Last week, the U.S. Marines delayed their newly-instated pull-up requirement for women after over half of female recruits failed the challenge. Despite this public setback, women aiming to knock out a pull-up or three at the gym – or in training camp –shouldn’t be discouraged.
Women can do pull-ups – they just require special training, according to Polly de Mille, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Even men who haven’t trained can have a hard time with the exercise.
“I get why (the Marines) want them to be able to do it because being able to pull yourself up and carry things, or pull up fellow soldiers who have been hurt, I get why they feel it’s important,” de Mille told FoxNews.com. “Realizing it is going to be a bigger challenge for women, maybe they need to come up with a targeted training program for women who haven’t trained to do this before and aren’t sure how to do it.”
Women’s bodies are built differently than men’s, making pull-ups more of a challenge.
“If you think of where a woman’s center of mass is, it’s usually lower in their body…their hips and legs tend to be a little heavier,” de Mille said. “If you look at a man, his shoulders are broader, hips are narrower – his center of mass is a little higher.”
Because the bulk of a woman’s mass is located in her lower body - and because she typically has less muscle in her upper body - it’s more difficult for her to lift herself up using only her arms.
"Then of course, there are the hormones, we don’t have as much testosterone so it’s harder to put on muscle mass even with weight training,” de Mille said.
Keys to pull-up training
In order to properly train to do a pull-up, women need to focus heavily on strengthening a few key areas of the body: the upper body, back and core.
“Your core keeps a stable base for the other muscles to work well off of,” de Mille said. “You’re kind of using your abdominal muscles, core, back, all of that stabilizes you as you’re pulling yourself up.”
Plank exercises can help improve core strength, making it easier to stabilize the body and lift it up to a pull-up bar in one smooth motion.
Additionally, women will also need to spend significant time strengthening their lateral muscles, mid-back muscles, biceps and forearms. One training trick to try: Do a pull-up in reverse by practicing lowering the body down from a pull-up position, before trying to lift the body up. This type of exercise will strengthen the necessary muscle groups, but will be easier to do than a full pull-up.
Getting into good shape and improving overall body composition will help too, de Mille said. Focus on cardio activities that activate the upper body, like swimming or rowing to help boost overall strength.
“Your body composition is going to make a difference too,” de Mille said. “If you’re pulling up a lot of weight in your hips and thighs, that’s going to make it difficult, so just getting yourself to an ideal body composition and getting as strong as you can will help.”
Doing a pull-up will take commitment – and the time that it takes to properly train will vary depending on how easily a woman is able to put on muscle mass, how fit or strong she is and where she carries weight in her body. But, by strength training for at least three to four days a week for about six weeks, women – whether they’re Marines or not – should start to see some progress towards their goal.
“I certainly know many women who’ve struggled to do it and I think we’re at a genetic disadvantage, (it’s) just the way we’re set up and where our muscle mass is,” de Mille said. “But I think it’s doable and I understand why they think it’s something an infantry person should be able to do.”