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Scientific Training

Why more women should do pull-ups

Why should women do more pull-ups? Why should everyone do more pull-ups?

Pull-ups are one of the more difficult exercises out there. To be able to achieve one, you need a good balance between muscle strength and lean body mass. To further advance, you need an excellent balance between these two, along with good technique and form.

So yeah, they are a real hard work to get good at.

But are they worthy of all this time and effort? YES!

There are so many reasons why everyone, especially women, should do more pull-ups. Read more to find out why!

Aesthetics

Benefit 1: Hourglass shape

There’s a reason why so many guys like doing pull-ups! Pull-ups work the latissimus dorsi as its primary muscle. The lats is what makes up the bulk of the back. Hence, by building this muscle, guys are able to achieve the V-shaped back.

For us females, we can use this concept for our own aesthetics. Pull-ups can help us achieve an hourglass body shape. The upper back toning and defined latissimus dorsi tapers down to a waist that is smaller relative to the upper body. When you combine this with glute training, the hourglass shape will be more profound.

I personally rely on this to achieve my desired body shape. My body shape is naturally rectangular/athletic and so I have always wanted to look more curvier. I began training my upper back more for posture reasons and was surprised how smaller my waist looked (I didn’t increase any ab work or changed my diet). So now I am OBSESSED with pull ups and you should be too!

The best thing about this is that it’s all about relativity. It doesn’t rely on your waist being a specific size, it uses your upper back and glutes (both of which you can more easily train) to get that sought-after hourglass shape.

A common protest against pull-ups is that you’ll get a bulkier back… and a lot of women don’t want that. My answer is that you won’t! From my background in medicine and science, you just physiologically can’t. Sure, your upper back will get toned and slightly firmer, but it won’t get huge and bulky like those images you see in the body-building competitions.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Benefit 2: Toned Back

Pull-ups will overall help tone and define your upper back and posterior shoulders.

A lot of women have troubles with back bulges or back fat. When you incorporate pull-ups with a good weight loss training program and a balanced diet, your back fat will be a thing of the past!

An open back is one of my favourite cuts on dresses, tops and swimsuits. It throws off classy, elegant vibes with an edge of sexiness to it! Whether you like open back styles or have never tried it, a toner back will make you more confident wearing them.

Photo by Hanna Postova on Unsplash

Benefit 3: Improved Posture

Our posture contributes more to our aesthetics than we realise.

When we have good posture, we come across more confident and our clothes sit better on us too (this is why catwalk models have such upright postures). Not only that, but we also feel more confident and powerful. There have been numerous studies on human behaviour that suggests this fact.

The causes of poor posture is multi-faceted. One of the main points is that our back muscles are less activated compared to our chest muscles, causing us to slump forward and become kyphotic.

When we activate our upper back muscles and use them regularly via pull ups (and other upper back exercises), we are able to correct the poor posture and minimise its disadvantages.

Photo by Flaunter.com on Unsplash

Benefit 4: Prowess

I was initially hesitant in using the word women in the title. Although my intended audience are females, I felt like it came off on the wrong tone. However, when I think back to when I’ve been at the gym, I actually never see a lot of women do pull-ups. This exercise has always been popular with the guys and because of this, it has masculine connotations to it.

Actually, this article from the New York Times (https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/why-women-cant-do-pull-ups/) is titled, ‘Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups’. Say what?! And here I was, worried that my title was poorly worded!

The article discusses how pull-ups are often a measure of fitness in the Marines and schools and the how the expectations of the exercise differed across genders. They then referenced a study that recruited 17 women who initially could not do pull-ups. They trialled the women on a strength program focusing on the biceps and latissimus dorsi. The results showed that only 4 of the 17 women succeeded in performing a single pull-up.

I’ve done lots of critical appraisals of scientific studies over recent years. The study isn’t necessarily the worse I’ve come across. But poor reporting of the study in mainstream media (The New York Times!) is what gets me.

