Women's Pull-Up Study: What Were They Thinking?

Elise Carnovale and John Paul Catanzaro

The article Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups that appeared in The New York Times Magazine raised many questions. In particular, what were the researchers from the University of Dayton thinking? If you want to do pull-ups, practice pull-ups! It’s called the Law of Specificity. A modified pull-up on an incline apparatus will not transfer well to a conventional pull-up. Also, aerobic training is not an effective method to lower body fat. It is effective, however, at lowering body weight at the expense of both fat and muscle. As a result, strength is often compromised. There are better ways to improve body composition without sacrificing strength, and when relative or absolute strength is the ultimate goal, aerobic training should be eliminated. I discuss this concept on page 178 of The Elite Trainer.

Using a machine that will deload and stabilize the body in any manner will significantly reduce the activity of the small stabilizer muscles that help assist the large prime movers, and the contribution from core muscles will be greatly reduced as well. So in simple terms, the prime movers get strong but not the stabilizers. Then, when your body is no longer resting against a movable knee/foot platform (e.g., Gravitron), slant board (e.g., Total Gym), or seat (e.g., lat pulldown), the stabilizers cannot “stabilize” effectively – they just do not have the strength since they’ve been rather dormant throughout the training process, and they shut down the prime movers. Going from a machine-based pull-up or pulldown to a “machineless” pull-up done from a simple overhead bar is a reality check and a real eye-opener for many people. The University of Dayton study proved that!

Okay, so let’s look at some specific methods to improve your ability to perform a true pull-up or chin-up. First a quick review: isometric strength is typically 10-15% greater than concentric strength, and eccentric strength can be as much as 40% greater than isometric strength. (A great paper on this topic is "Strength Training: Structure, Principles, and Methodology" by Dr. Dietmar Schmidtbleicher.) If an individual is unable to raise their body from a dead hang in the bottom position of a pull-up until their chin clears the bar at the top position (i.e., the concentric action), then focus on the stronger isometric (static) and eccentric (lowering) actions.

Here’s how to do it…

For eccentric training, perform partner- or band-assisted pull-ups and emphasize a slow, controlled lowering (typically 4-5 seconds to lower). On the last repetition of each set, take 10 seconds to lower in a uniform fashion from top to bottom. As the individual gets stronger over time, reduce the amount of assistance until they are able to perform the movement on their own. You can reduce the assistance by going from two legs to one leg and/or by using a smaller resistance band (wider bands provide greater assistance).

Band-Assisted Chin-Ups

For isometric training, perform partial range movements and insert static holds between the eccentric to concentric transition phase. Start from the top – either use a bench or chair to get to the initial position or simply jump up – and lower down a quarter of the way, which equates to 45 degrees of elbow extension. Pause for 1-2 seconds and then go back up. On the last rep, hold the static contraction for 10 seconds, at least “try” to hold it for 10 seconds! There is a +/- 15 degree carryover in strength when you perform isometrics in this manner. Over time, increase the range of motion (ROM). Go from 1/4 pull-ups (45 degrees of elbow extension) to 1/2 pull-ups (90 degrees of elbow extension) to 3/4 pull-ups (135 degrees of elbow extension) to full ROM pull-ups where the arms are completely straight (180 degrees) in the bottom position.

Do two workouts a week – eccentric training one workout and isometric training the next workout 3-4 days later. Perform a high number of sets (5+) for a low number of reps (1-5) with long rest intervals (3-5 minutes).

Now in terms of the most efficient way to lose body fat, check out my latest book Lean and Mean for methods that will not compromise your strength.

To your success,

John Paul Catanzaro

Posted Mar 15, 2015

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