Even babies do better pull-ups than I do! (And look way cuter doing them too! Awww!)
This past Monday found New Gym Buddy Kari (everyone say “Hi Kari!”), trying her best to follow my weird directions, standing on a weight bench and doing jumping pull-ups, which if you’ve ever tried them, can be plenty hard. As she boinged up and down, a gentlemen (known for doing multiple sets of pike pull-ups) walked past her and commented, “Do those even count?!” I’m sure it was meant as a joke. Probably. But I snapped. “Not all of us can be dudes!!” I yelled across the weight floor to him. I meant it as a joke. Probably. To his credit, he walked over and apologized, saying, “I’m sure you girls could kick my butt.” To which I replied, truthfully, “No, we couldn’t, but thank you all the same.” And then he left before the conversation could get any more awkward, as conversations with me tend to do.
I might have been a wee bit touchy because our workout for the day* called for 25 pull-ups. It was written by a man, naturally. But the really frustrating part is that it was written by a man for women. I don’t know about you but I only know a handful of women that could do 25 pull-ups in a row and most of them are on some kind of national or Olympic team. (And by “know” I mean “read about in magazines”)
Pull-ups are my Matterhorn. My Everest. My indoor climbing wall with no color-coded routes or animal-shaped handholds. I do them and do them and do them (and by “do” them I mean maybe do one or two real ones and then jump, frog kick, and/or scale the machine like Spiderman in yellow camo spandex to complete the rest) but I never get stronger. The only thing that has ever made a significant difference to the number of pull-ups I can do is losing weight. When I was underweight, thanks to my increased muscle-to-mass ratio, I could bang out a solid dozen. Which then made me think of doughnuts…that I would never allow myself to eat even though I loved them and by the time I came out of my shame spiral my workout was done. Obviously that’s not a good option. And so I keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past three years and keep hoping that it will get me different results. Because that’s what winners do. (It’s a fine line between perseverance and perseveration, I tell you.)
Maybe I’m just not meant to do more than 1.65 real pull-ups. Because the thing is, men are naturally better at pull-ups and, much to the relief of evolutionary biologists everywhere, not all of us can be dudes. Which is why it baffles me that so many people in the fitness industry treat women as if we’re men in sports bras.
When it comes to fitness there are lots of things girls have in common with the guys. We sweat (sometimes a lot), lift heavy weights, and even scratch ourselves on occasion. But there are a few key ways in which being in possession of lady bits affects our workouts in ways the men don’t have to deal with. For starters, I’ve never seen a dude get his ponytail caught under the bar doing squats, have to move his ponytail so he can lie flat on the weight bench or redo his pony tail 7 times in the weight floor mirrors because there are “bumps.” Which isn’t to say I’ve never seen a dude sporting a ponytail in the gym, just that I’ve never seen one tuck it under a bra strap to keep it from sticking to the sweat on his face when he does push-ups, is all. Aesthetics aside, it turns out that some of our feminine differences warrant serious adjustment in the gym. No I’m not talking about cameltoe. (Although that does warrant serious adjustment should it occur.) And this time I’ve got the science to prove it!
1. Fat storage
Sofia Vergara is scientific proof that women store fat differently than men. But these, er, fatty bits have implications far beyond splurging on high impact sports bras and workout pants that make our butts look amazing. While our lower centers of gravity and smaller muscle-to-mass ratio means that banging out pull-ups doesn’t come as easily to us as it does the dudes, our tendency to store “gluteofemoral fat” (i.e. in our hips, butts and thighs) gives us a huge leg (!) up on the men: A 2010 study out of Oxford University found that “an increased gluteofemoral fat mass is independently associated with a protective lipid and glucose profile, as well as a decrease in cardiovascular and metabolic risk.” In regular speak, our lower-body curves protect us from heart disease and diabetes!
Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and expert on paleo fitness, advises us, “Don’t be concerned about a little (or more than a little) subcutaneous body fat, especially on your lower body. If you’ve been trying in vain to lose that stubborn jiggle on your thigh, consider that maybe, just maybe it’s there for a reason. Even if you’re not interested in having a child, it’s likely that the presence of lower body fat indicates good health. You don’t have to get pregnant, but the ability to do so is probably a marker of good health, and the research outlined above suggests that classically feminine patterns of fat deposition are healthier than classically male patterns. And even if you don’t like your glutofemoral fat, rest assured that the males in your life likely do!”
2. Our Baby Makers, Occupied or Vacant
Weight vests are for wusses — try carrying 30 pounds strapped to your abdomen for nine straight months. Okay so you don’t start out 30 pounds heavier but you get my point: pregnancy is the ultimate form of weight lifting. It’s also the primary way we differ from men and when it comes to fitness, it’s a really big difference. In a 1998 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians they found that “because of the physiologic changes associated with pregnancy, as well as the hemodynamic response to exercise, some precautions should be observed.” Specifically these precautions include staying hydrated, not allowing yourself to overheat, not doing anything that could cause you to fall on your stomach and to tone down your weight lifting in the third trimester so as not to strain already loosened ligaments. Obviously these restrictions will impact your workout but they don’t need to stop it. The study concludes, “In the absence of any obstetric or medical complications, most women can maintain a regular exercise regimen during pregnancy. Some studies have found a greater sense of well-being, shorter labor and fewer obstetric interventions in physically well-conditioned women as compared with other women.”
And if you’re currently flying solo in your own skin? In what may be the best argument I’ve heard for taking birth control pills (you know, besides that whole preventing pregnancy thing), Aussie scientists in a 2011 study report, “There’s now quite a global body of research saying that the pill actually is protective of injuries. It protects you from injuries, it improves performance, improves muscle function.” Birth control as a performance enhancer? Double win!
3. Biomechanical Differences
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are two to ten times more likely to suffer a knee injury than men thanks to a biomechanical difference in the angle of our hips to our knees, also called our “Q-angle”. Steve Toms, my super cool personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness and corrective exercise specialist sees this issue a lot in his female clients. “Because of wider hips, women’s knees are more vulnerable to high-impact activities like plyometrics, sprinting or sports like soccer that require quick changes of direction,” he explains. Since you can’t change your bone structure he advises building up the muscles surrounding the pelvis to create greater core stability. It sounds counterintuitive but for a lot of women the key to ameliorating knee pain is to strengthen the glutes and hips. “Try adding in frontal plane lunges and working your way upto single leg exercises to build stability in the hips.”
Add in our increased risk of shin splints and stress fractures, our smaller lung capacities and our greater pelvic mobility (which sounds good but in this case is actually a bad thing), women have some structural differences that warrant adaptation.
To see the full explanations and the other 6 differences on my list, check out my full slideshow for Shape: 9 Ways Being a Woman Affects Your Workout!
Buy a Skirt, Save a Baby
And since we’re celebrating all things girly, in case you haven’t seen the awesomeness that is the MizFit skirt yet check out Carla Birnberg’s workout skirt that she designed herself! It’s cool because it has skulls and weights and fun words all over it (take that, boring black!) but it’s amazing because Carla’s donating 100% of the proceeds to the Guatemalan charity through which she adopted her daughter, the feisty and adorable Tornado.
What differences have you noticed in your workouts that are gender dependent? (Would love to hear the guys chime in too!) Anyone have advice for me on how to get better at pull-ups? What would you have said to that guy?
*Shockingly we ARE still doing Great Fitness Experiments! I just keep forgetting to write about it. I know, the irony of that statement boggles. Anyhow, for October we let Gym Buddy Allison pick the workouts as her welcome back gift from having her baby girl. That way she can pick something appropriate for her level of recovery and the rest of us scale it up or down depending on what we need.