I know what you're thinking - that will NEVER happen. Women just don't have the upper body strength like men do. I hate to tell you this, but you're wrong.
Well, you're actually a little bit right too. Women don't tend to have upper body strength - not because they can't - but rather because women don't train their upper bodies like their male counterparts.
Growing up I have memories of my fellow girl friends playing with dolls, swooning over their latest pop idols, making daisy chains, and at a push doing the odd cartwheel. At the same time I was sketching muscly women out of a bodybuilding book and doing monkey bars like there was no tomorrow.
I never for a minute thought that girls and boys were any different from one another until the day my brother went to a 'Commandos' class at our local leisure centre. I was beyond excited at the prospect of commando crawling through mud, swinging from ropes, and doing various obstacles. But when we got there I wasn't allowed to join in. I wasn't allowed to join in because it was for BOYS ONLY. My heart sank, a huge lump in my throat appeared, and the water works went full throttle. I was heart broken.
Put plain and simply, in society, there hasn't been a place for women to be strong like men. We were brought up to believe that dolls were for girls and mud was for the boys. Well with the emergence of CrossFit, and the power of social media, more and more women are stepping up and helping to break that gender stereotype.
So, ladies you do possess the power to have great upper body strength. In fact, we kind of have an advantage over the guys - generally speaking we have lower bodyweight and much shorter arms, meaning that once we gain our initial strength we can actually become as proficient as the guys.
The Mental Battle
Getting your first pull-up will fill you with a feeling of confidence that you've probably never even felt before. People love watching me bash out multiple pull ups. There was a time when I couldn't even do 1 and now I can do 8 from a dead hang. Looking back this makes me feel really proud, and I want to help you get there too.
The most common thing I hear from women when it comes to pull ups is the classic "I'll never be able to do just 1!" and this breaks my heart every time.
The first step to gaining your first pull-up is to get over the mental battle you're fighting within your brain. You think you can't do a pull up because, well, you've never done one. And I bet you've never really tried either (and no jumping up to a bar once doesn't count!).
Getting a pull up takes time, patience, practice - much like everything else in life. For some it could take up to a year, for others a month, but always remember that it IS possible.
How to Get Started
Step 1 - Invest in a Pull-up Bar
Yes, this is a no-brainer - if you want to do pull ups you need something that you can hang from and eventually pull yourself up with.
Now this bar doesn't have to be expensive and there are a number of pull-up bars these days that you don't even have to screw into your doorframe so you can keep your house in tact.
Avoid pull-up bars which are fully coated in protective foam - the latest bar I bought has this and the foam rotates around the bar when you're hanging which makes things horrendously difficult.
Step 2 - The Dead Hang and Scapula Pulls
If you can't pull your body weight in any manner then start here. In fact even if you can pull yourself up a little still practice these fundamental movements.
The dead hang is essentially a passive hang where you are relaxed and hanging from the bar. Concentrate on trying to keep your body still and prevent it from swinging - because swinging makes everything harder. Hang for as long as you can and repeat 3-5 times with a 1 minute break inbetween (or longer if needed). Practice this daily.
Once you can hold yourself for up to 30 seconds in this position it's time to learn how to actively hang and engage your scapula. This will help you to learn how to isolate the different muscles in your back such as your lats and traps, and also how to start the motion of the pull itself.
To do this grasp the bar firmly, with an overhand grip (your palms facing outward), and pull your shoulder blades down and back by lifting your chest a little and pushing your shoulders away from your ears. Try to imagine you're squeezing something between your shoulder blades.
Repeat 3 sets of 10 reps. Again practice this daily if you can.
Once you can dead hang for 60 seconds it's time to move onto Step 3.
Step 3 - The Flexed-Arm Hang
Now that you know what it's like to be at the bottom of the pull, it's only fair that you know what it's like to get to the top. Yes, you will shake like crazy but it's all part of the fun
. Either jump up to the top of the bar or stand on a chair to get to the top, grasp the bar firmly (with an overhand grip) squeezing tightly, keep your chin above the bar and hold for as long as you possibly can. Be sure to concentrate on your breathing the entire time as this will help to keep you hanging for longer.
