Can’t do a pull-up? Don’t worry, you’re not alone: most female marines in boot camp can’t do them either.
In 2014, the Associated Press reported that the Marine Corps will delay the implementation of a new physical fitness standard that would require women to do at least three pull-ups during their yearly test, the same number they require of men. The new requirement was delayed, however, after tests showed that 55 percent of female recruits could not complete the task.
Although we are equal in many ways, a woman’s body is different than a man’s. Pull-ups are especially hard for women because women simply have less muscle mass in their upper bodies – about 40 percent less. This means that, in general, a woman's upper body is only naturally about 60 percent as strong as a man's.
This isn’t an excuse, though. Just because we tend to be naturally less strong, doesn’t mean we can’t make up the difference with training. And some women may be surprised at just how quickly they’ll be able to do them after adding a few key moves to their workout.
How to Train for a Pull-Up
Pull-ups are compound exercises, which means they use a lot of different muscle groups and joints that must all work together. Because of this, the fastest way to train for a pull-up is to train the muscles together in the way they'll need to work to perform the movement.
For pull-ups, and for all the below exercises, the very first movement is going to be scapular retraction – pulling the shoulders back and downward – which is the motion that will initiate movement. From there, you’ll flex at the elbows and shoulders, using the biceps and lats to pull yourself up and above the bar. Once at the highest point, you’ll lower yourself slowly, relying on your triceps and shoulders. Grip strength is needed throughout the entire exercise to hold onto the bar.
There’s always a little confusion on pull-ups vs. chin ups. An overhand grip is used for pull-ups, reverse grip (palms facing you) are chin-ups. Chin-ups are heavier on the biceps, which many say makes them easier, as the biceps tend to be stronger than the lats. For our purposes, we'll focus on training for a pull-up, but either one is just as impressive of a goal.
Work the below exercises into your strength training routine at least twice a week, and you’ll be doing pull-ups in no time. For a more quantitative goal, depending on your fitness level and how hard you train, you could be doing pull-ups on your own in as little as three weeks.
1. Assisted Pull-Ups (Machine)
The assisted pull-up machine works much the opposite of other weight machines. It uses counterbalance weights, which means the higher the weight you set on the machine, the easier the exercise is. To find your perfect starting point, set the weight to 20 pounds less than your bodyweight. Try 3 or 4 reps, then adjust to the proper resistance.
- Position yourself on your knees on the platform of the machine and grab the handles above your head.
- Ladies, look for a narrow grip – there are usually a few different hand positions.
- Keep your head neutral, your body between your shoulders and your core braced.
- Start with the scapular retraction, pull slowly and evenly until you can just see above the machine, then slowly lower back down.
- Don’t phone these in, it should be a struggle for each one.
2. Narrow Grip Lat Pulldowns
The latissimus dorsi (the lats) are an important part of the pull-up equation, but how you build strength in the lats depends on your grip. Men train lat pulldowns with a wide grip, because it builds a wide back, giving them the cobra V shape they love so much. Most women aren’t interested in building size in the back they'd prefer to build strength so to focus on strength narrow your grip so your hands are directly in line with your shoulders.
- Sit down at the cable pull-down machine, making sure to adjust the knee pads so they hold you in place, but don’t pinch your knees.
- Grab the bar, palms facing forward, shoulder width or narrower apart.
- Tilt back at the waist, about 25 degrees, to avoid bringing the bar down on top of your head.
- This is your starting position. To start, retract the scapula then bring the elbows straight down to your sides until the bar comes to the chest.
- Squeeze and pause. Keeping the scapular retraction, extend through the elbows to return to start.
3. Band Assisted Pull-Ups
Wrap a band around a pull-up bar and loop one foot on the bottom to offset some of your body weight. If you do not have a band, a chair works just as well. Perform your pull-ups, being as light on the band as possible.
4. Bent-Over Row
This one is great because it hits the back muscles, but also the biceps in much of the way the pull-up does, without having to actually do any pull-ups.
- Holding a barbell in both hands at your hips, bend your knees slightly and forward at the waist, careful to keep your back straight.
- The barbell should hang in front of you, arms perpendicular to the ground.
- Once in position, retract the scapula, and then bend your elbows to bring the barbell up to your chest.
- Keep your elbows in close, as if there were a string attached from both elbows to the ceiling.
- Squeeze the contraction at the top and slowly lower the barbell back to starting position.
5. Jumping Pull-Up with Negative
- Stand underneath a pull-up bar you can reach with your feet still on the floor.
- Grasp the bar and jump, so your chin is above the bar, and squeeze the lats and biceps.
- Once the chin is above the bar, pause and lower yourself back to the ground as slowly as you can.