Matter over Mind: Women can do Pull-ups too

By Kyra-lin Hom

Ladies, tell me if this sounds familiar. You spend hours in the gym a week. You buy the workout tapes. You attend the yoga or Pilates classes and do all the proper stretches. You follow your nutrition plan to the letter…

… And then you go to open a jar only to find some unholy powers have all but super-glued it shut.
Then out of the dark, dank depths of some windowless basement comes a male friend. He might have moved a box or walked up a flight of stairs at some point in the last week. But suddenly, like the mythic sword in the stone, with a quick, effortless twist of his wrist, the jar and lid part magically beneath his hands.

…And you resist the urge to yank the jar back and clock him upside the head with it.

This scenario is frustratingly familiar. And it’s because of anecdotes like this one that we’ve all (me very much too) grown up with the idea that men are just plain stronger than women. But is that really true? Patrick Davidson, Ph.D., the current director of training methodology at Peak Performance in NYC (named 1 of the 10 best gyms in America by Men’s Health Magazine) and a former exercise science professor at Springfield College, says no, it’s not. Not in the way we’ve been led to believe.

What is true? Well, men do have testosterone on their side, which allows them to bulk up in ways women’s bodies just won’t; and the new angle that women’s hips assume post-puberty can make some athletic movements more difficult. The rest, however, is largely cultural and mental – and deeply ingrained.

Pound for pound, women and men have very similar strength potentials. This means that, while I may never be able to toss a horse over my head like The Rock in his latest film role as Hercules, I could one day (insert training montage here) challenge him to a push-up contest – and win. I know. This is blowing my mind too.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no biological difference between a male and female muscle. As Davidson says, “[were I to] extract a muscle fiber from a person, I would have no ability to discern if it was male or female under a microscope.” So why do 55% of female recruits fail the Marine Corps pull-up test compared to only 1% of male recruits? It’s all about attitude and workout strategy.

Generally speaking, women naturally carry more weight on their lower halves then men. So pull-ups are going to be harder and, with vanity trends being what they are, we women tend to focus on slimming down our waists, buns and thighs as opposed to building our upper bodies. Plus we’ve been told all our lives that pull-ups aren’t for women. Remember those elementary school fitness tests? Girls and boys were always judged according to different scales. And that right there is a major part of the problem.

One of the things I love best about the show American Ninja Warrior is that men and women are judged equally. For those unfamiliar, it is an extremely physically challenging obstacle course reality TV show. There are 3 stages, and so far – in 5 seasons – no one has yet beaten the final stage. I repeat, this show does not have different obstacles for men and women. Many people argue that this isn’t fair because the obstacle courses are very upper body oriented and being shorter is a disadvantage. But guess what? A 5-foot tall woman just beat the second course and is now on to level 3. And she made it look easy.

Intense exercise and strength training aren’t for everyone. Nor am I saying they should be. Do what is comfortable for you. But if fitness is your thing, remember that you are only limited by your mindset not your physiology (okay, and maybe some laws of physics).

This holds true for everyone, men and women alike.

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