Firstly, the sample size is so small… 17! And the article has the audacity to use this number and refer to it as ‘Why [all] Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups!’ Secondly, the methodology of the study literally set up the women to fail. If you read my pull-up progression guide… you’ll see why. The exercises and programming were no way optimised so that the women could achieve a pull-up by the end of the study. Thirdly, the author of the article dismisses certain facts that show why pull-ups are harder for women than men.

I’m passionate about this topic and I do want to see more women do pull-ups. Articles like these are what demeans our abilities and goals to do so.

Being able to do pull-ups, regardless of gender, is an amazing feat. It’s often appreciated by people who can do them as they personally know how much training and persistence it takes to do the exercise.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Athletics

Benefit 5: Strong back, arms, abs muscles

The pull up is a compound upper body exercise, meaning it recruits a ton of back, arm and shoulder muscles to get that vertical pull.

The main muscles include the lats, deltoids (posterior), pec major, teres major, biceps and brachialis. Therefore, the more pull ups you do, the stronger all these muscles will become! This will translate to having a stronger back and upper body for other exercises in your workout regime.

A big part of the pull up movement is stabilisation. You don’t want to be flailing about and losing energy inefficiently when you’re doing an already difficult exercise. So part of pull-up training is to also train your abs so that you can be a banana (I’m being serious!). This means you’ll have stronger abs too!

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Benefit 6: Cross-over ability

Upper back exercises mainly consist of a pulling motion, whether it be a horizontal or a vertical pull.

Many strength and conditioning coaches promote the idea of cross-over ability. This means having a strong upper back and pulling strength will ‘cross-over’ to a stronger PUSH motion e.g. the bench press and shoulder press.

The idea is based on:

  • Your upper back is literally what is holding and supporting your body against the bench – it is the foundation of your bench press. If you don’t have a good foundation, then you can’t build a house can you?
  • Back muscles play a role in proper bar path support and control

While there are no scientific studies that I could find that substantiate the idea of cross-over ability, from a biomechanics point of view, it sounds quite reasonable. Also, even if one were to try to produce a study on this, it would be hard for the results to come to a GOOD conclusion of cause and effect.

So if you want a better and bigger bench press (or shoulder press), pull-ups are the way to go!

Photo by Mohit Sharma on Unsplash

Benefit 7: Grip strength

When we train, we rely on grip strength more than we think about it. It is possible that grip strength is your weak point when you’re trying to PB a deadlift… amongst other exercises.

Pull-ups will strengthen your grip as a you’re hanging onto the bar throughout the entire movement.

Photo by x ) on Unsplash

Functionality

This section should be at the top of the list. This is the most important reason why you should do pull-ups.

Benefit 8: Reduce risk of shoulder injury

Vertical pulling movements are essential to all upper-body training programs.

However, many training programs today consist of an unbalanced ratio of pushing to pulling sets. We do more pushing movements with the bench press, shoulder press and push-ups than we do with pulling movements such as the pull-up and rows.

Ideally, there should be at least one set of a pulling exercise for every set of pushing.

When you do too many pushing movements, you overdevelop your pectoralis muscles. They become dominant over the trapezius and rhomboids. This leads to poor posture (thoracic kyphosis) and shoulder injury and pain (often rotator cuff tendinosis).

So pull-ups are the way to go to balance out your push-ups and bench presses. They are essential in reducing the risk of shoulder pain and poor functionality over time.

Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

Thank you for reading! I know it’s a long post but I do love doing pull-ups and wanted to share the love with you too. Hopefully this has inspired you to do more pull-ups or do your first pull-up! Check out my pull-up progression guide here!

Karen x

By Karen (MBBS VI, PT)

Thank you for visiting my blog! I'm a certified personal trainer and medical student with one more year (finally!) of study until I'm a doctor. I believe in a preventative and holistic approach to medicine which means I love sharing my passion for fitness and nutrition with you guys! I hope that we all can strive to be a better version of ourselves everyday.

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