Repeat 3 times with 1 minute breaks inbetween. You can practice this daily.
The aim is to be able to hold yourself for 30 seconds before moving on to Step 4.
Step 4 - Ring Rows or Inverted Rows
If you can get yourself onto a pair of olympic (gymnast) rings or a TRX trainer then ring rows are (in my opinion) better to do than inverted rows. If you can't get hold of any rings then either get down to your local playground and find a bar that's about waist high, or place a sturdy broom on top of 2 chairs for support.
Ring rows are less difficult than the dreaded pull-up but are still very tough and something that I always incorporate into my own training plan. They teach you how to keep your body locked together, and the muscles activated which is important when peforming a full pull-up.
To perform a row, position your body underneath the rings (or bar) either at a 45 degree angle or preferably completely parallel to the rings with your legs straight and the backs of your heels firmly pressed into the floor. Activate your scapula (just like you did with your scapula pulls) and pull until your elbows and shoulders are in-line with one another. Your body must stay in a straight line throughout the movement.
Repeat 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps. Try to do this 3 to 4 times a week. Once you can get to 3 sets of 10 reps, move on to Step 5.
Step 5 - Jumping Pull-ups and Slow Negatives
By now you can probably pull yourself up just a little which is super encouraging - the end is defintely in sight. Congratulations! You are now 1 step away from being able to perform your first ever full pull-up!
Jumping pull-ups coupled with slow negatives will get you to where you want to be in no time.
Stand underneath the bar and jump up being sure to keep your scapula activated , giving yourself a little pull along the way, keeping your chin above the bar. Hold yourself at the top flexed-arm hang position for 2 seconds, remembering to keep your shoulder blades squeezed tightly together. Slowly lower your body, keeping it tense and your shoulders still tightly packed together. Lower yourself as slowly as you can until your feet touch the floor. Repeat as many times as you possibly can with 1 to 2 minutes rest inbetween. Try to make your negatives last for at least 10 seconds each time.
Step 6 - The Pull-Up!
That's it, your hard work, grit, and determination is about to pay off ladies - it's time to put it all together!
Start from your dead hang position with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, taking an overhand grip. Activate your scapula and core muscles, and pull up bringing your elbows into your sides. Pull all the way up until your lower chest touches the bar and your chin lies just above the bar. Your shoulder blades should still be fully retracted and your tricpes of both arms will make contact with your lats (those bat wing muscles). Hold yourself for a second before carefully lowering yourself down back to a hanging position. Repeat 3 sets of 1 rep with 1 to 2 minutes of rest inbetween. Practice every other day and if you feel any sort of sharp pain or unnatural discomfort take another rest day or 2.
If you still can't make the pull do not be disheartened and DO NOT kick your legs around or attempt to swing to get your pull. This doesn't count for much, may get you injured, and won't help you to proceed any further. Just keep practicing along with Step 5 and you will get there.
A quick notable mention on the chin-up - the pull-up's softer sister. In fact most women find chin-ups easier.
Chin-ups are also a very valuable training tool and are basically a pull-up but taking an underhand grip - palms facing toward you. You can practice all of the above exercises with an underhand grip and opt to get a chin-up before your pull-up. I actually started this way but there's no real need to do so if you don't want to.
Say No to Bands!
I just want to add this little point in here and let you know my opinion on using resistance bands to assist pull-ups.
Although using a resistance band to carry a portion of your weight might sound like a good idea, I am yet to hear of anyone gaining their first pull up using this method. I understand their value in a CrossFit WOD but they aren't fit to utilise on the proper execution of the exercise. Using a resistance band will make you place more weight onto the band and thus exert less effort when trying to pull yourself up. Essentially you'll be cheating yourself out of your progress.
No, not the pill popping, protein shake kind of supplementation - exercise supplementation.
There are a whole host of other exercises that will compliment your pull-up training such as push ups, pull downs, rope climbs, hollow rockers, hollow hangs, planks, toes to bar, overhead presses and many more.
Search around and find some exercises that suit your workout regime.
Have you mastered your first pull-up yet? Have any questions you'd like to ask me? Why not leave a comment using the comments box below.