Be specific! (But don’t tell me what I can’t do)

Any good personal trainer, upon hearing your exercise goals, should be able to develop a workout program to help you achieve them. One of the guiding principles of exercise program design is specificity: to become better at a sport or skill, one must practice that sport or skill.  Quite simply, practicing shooting baskets won’t make you a better soccer player any more than swimming a fast 100 meters will help your marathon time.  While any activity will make you more fit, specific exercises and movement patterns are needed to develop similarly-specific skills.

Imagine my surprise when the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups.”    I was initially surprised because, as a woman myself, I can do pull-ups.  I also have women clients who can do pull-ups.  Furthermore, there are plenty of women taking part in the Cross Fit craze (which I neither subscribe to nor reject completely in its philosophy), and the pull-up is one of the core exercises. I continued to be surprised—and dismayed—when the article quoted a study conducted by the University of Dayton in which 17 women (an incredibly small sample size) were given an exercise protocol to strengthen the biceps and latissiumus dorsi, the primary muscles involved in a pull-up.  At the end of the training, only 4 of the 17 women could do a pull-up.  And thus the conclusion was made and the NYT Magazine pronounced women can’t do pull-ups.

The researchers missed on key element of training their subjects: specificity.  While the article states that the women did biceps exercises and performed modified pull-ups on an incline, they weren’t training the muscles in the way they would be used for the exercise itself.  To really train the body appropriately for the pull-up, the women needed to practice doing pull-ups.

There are several ways the study could have been conducted to optimize the participants’ chances of success.  First, they could have used a pull-up assist band  to help move their bodyweight in the same pattern of motion that they would be tested on at the end of the study.  Secondly, they could have started at the top of the pull-up position and done negative pull-ups, as a slow and controlled descent from the pull-up position works the latissimus muscles effectively.  Thirdly, an increasingly-longer timed hang in the pull-up position would have allowed the participants to develop static strength in the biceps which is necessary for a relatively slow-tempo exercise like a pull-up.

Each of these strategies has an element of specificity that I believe would have given the study participants a greater chance of success.

At the end of the day, I don’t really care whether anyone can do a pull-up or not.  I think they are a good challenge—especially for women who are motivated by a clear demonstration of strength—and can be a worthwhile part of an exercise program, depending on what each individual’s goals are.  What I do care about, however, is training my clients in the best, most specific way possible so that they achieve their goals in the least amount of time.  I also don’t like reputable news outlets to spread falsehoods about what women can and can’t do.

Good health and great happiness to you.

Thanks to my client who passed this article on to me.  The article motivated her to train to do a pull-up, and we’re using the strategies I outlined to achieve her goal.


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