Pulling up from your bootstraps — four women's training tips to conquer pullups

Marine Maj. Misty Posey demonstrates pullups.Courtesy of Maj. Misty Posey

[It’s pullup week here at PT365. Catch the first post — Zero to max: How these women are acing pullups — practical advice for anyone – here.]

It’s the cliché everyone hates to hear when they’re convinced they can’t: “If I can do it, you can, too.”

Whatever. We want to cling to our excuses.

But these four women want to rip those excuses right out of your hands, even while making those hands — and arms, shoulders, back and core — stronger than you ever imagined possible.

The excuses and challenges that held them back and how they beat the pullup anyway:

Maj. Misty Posey (above)

Combat engineer, Quantico, Va.

Age: 36

Height: 4 feet, 10 inches

Weight: 115 pounds

Personal best: 30 pullups

Why she couldn’t: Bad training.

Weight training at the gym was like a set of wobbly training wheels. “I did not have any success until I removed the training wheels and got off the lat pull-down and assisted pullup machines.”

How she did it anyway: The first pullup is always the hardest. She nailed hers by doing lots of negatives, getting up on the bar and slowly lowering herself down. Half pullups — going halfway up, or halfway down from the up position — are good early conditioners, too.

Training tip: Assisted pullups with a partner are another great way to help break that first pullup barrier and build your rep count . “They just need to wait until you’ve done as much as you can on your own before they assist, and when they do, they should assist from your back — not your feet — so you’re still activating your core stabilizers.”


Lance Cpl. Elize McKelvey

Graphic artist, Camp Pendelton, Calif.

Age: 23

Height: 5 feet, 5 inches

Weight: 125 pounds

Personal best: 25 pullups

Why she couldn’t: Injury.

When doctors told McKelvey she’d never regain full use of her right hand after a boot-camp injury severed a bundle of tendons, it was hard to imagine ever doing a pullup again. “It was a pretty dark time,” she says. She already had worked her way up to four pullups before the accident, but the injury meant “starting back at square one.” About a year later, she still has only 50 percent grip strength in her right hand.

How she did it anyway: “I do a lot of bodyweight training. Seems to me the biggest thing with pullups is learning how to move your body weight. So the more bodyweight exercises you do, the better.”

Resistance bands — looped from the bar to a knee — also helped provide an extra boost when she started doing pullups again. By the end of boot camp, she had added about 10 pounds of muscle weight, but she says the added mass hasn’t dragged her down.

“It’s actually gotten easier. I know a lot of females are scared to do this kind of stuff because they think the muscle weight is going to make things harder for them. But your body adjusts to it.”

Training tip: One trick she used to keep her motivation up was posting YouTube videos chronicling her pullup progress.


Maj. Jess Mullen started out using resistance bands and now has pullup bars all over her house. (Mike Morones/Staff)

Maj. Jess Mullen started out using resistance bands and now has pullup bars all over her house. (Mike Morones/Staff)

Maj. Jess Mullen

Logistics officer, Quantico, Va.

Age: 38

Height: 5 feet, 7 inches

Weight: 135 pounds

Personal best: 15 pullups

Why she couldn’t: Too old, no time.

As a reservist trying to balance part-time Marine Corps duty with the full-time job of raising and homeschooling four young daughters, Mullen says she wasn’t sure if she could do it at first.

“When I saw that I was going to be required to do pullups, I sulked for about two months. I was really angry that the Marine Corps was asking me to do pullups at this point in my life. I was pissed. I don’t do marathons, I run as little as I possibly can, I’m not a CrossFitter, I don’t go to the gym. I have no time for any of that crap.”

How she did it anyway: She found time.

Starting her training in January 2013, “I couldn’t do a single pullup.” One of the first things she did was install a pullup bar in her house. “It’s all about accessibility … So I put it where it would always be within easy reach.”

She used resistance bands with the bar at first, replicating a pullup motion while sitting from the floor. Then it was up to the bar itself, with one leg propped up on a chair. “It took about a month before I could do my first real pullup.” But soon she was adding more.

“From there I made it a point to do four sets to my max every day.” By June she scored 12 pullups on her PT test. Now, with her sights set on 20 reps, she’s doing six sets a day.

Training tip: “Accountability is important.” Her husband, an active-duty Marine, provided it by checking in every day on her progress. Meanwhile, her daughters have been so inspired, they’re all joining in on the workout, too. “We’ve got three pullup bars now all over the house,” Mullen says.


Capt. Linda Vong alternated between sets of assisted pullups and pushups in her early training. (Mike Morones/Staff)

Capt. Linda Vong alternated between sets of assisted pullups and pushups in her early training. (Mike Morones/Staff)

Capt. Linda Vong

Communication officer, Marine Forces Reserve, New Orleans

Age: 30

Height: 5 feet, 2 inches

Weight: 135 pounds

Personal best: 12 pullups

Why she couldn’t: Not naturally strong.

Even the flexed-arm hang — what women in the Corps traditionally have done instead of the pullup — was always difficult for this prior enlisted Marine.

How she did it anyway: Building strength.

Vong was able to go from zero to 12 pullups after a year of regular training. One favorite early workout was alternating between sets of assisted pullups and pushups. “We’d do five pullups and then immediately do five pushups, then three of each, and then one of each.”

Once she was able to do a few pullups on her own, she incorporated two max sets into her regular workout that starts with a 30-minute run, followed by pullups, then a variety of standing high-rep (15-20) low-weight (10- to 15-pound) dumbbell exercises, some plank drills, and ending with another set up pullups.

Training tip: Don’t use gloves on the pullup bar.

“You want to develop those hand callouses,” she says. Also, too many people forget the importance of proper fueling, especially before testing. “I usually load up on carbs the night before and get plenty of water, and then the morning of the test I eat light with a banana, an apple or maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at jona@militarytimes.com.

More from PT365 Pullup Week:

Thursday: Zero to max: How these women are acing pullups — practical advice for anyone 

Monday: Advice from a female pullup record holder


1 Comment


about 8 months ago

I can't believe that such light weight individuals can not pull themselves up? some bigger dudes complaint so,too. I wear my 40 lbs vest and do 15 pull ups. not a clue why ppl can't do it...


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