You should know better than to take fitness advice from the New York Times. The latest reason: their story today entitled, "Why Women Can't Do Pull-Ups." Women: you can do pull-ups. Do not believe the hype.
Is it usually harder for a woman to do a pullup than it is for a man, due to biological differences in muscle mass and upper body strength and body fat percentages? Yes. It is generally harder for women to do pullups. Does that mean that women cannot do pullups? No. It does not. Any healthy woman, absent any serious physical injuries or deformities, can be trained to do a pullup.
Today's Tara Parker-Pope story, with its hyperbolic headline (as hyperbolic headline aficionados, we can forgive that), details a study that purports to prove (??) that not all women can do pullups. The methodology:
[Exercise] researchers from the University of Dayton found 17 normal-weight women who could not do a single overhand pull-up. Three days a week for three months, the women focused on exercises that would strengthen the biceps and the latissimus dorsi - the large back muscle that is activated during the exercise. They lifted weights and used an incline to practice a modified pull-up, raising themselves up to a bar, over and over, in hopes of strengthening the muscles they would use to perform the real thing. They also focused on aerobic training to lower body fat.
The results: the women's upper body strength increased by a third, their body fat dropped 2%... and only four out of the 17 women could do a pullup at the end of the study.
Does this prove that women cannot do pullups? No. This proves that 13 of the women in this study need to continue training to do a pullup. It also proves, I might add, that these exercise researchers have failed to design an optimal training program to train women to do pullups. Though the description above is vague, anyone who knows this shit can tell you that simply strengthening your back and biceps is no guarantee that you will be able to do more (or a) pullup. If you want to train with the specific goal of doing a pullup, it's best to do pullups—assisted pullups with bands or a machine, hanging from the bar trying to do pullups, negative pullups in which you lower yourself from the bar—things that most closely resemble actually doing pullups. (Yes, losing body fat and acquiring overall strength also help.) If you do this, for long enough, with sufficient intensity and dedication, you will eventually do a pullup.
I congratulate the University of Dayton researchers for proving that three sub-optimal workouts a week for three months is an insufficient level of training for most women to be able to do a pullup.
If you have trained three months and you still can't do a pullup, what should you do? Train longer. Train harder. Train more. Train smarter. Train with greater specificity. Eventually, you will be able to do a pullup. Crystal West, who is 44 years old, can do 39 pullups. You can do a pullup. Crossfit has trained literally thousands of regular women across the country to do entire pullup workouts. You can do a pullup.
Do not let anyone tell you that you can't.