November 5, 2012
November 9, 2012

Putting Down the NYT Article 
about Pull-Ups
Women definitely cannot do pull-ups. Nope.  No Way.  No How.
Are we late to the party on this topic?  Perhaps, but in case you missed it, roughly two weeks ago the NY Times ran an article entitled “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups,” by Ms. Tara Parker-Pope.
You can click the link for the full text of the article, but the summary is this: exercise researchers from the Univ. of Dayton, led by Prof. Paul Vanderburgh, took a group of 17 women who couldn’t do a single overhand pull-up, and then trained them 3xweek for 3 months.  The training included “lifting weights” and incline rows (no actual pull-ups, assisted or otherwise, were used). At the end of 3 months, the group was retested, where upon the researchers noted that, overall, the group “had increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by 2 percent,” but that only 4 of the 17 achieved a single pull-up. Thus, the study concluded that “no matter how fit they are, women typically fare worse on pull-up tests.”

SO – what say all of you? Intrigued? Annoyed? Skeptical??
While you’re formulating your own thoughts and comments, read on for a few of our select ruminations on this earth shattering proclamation from the NY Times and the Univ. of Dayton.

First, the NY Times Article:
Simply comparing the title of the NYT article and the concluding line of our summary above should be enough to warn you of the over-arching problem with Ms. Parker-Pope’s reporting. This is a prime example of so called “yellow journalism,” a term coined in the late 19th century to describe journalistic exaggeration which relies upon, in part, eye-catching headlines based on pseudo-scientific assumptions. Does this mean the study wasn’t scientific? No, although we’ll address some of its shortcomings in a second. What it does mean is that the NY Times, and specifically the article’s author, blew up the results of the study and made ridiculous claims for a catchier title. It’s a long way from “not as good at pull-ups” to “can’t do them.”

Secondly, the Study:
In setting up a study, it’s up to the organizers to control as many variables and outside influences as possible. This helps avoid skewing or biasing of the results. Mr. Vanderburgh and his crew used an awfully small group of just 17 women. The larger the study group, the more trustworthy your results. More to the point, there’s no mention of age range of the women, their weight or BMI, or even what sort of physical shape they were in before they started the study other than they couldn’t do a pull-up (for example, were they current athletes, former athletes, life-long couch potatoes, what?). Any of those factors would certainly have a very influential impact on the results.

Speaking of results, what about the researchers interpretation of the outcome? Mr Vanderburgh was shocked that only 4 of the 17 women were able to do a pull-up at the end of 3 months, but that’s nearly 25% of his study population. All things considered, 25% is not an insignificant number, especially when viewed in light of the study was set up.

However, perhaps the researchers didn’t have access to a larger population to pull from, and/or simply wanted a small but random selection of people. Maybe they were expecting 50% or more to achieve a pull-up. Yet that doesn’t explain why the organizers would choose to use an exercise program which purposefully omitted pull-ups. If the aim of the study’s organizers had been to determine the efficacy of their non-pull-up pull-up program, then goal achieved. Yet, their aim was much broader: to see how hard it was for women to achieve their first pull-up. To use a program in which none of the subjects actually perform any sort of pull-up is sort of like a driver’s education course in which none of the students ever actually practice driving a car. Sure, some would pass, but to what ends, considering the desired goal is to actually have the majority pass? At the very least, the study’s organizers would have been better off dividing their population in half, and having half follow their program, while the other half follow a program in which they actually worked pull-ups during their exercise regimen. This at least would’ve given Mr. Vanderburgh slightly more concrete results on which to base such assertions that, even when looking at a collegiate athlete, such as a volleyball player, he wouldn’t think they could do a pull-up even though he knows “she’s fit.”

Again, these are just a few of our thoughts on the issue. We’d like to hear what you all have to say about it. Do you agree with NYT? With the study? With us? Are your feelings any different now than they were before reading this post? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

PS: for those interested, we scoured the internet for a copy of the study, and it’s nowhere to be found – unless of course Ms. Parker-Pope and the NYT were referring to a similar study by Mr. Vanderburgh, only published 9 years ago, which was entitled “Training College Age Women to do the Pull-Up Exercise”. Still, even in that study, there’s no mention of age (other than “college age”), nor of the participants relative fitness.



  1. Katie says:

    This is clearly a sensational “article” — but the goal was achieved, since the article made it on the CrossFit main site and everyone is talking about it. It’s unfortunate how sensational it is, because the subject is an interesting one.

    The information given about the study just isn’t enough to make conclusions of any kind. You’re totally right, 17 people is way too small of a sample.

    I wish we could see the actual study. If it broke down factors like body fat percentage, height, weight, athletic experience, age, etc., it could be interesting data to look at for why four of the women might have been successful in getting pull-ups. I also would like to see specifics of what exercises they did. It would be awesome if someone did a scientifically valid study comparing two groups of women doing two different programs — one with “weights”, and one like the one Chris developed that involves resistance band/negative pull-ups. (I know which one I would put my money on.) That might actually provide some useful data.

    My fear with this article is that it will dissuade many women from even trying to get a pull-up. Like many of the articles on how “crazy” CrossFit is, this article makes a pull-up seem like something most women can’t achieve.

    I’m so happy we know better!

  2. Julia says:

    My initial reaction to the NYT piece was pretty ‘meh.’ I mean, it’s the NYT, y’know? All due respect to their work in, say, Kandahar, or Baghdad, or Damascus (or the similarly treacherous terrain that is Washington); but they aren’t exactly the go-to resource for cutting-edge exercise science findings. If I want pullup advice, my first stop isn’t really going to be Ms. Parker-Pope’s fitness column.

    As far as I can tell, it’s an imperfect study that generated flawed conclusions, which were then further distorted upon translation for a pop-science venue. Embarrassing, certainly, for a publication of the NYT’s stature; but I think there have been far worse sins in the history of journalism.

    I’m a whole lot more interested in how everyone (women and men) in our community has tackled the (strict) pullup. A year or two ago at the Hopper competition in Baltimore, one of the events for individual competitors was max strict pullups in 3 minutes. I didn’t get a chance to watch the women compete (was probably outside napping on the grass), but I remember being really, really taken aback by how few many of the top men were accumulating. Many of them had done really well in other workouts involving high-rep kipping pullups. And to me, it was a pitch-perfect case in point as to why there are coaches in the strength and conditioning community who continue to be skeptical of CrossFit’s strength development claims.

    I love that CFDC’s brand of CrossFit involves, among other things, an emphasis on strict pullups as well as progression on kipping pullups. Is this not the case at most other affiliates?

  3. SaltyHat says:

    Both really good points! Katie, I think your fear is well founded that this article could push a lot of ladies away from trying to get a pull-up (or even trying them at all now). Probably the worst about the article, in fact.

    And Julia, you are quite correct in pointing out that this is not the worst over-broad-study-conclusion ever perpetuated by a news agency. Sadly, they’ve become pretty pervasive these days, and they all seem to be about scaring people unnecessarily.

    Personally, as a coach, I want athletes to learn to do strict pull-ups (become stronger), and I want athletes to learn to kip (increase their work capacity), but I want them to respect the kip for the amount of strength it takes to control it.

  4. I love Salty hat! He is an awesome coach! Whooot!

  5. Katie says:

    Chris, why are you awake at 3:20 AM???

  6. Mark Minukas says:

    That article’s a crock. They’ll let anybody do fitness “research” these days. Pseudo science is putting it lightly.