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If you’re a woman who works out regularly, there may be one more elusive exercise: the pull-up. In 2012, The New York Times reported that researchers documenting women’s fitness journeys found that only a small percentage were able to perform this exercise – despite the fact that this group had a 36 percent increase in upper-body strength and a two percent decrease in body fat loss.

So why do so many women struggle to do pull-ups, even when they are very fit and able to perform other challenging exercises? According to Tony Coffey, trainer and founder of Bloom Training, one challenge is muscle distribution.

“Physical sex is definitely a big factor in how challenging pull-ups are,” Coffey explains. “The movement requires the full strength of the upper body to complete. Biological males naturally have a larger frame and are more likely to maintain more lean body mass and muscle, which helps support all upper body movements.”

The data also show that “women naturally carry more lean body mass in the lower body, while men naturally tend to maintain more relative lean body mass in the upper body,” Coffey said.

Michelle Olson, senior clinical professor of exercise science at Huntington College in Alabama, specifically noted that “[biology] men have bigger shoulder girdles and bigger muscles” while women “have bigger hip girdles and bigger muscles.”

However, just because women tend to have weaker upper-body muscles – which makes pull-ups a challenge – doesn’t mean they have to miss out on all the benefits pull-ups can offer. The exercise will strengthen your arms, but also your shoulders, core and back. If you want to perform pull-ups your own way, experts recommend trying different exercises first, all of which have their own strengthening effects. Coffey notes that for people who want to do pull-ups their own way, the handstand row may be a “solid starting exercise.

Olson shares that “negative pull-ups” are also a good place to start.

“Use a chair or bench. Hang from the pull-up in a bent (end/up) position,” she explains of the exercise. “Then, slowly lower yourself. Repeat.”

Whether you’ve mastered the pull-up or not, experts say not to stress about it: it’s not the barometer you need to focus on when working out.


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