Your Health Teacher Was Right: Boys and Girls ARE Different, Even at Exercise [Or: Why I Still Suck at Pull-Ups]

by Charlotte on October 10, 2012 · 46 comments

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 dudesWhich 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.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill October 10, 2012 at 8:51 am

I have no advice about the pullups because I struggle with the same thing! I usually end up using a resistance band to get more reps, but even then I’m still struggling. My hubby helpfully told me I would probably need to get down to a much lower body fat percentage to do pullups. While I know this is true (and I know that I am not willing to work that hard in restricting my diet just to be better at pullups), I don’t like to hear it! But it really bugged me when my best friend who never works out was able to come to the gym and do a pullup when I couldn’t even do one. Then I figured out it is probably because she is naturally much thinner than me and has much less weight to lift. At least that’s what I tell myself to make me feel better about it.

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:13 pm

I once took a friend and her husband rock climbing for the first time. While she and I struggled on the beginner wall he climbed the expert wall like a spider monkey and then was all “What? What’s the big deal?” We wanted to throw him over the edge;)

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Tamara October 10, 2012 at 9:08 am

This is so not what I wanted to read! I have always wanted to be able to do a pull-up and while I’ve gotten stronger and closer, I’ve never been able to do even one(maybe 1/2 of one). UGH! I was hoping that I could eventually work up to them!

I agree that weight has a lot to do with it. I weigh more now than I’ve ever weighed(a lot of unfortunate lower body fat gain), but I am also stronger than I’ve ever been and closer to a pull-up than I’ve ever been, and I fully believe if I were this strong at a lower weight, I probably could do a pull-up(or at least get much, much closer to one).

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Mary Kate October 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

I started working on my pull-ups (or are they chin-ups…i do an underhand grip) last fall. I could do 1 unassisted. Now I can do 5. I weigh @150 at a whopping 60inches in height….so I have a lot to pull-up. I researched pull-ups on the internet and started doing the exercises suggested(negative pull-ups, hangs, scapular push-ups, bicep and grip strength, lat work, etc). This is what has worked for me. I really believe you have concentrate on using the right back muscles (shoulder blades rotating in and down to activate the lats) so they are pulling you up. (bad explanation I know….but maybe it made sense!)
I am still shocked when I do them and am scared each time I hang there…thinking it was all a dream and that i really cant pull 150lbs up. My next goal is to do the overhand grip and/or wide grip….those will require much more back strength!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Woohooo! I’m so proud of you Mary Kate! What an amazing feeling:)

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Abby October 10, 2012 at 10:13 am

Tuck my ponytail (okay, in my case braid- waaay too much hair for a simple ponytail!) under my bra strap to keep it from sticking to my sweaty face when I do push-ups? That’s genius! Why have I never thought of that?! LOL. I swear, I did get more out of this than just that but I will be trying that out tonight!

I haven’t tried to do a non-assisted pull-up since I failed to do even 1 in front of my whole gym class in middle school in the “fitness assessment”. (I was a swimmer and could have beat any of them in the 100 meter breaststroke or done way more squats/lunges!) I’m not scarred or anything, more like I guess I just never figured I could. Now I’m slightly curious seeing as I’m at a lower weight for me these days and probably have the most upper body strength I’ve ever had. But I probably won’t attempt it. I don’t know. I guess I’d rather stick to focusing on things that have a greater impact on my life as a whole. A pull-up might be cool but when I recover really quickly after a kickboxing set I know that when I hike a mountain I can appreciate the view from the top without needing to lay down for 20 minutes first.

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Hahaha! Yeah, definitely try it! Just leave a little slack when you tuck it in or else you can’t move your head at all! (Although maybe we should do that to encourage good form?!) And good point about being proud of other athletic feats – like recovery. That’s so important!

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Happier Heather October 10, 2012 at 10:36 am

I have never been able to a do a pull-up and I’m pretty much given up on ever being able to. Makes me a little sad, but there are more important things.

But, tucking the ponytail in my bra strap? Brilliant. I was just complaining silently to myself last night, while doing pushups, that my hair was annoying me. Problem solved. Thanks!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Yep – definitely try tucking it in! It helps! Just don’t do it too tightly – I learned that the hard wya;)

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Smac-a-roo! October 10, 2012 at 11:38 am

Hi Charlotte, here are some ways I got better at pull ups, since you asked …I am not at all an “athlete”, but I went from doing 0 to 13 strict ,(at my best)…
1) With assistance (as mentioned above, can be band, machine, spotted by a gym buddy, feet on a med ball, etc.) – use a tempo and go really slow on the way down – it builds muscles by the resistance where you need it
2) When doing jumping pull ups, use same technique of “slow on way down”
3) Add more weight 9not kidding, use a thinner band, lses weight on assited machine,e tc.) and do fewer reps (even if it is 2 or 3)
4) Don’t give up! I never thoguht I could do them, and was able to crank 25 (interrupted and kipping, mind you), while 8 months pregnant… (that is almost worthy of “Humblebrag”)

Good luck!

