Women Can't Do Pull-Ups and the Presidential Physical Fitness Test Is a Lie


Remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Test? That fresh hell where you had to run the dreaded mile, throw out your back in sit-and-reach, and worst of all: PULL-UPS. Ugh, the pull-ups. I remember standing next to my best friend in seventh grade and looking up at that thing like it was the Empire State Building; I was fucking terrified. Of course, nobody could do them, so we all just dangled from the bar (adorably called “hang time”) until our poor arms gave out and Ms. Baker caught us. Or let us drop, I’m pretty sure she let me drop.

Well, it turns out we’re all not just a bunch of pathetic weaklings, there’s an actual physiological reason that pull-ups are harder for women. According to the New York Times, Researchers found “normal-sized” women (guessing this might be based on flawed BMI, but I think we all get the idea) who couldn’t do one pull-up. Then, they put these women through the exercise paces three days a week for three months, trying to get them ready for pull-up season. They strengthened their biceps and back muscles by lifting weights and practicing modified pull-ups, and also lowered their body fat with aerobic training.

By the end of the training program, the women had increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by 2 percent. But on test day, the researchers were stunned when only 4 of the 17 women succeeded in performing a single pull-up.

Dang, that’s messed! The researchers thought so, too.

“We honestly thought we could get everyone to do one,” said Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, and an author of the study. But Vanderburgh said the study and other research has shown that performing a pull-up requires more than simple upper-body strength. Men and women who can do them tend to have a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature. During training, because women have lower levels of testosterone, they typically develop less muscle than men, Vanderburgh explained. In addition, they can’t lose as much fat. Men can conceivably get to 4 percent body fat; women typically bottom out at more than 10 percent.

So, it’s definitely possible for women to do pull-ups, and do them well, and that’s rad, but if you can’t, don’t beat yourself up over it — you’re probably still in great shape if you exercise and what not. And everyone else, it’s not your fault that you couldn’t do them back in the day, I think this is just a strong case to end all physical fitness testing and instead let kids participate in fun sports they actually enjoy without being fearful that they’ll be “fit enough” to not be embarrassed in front of their classmates.

My favorite physical activities at that age always involved a pool, a boy (jk, I didn’t know any boys!), or funky fresh beats. Man, I loved hip-hop dance, that was the best. I remember being so coordinated and fly that my P.E. teacher used me as an example in front of the whole class. Proudest day of my life. You have not lived until you’ve seen an obese seventh grader pop-and-lock. Everybody dance now!

Below the Bar [New York Times]

Image via Ammentorp Photography/ Shutterstock.

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