The dreaded pullup.
Among the basic bodyweight exercises, few garner more fear and loathing than standing below that hated bar.
That’s because the pullup works not just your biceps and forearms, but also taps something deep down in your shoulder muscles, plus the core-stabilizing lats, abs and middle back. It’s a full upper-body workout unto itself.
No wonder women can’t do them. Or maybe it’s only the Wonder Women who can. Most just aren’t built for that kind of heavy lifting. It’s basic biology — right?
Not really. At least not according to Marine Maj. Misty Posey.
Challenge her to a pullup showdown and you’d better be ready to knock out more than 30 reps. And hers will be better than perfect: Her chin will come a little higher than required; she’ll drop all the way down between each rep; and there will be no kipping to juice out a few extra reps.
She knows what you’re going to say next, and you’ll be wrong again. She’s not some genetic freak of athletic awesomeness or trained-from-birth sports ninja. And this 4-foot, 10-inch fireplug says she’s no Wonder Woman.
“I did not play sports in high school or college. I was never a gymnast. I only began lifting weights after I could do 20 pullups. I am very close to the maximum weight for my height, and my body fat is average,” she says.
So if she can do it, she insists, any woman in reasonable shape can do it.
Pulling their weight
And that’s not just a platitude. As the chief of the Common Skills Branch for the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, she’s in charge of all the Corps’ physical fitness programs.
Marines are known for having the toughest of the services’ physical fitness tests. Now they’re trying to make it harder — or at least equally hard for everyone by requiring women to pass a pullup portion of the test just like male Marines have had to do for more than 40 years.
The transition has been tough. The new requirement was supposed to take effect in January, but officials decided to punt that change for a least a year after more than half of female recruits were unable to do at least three pullups. The issue needs more study, leaders say.
But what it really needs is more women like Posey.
“Women have been conditioned to think they can’t do it,” she says. “There is this notion that weakness is a woman’s natural condition.”
Sure, she says, men are generally faster than women. “But that has nothing to with pullups, so who cares?” And, yes, men are generally stronger than women, but the difference isn’t nearly as big as people think.
It all starts when they’re young. We expect less of girls. And so they deliver less.
That wasn’t true of Sparta’s girls, who were trained how to kick enemy butt just like the boys.
Start expecting more, and you’ll see today’s warrior women rise to the task as well, Posey says. And she’s not alone in that view.
“By delaying the pullups and questioning women’s abilities to perform to that standard, we are imposing external limits,” writes Marine Cobra gunship pilot Maj. Jeannette Gaudry Haynie in a recent post for the U.S. Naval Institute.
“We’re saying that women should not be expected to have great strength, that pulling our own weight up to a bar 20 times, or even 3 times, is too much to ask. And that, right there, is what makes me worry,” Haynie wrote. “I believed it for years, and I was wrong. And now I’m older — I could have been doing these for years! Instead of limiting our Marines, we should ask more of them: set the bar high, and encourage them to fly right past it.”
Getting a grip
Posey knows it’s possible because she has personally trained dozens of women — and plenty of men, too — on how to get a grip on doing pullups.
“Pullups are a learned skill, not an innate ability,” she says. And learning that skill takes dedicated training.
She learned the secret from a crusty old gunnery sergeant who ran a base gym in San Diego.
Posey was still an NROTC midshipman at the time, trying to figure out a way make it through the obstacle course, when she saw a female Marine doing pullups.
“It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could do pullups until then,” she says.
After four months of daily training, mostly on the local gym’s assisted pull-up machine … she still couldn’t do a single pullup.
That’s when the gunny pulled her aside.
“He told me, ‘If you want to get good at pullups, you have to get the hell out of my gym and go out and get up on a pullup bar.’”
Crazy, she thought. How could she do pullups if she couldn’t do pullups? But she tried. And kept trying.
“Within a week, I could do one. Within three weeks, I could do five.”
In the years since, the old gunny’s words have become her mantra.
“I just want women to understand they just need to get out on the bar.”
Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from PT365 Pullup Week:
Monday: Training tips from a female pullup record holder