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Kari October 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

Dear amazing miss,

Please explain to me why you think you’re NOT an athlete?!

~Kari
http://dreamingintherealworld.blogspot.com/2012/10/not-all-compliments-were-created-equally.html

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Smac-a-roo! October 10, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Kari, thank you for calling me “amazing” and “athlete”… With a full time office job, 2 kids under 2 1/2, and working out only 3 days a week, I just never thought of myself as an athlete :-) But maybe I should re-think my definition of an athlete!

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Kari October 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

I would say it’s past time you re-think that definition, lol. I was a competitive athlete all the way through college, and no matter how often I did and do work out, I’m with Charlotte — my body just won’t do pull-ups!

The fact that you put your mind to something, stuck to it, worked hard for it, and did it…that’s the very soul of athleticism and it’s damn well something you earned (I mean…8 months pregnant?!?!)!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Ooh thank you for the tips! And holy crap – you are amazing! No need for humblebrag, just BRAG the heck out of that one! I wish I could have seen you do it. I totally would have clapped!

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Smac-a-roo! October 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm

You are welcome and thank you… My gym buddy actually documented some of it on video somewhere :-)

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Quix October 10, 2012 at 11:56 am

I can do ONE JUMPING pull up now. This is an improvement over the rest of my adult life when I could do none. In gymnastics I could bang out 3×20, but those were on the uneven bars that had some spring.

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:23 pm

See, I could never do pull-ups in gymnastics. Even as wee pre-teen I was still bottom heavy. My coach joked I was a T-Rex: huge powerful legs, teeeny little arms;)

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Hannahviolin October 10, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I don’t mind there being physical differences between men and women–it’s part of how we were made. For instance, if I’m in a race and a male friend beats me, I like to show him how technically, if you adjust for gender, I really won, since men can run faster than women.

I don’t wear a ponytail because it annoys me, so I do a flipped pony, and it’s super annoying on the weight benches–I usually try to line up over the crease between the cushions (that works at my gym). Though that’s not really a gender thing–I imagine a guy with long hair would have the same issue!

I’ve never tried an unassisted pull up, but I do assisted ones all the time. Maybe some day…but I really like your point about men and women truly ARE different and should be treated differently…in this case. I’m fine with that! Does that make me not a feminist? Not in my mind.

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Haha – I hope this doesn’t make me not a feminist either! (Wow, did that sentence make any sense?!) My point: I totally agree with you – we are just built differently and those differences warrant different treatment.

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Diane October 10, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Hi, I just came across your blog and I already love it. I also would love to be able to do pull ups but so far I haven’t been successful.

It reminds me tho what I heard from Bret Contreras on a recent interview (racking my brain to remember each one) men have much stronger upper bodies, but he works with women on their glutes as a specialty, and pound for pound women have stronger glutes, so there’s something to celebrate!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:27 pm

OOh I love this! Esp since I have been working on my glutes so hard lately!!

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Jennifer October 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I stink at pull-ups, even for a woman. I did CrossFit for a year and a half and never mastered even one unassisted kipping pull-up. Many other women did, but not me. And I attended CF regularly. I took comfort in the fact that I could generally out-run many of them, male and female (not that that’s saying much).

I did read somewhere about a well respected trainer (male, no less) saying that a select group of women just aren’t physiologically capable of doing pull-ups. At least without going to great, great lengths. You can probably find someone to back up anything you want, but that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. :-)

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I believe it. Although I’d still like to see the research;) And that’s the nice thing about CF though – there are so many disciplines involved that if you suck at one you can still be awesome at other aspects of it!

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Di October 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm

When I did P90X I managed after the 90 days to be able to do THREE pull ups unnassisted. I felt so badass ;) That was 3 years ago, tried it again recently couldn’t knock out one :( It’s something you have to do over and over. I bought an assistor and I’m trying that on my pull up bar, works better than a chair for sure.

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Meghan@themeghamix October 10, 2012 at 6:38 pm

It took me two years to build up to one “real” dead-hang pullup. Now I do kipping pullups for CrossFit. Not sure if you want to improve kipping or strict, but those big “rubber bands” (sure there’s a technical term) were a huge help to me. I spent several months on each before moving to the next level and now I can link 5 or 6 kipping pullups in a row. Keep working at it!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I’d take either at this point!! Thanks for the tips!

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Jody - Fit at 54 October 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Is that video for real???? OMG – I feel so inadequate! ;-)

It is so cool what Carla is doing with selling her skorts!!! SO cute too!!!! When I get some money, so gonna buy!!!!

Yes, men & women are different – better even! :-)

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Matt October 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Don’t feel bad Charlotte, I read somewhere that the average person can do one pull ups. Which means half of the population can’t do any. So if you can do 3 then you’re in some pretty elite company right there!

Plus we have to consider the type of pull up. I can make the pull up very easy or very hard for my cliental. This is why I say “everyone does pull ups.” So even when I get the hot-shot guys who think they are pull up Gods I make a few simple tweaks and all of a sudden they can hardly do more than 5.

