

Exercise researchers from the University of Dayton worked with 17 normal-weight women for three days a week for three months to try to strengthen their muscles enough to do one, single pull up.

The results? Although the women increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered body fat by 2 percent, only four of 17 of them could do a pull up on test day.

As it turns out, people with a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature have the best success with pull ups. And when it comes to training,  women are at an automatic disadvantage. Because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men. They also can’t lose as much fat (women bottom out at 10 percent, while men can bottom out at 4 percent). Women are at such a disadvantage, in fact, that the marine corps decided not to add pull ups to women's physical fitness test.  

But let’s get one thing straight: Most women can do pull ups with enough of the proper training (in my case, it took a full year). And, when they do, it’s pretty damn impressive.

If you really want to master this exercise and gain all of the back, arm, core and shoulder strength that goes along with it (hey, we all want to be as cool as John Gill when we're 75), here are a few exercises to add to your training regimen.

Assisted Pull-Up Machine Circuit

Use the assisted pull-up machine to offset your weight until you can do 15 pull-up repetitions with moderate exertion (you’ll know you’re on the right track if you start to get tired around 10). Complete three sets of 15, changing your hand position after each set. Because you can change the weight, you can use this machine to train up to doing pull ups without assistance.

You can also use the hand holds by your waist for weighted tricep dips. To do this exercise, grab onto the holds and straighten your arms while keeping a slight bend at your elbow. Lower your body until your arm forms a 90-degree angle. Slowly press back up. Complete 15 reps in between each of your pull up sets. 

Resistance Band Pull-Backs

Wrap a resistance band around a solid object, such as a pole, and stand or kneel with your back straight. Grab onto both ends of the resistance band and slowly pull your arms backwards, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for 5 seconds and return to the start position. Use 3 sets of 15 repetitions. This will help work your latissimi dorsi. Located in your back, these are some of the largest muscles in the human body and they must be strong for pull ups.  

Preacher Curls

The brachialis, a muscle in the upper arm that helps work the elbow joint, is also important for pull ups. Preacher curls can help you target the brachilis, along with the bicep and brachioradialis, muscles. For this exercise you’ll need a weight and a preacher bench, found in many gyms. Sit on the bench and put the backs of your arms against the padded support. Using an underhand grip, raise the dumbbell toward your shoulder, keeping the back of your arm against the support. Complete three sets of 15 reps with both arms.

Negative Pull-ups

Grab onto a pull up bar and hop up so that your chin is over the bar (you may need to use a footstool). Lower yourself all the way back down as slowly as possible. Work up to 10 reps.

If you need more inspiration, here are a few additional benefits to learning and doing pull ups.  

  • You make new friends at the gym: Break the ice by complimenting someone’s pull ups and asking for tips
  • You have a cool new party trick: No one will expect you to bust out a set of pull ups on someone’s canvas board
  • It's great sibling bonding: See below

My brother and I rocking out some pullups at our climbing gym