I kicked like a frog to get my chin over the bar in middle school, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t do it in high school either. In front of all the boys, no less. But now, in college, I can proudly say I can do three complete pull-ups.
The elusive pull-up is an upper body strength exercise using an overhand grip on the bar, whereas the similar chin-up is done with an underhand grip. Both exercises target the biceps and the latissimus dorsi– the large back muscle activated during the exercise. While frog kicking doesn’t help you pull yourself up, strengthening these muscles might not either.
According to exercise researchers at the University of Dayton, who conducted an exercise training program in hopes to help women complete a pull-up, performing a pull-up requires a combination of strength, low body fat and a shorter stature.
Don’t give up hope yet though. While the low levels of testosterone in women stem our muscle mass development, and normal body fat levels should be higher than men’s, we can still do a pull-up. My transition from middle school to now is proof.
If you’re a beginner, start with an incline pull-up or inverted row where you lay on the floor with the bar at a comfortable arm-length away. Pull yourself off the floor until your chin is over the bar, targeting your arms and back and avoid pushing with your legs (although your legs can be bent or propped on a bench for support). Then progress to an assisted pull-up, either with a partner or with resistance bands.
The next step is to try negative pull-ups. Jump or step up into a finished pull-up position with your chin over the bar and slowly lower yourself for four counts until your arms are straight. Start slowly, though, as the resistance can cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which will cause soreness the following days. The stiff and sore feeling will be worth it when you can successfully complete a pull-up after a few weeks of dedicated training.
In addition to doing pull-up variations, incorporate other upper body pull exercises, such as dumbbell rows or dumbbell lateral raises, into your workouts. Also do upper body push exercises like bench press and push-ups to work the opposite muscles. Correlating upper body strength and conditioning exercises are often missing from fitness routines and are important for total body fitness. And to open that jar of peanut butter when you’re done working out.
Being able to do a pull-up doesn’t give you special powers or unlock the secrets of fitness, but it is an attainable high goal that every woman should attempt once in their life. Don’t let the middle school trauma of frog kicks and failed Presidential Fitness tests keep you from earning those bragging rights of pull-up magic.
Don’t fret if you can’t quite accomplish the daunting task of a pull-up. No one can negatively judge you for trying. Attempt a chin-up, or bust out a strong set of lat-pulls. After training to do a pull-up, with or without results, you can strut with confidence in the weight room knowing your arms and back are looking pretty darn fine after all the extra effort.