It’s all relative :)

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm

erm, I can do 3…ish ;) And I wish I could workout with you! I love a trainer that individualizes the plans. Also, I’d love to see you take the Pull-Up Gods down a peg or two;) AWESOME.

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Allison October 10, 2012 at 10:07 pm

I am the odd freaky woman who has always been able to do a lot of pull-ups. I’m moderately athletic otherwise (I was a swimmer growing up), but pull-ups have always been my weird, useless talent. So since they are SO useful, a few years ago I decided to really work them to see what I could do. P90X may have fueled that somewhat.

The problem with P90X for me was the volume. I had an old elbow injury that was really aggravated by all those pull-ups, so as a previous commenter suggested, I started adding weight and doing fewer reps. After a few weeks of this, when I tried it without weight it was suddenly a piece of cake to just bang out a ton of pull-ups.

Anyway, here’s what I recommend, since you can already do at least one pull-up: stand a dumbbell on end and hold it between your feet–2.5 lb, 5 lb, whatever–and do a pull-up. Keep working on it for at least a few weeks–try to do 2 or 3, keep adding a bit of weight, etc. After awhile when you try it without weight, you’ll (probably) be able to do many more than you previously could.

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Sally October 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I’m the same way – for some reason I’m really good at pull-ups, much more so then my level of fitness would otherwise suggest. I did gymnastics when I was younger, so I think pull-ups are a bit of a muscle-memory type thing for me. Lately my PR is 15. I’m working on learning the CrossFit kipping pull-up but so far I can only do the same amount but faster. If only my other strength skills were at the same level…
Oddly enough my tip is the opposite of Allison’s, so maybe they would be even better combined. When I am working on increasing my max, I do them assisted so I can get used to doing higher reps. Probably a combination of assisted (high reps) and weighted (low reps) would lead to even more improvement!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Haha – good point! So many things in fitness oppose;) I like your advice and I’ll try both types!

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Yes, I had the same issue with P90X! (Esp P90X2!!) Except it was my wrists having issues. I love how you modified it. I’ll have to try it. Right now I don’t know if I could do one with even a 2.5 pound weight but I’ll try!!

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A.H. James October 10, 2012 at 10:58 pm

While both genders do have a lot of things in common when it comes to physical fitness, the physiological composition of men and women vary greatly. Good points raised in this article!

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Alyssa (azusmom) October 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm

It used to really bug me that I couldn’t do pull-ups. But I CAN now jump from forward bend into plank in my yoga class, and that makes me ridiculously happy.
It’s the little things in life…

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Charlotte October 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm

That makes me ridic happy for you! Yoga feels so good when you master a new skill!

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Rebecca October 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Hi, Kari!

Five pullups seem to be my limit…and I have to admit,
those aren’t from dead hang. I don’t jump into them,
but I can’t pull completely from a dead hang.

ARGH.

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Jenn (GH) October 13, 2012 at 8:36 am

I’m the same way with pullups except since having moved into an RV and gained 10 lbs I’ve lost them completely. Sigh. I’m bummed because no exercise makes me feel as good as being able to do a pull up.

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Rosa October 13, 2012 at 10:28 am

Ponytails!! I actually have found that if I do a super low pony tail (tight @ the nape of my neck), it doesn’t swing around and hit me in the face while I’m working out. I like the way that my hair looks in a high ponytail, but ugh whatevs, I’ll deal.

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nodrama4mama October 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Some women at my crossfit box can do pullups without help. I am not one of them. Even after 8 months of crossfit I graduated from ring rows to pull ups with black bands and at black bands I stay. My husband has also pointed out that losing weight will help my pull ups, but my goal of being able to do Murph Rx Run 1 mile, 100 pull ups, 200 pushups, 300 squats, run 1 mile in 45 minutes in a 20lb weighted vest might be a dream up there with owning an Hermes Birkin Bag.

Heck maybe if I ever do the work out I should just tell the kids, “no college this year” and buy myself the bag.

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Geosomin October 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm

25 pull ups? That’s crazy talk :)

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M November 24, 2012 at 8:49 am

Hi,

If you are really interested in doing more pullups, you have to find a way to train up to them (i.e., doing negatives, assisted pullups, etc.). A really great plan I used to get my first few pull ups years ago is posted here: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/programs_for_the_pullup_deficient

As you can see from the website, pullups are pretty hard for everyone, even a lot of dudes. I rarely see men doing proper pull-ups at my gym (a lot of guys don’t extend their arms all the way between reps and that drives me crazy).

I am 5’5 and 155 lbs, a pretty curvy lady – yet I can still do about 6-7 pullups in a set, usually try and do 20-30 overall (often looks like 7,4,3,3,3,3,2,1 – but still!). I’ve also played around with weighted pullups which make you feel ultra bad-ass. :)

Anyway – my point is, I’d suggest all you ladies out there who are interested in pull-ups, you should give it a shot with a specific, targeted program before you abandon hope. :) Good luck!

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