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Originally published Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 5:18 AM

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Why most female Marines struggle to pass pullup test

Fifty-five percent of female Marine recruits in boot-camp training this past year could not pass a minimum three-pullup requirement. Which raises the question: Why did so many female Marines struggle with pullups?


The Washington Post

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It’s official. Men rule at pullups.

Most female Marines can’t even do three lousy pullups!

So goes the latest salvo in the battle of the sexes — a battle we thought was actually over in our relentlessly gender-neutral modern world, where the taunt “you throw like a girl” may soon be banned on elementary-school playgrounds. (Kidding. Sort of.)

Another front in the war opened recently with news that 55 percent of female Marine recruits in boot-camp training this past year could not pass a minimum three pullup requirement. This forced a delay in the planned Jan. 1 implementation of a new physical-fitness test mandated a year ago by Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant.

The test made female Marines perform pullups rather than giving them the “flexed arm hang” option that allowed a woman to qualify by holding her chin above the bar for at least 15 seconds. Hanging in the balance, so to speak, is the question of whether women in any service are strong enough to be in combat.

But that is not our concern here. We want to know: Why did so many female Marines struggle with pullups?

Several reasons, fitness experts believe. A big factor is superior male upper-body strength, but genetic differences, training approaches, social biases and even concepts of physical beauty play in.

Women generally are not adept at pullups, trainers agree, but it’s a myth that women can’t accomplish many pullups. Even if they despise doing them.

“When I add them to my all-female classes, everyone hates them with a passion,” says Jay Morgan, 29, a Washington, D.C., fitness trainer.

But, he says, “I have clients who couldn’t do one and can now pump out six, seven, eight.”

Eight pullups, by the way, is the top score in the temporarily scrubbed female Marine fitness category; for men it’s 20 pullups.

“You can train anyone to do a pullup,” says Lisa Reed, 41, an Arlington, Va., personal trainer who notes on her website she won a childhood pullup contest (she did about 15 or 20). “You need time. You have to practice it.”

“It will be harder for us to do the pullup than the male,” she says. “Women are always stronger in lower body.”

Men have an unfair advantage in the pullup quest: Testosterone. It provides more lean muscle mass. Women tend to carry more body fat.

When it comes to pullups, strong back muscles and abs are important. But other upper-body muscles help: the “beach muscles” — biceps, triceps and pectorals — says Morgan. Men who exercise tend to work those muscles the most. Because of the beach thing.

With women, it’s the opposite. They generally eschew strenuous chest, arm and back exercises to avoid, in technical terms, looking like a dude.

“Women are more inclined to work on their lower bodies because that is where their body fat tends to pool at,” Morgan says.

To a certain extent, then, this female quest for physical beauty — designed to attract mates, according to several thousand years of research — has disadvantaged women who want to become the pullup equals of men.

It should be noted, however, that society has long treated women differently when it comes to pullups. High-school gym teachers, for example, gave girls the flexed-arm-hang option, reinforcing the notion that females can’t do pullups.

“In my personal opinion, one of the worst things we ever developed in physical-fitness classes (was) the ‘girl pullup’ or flexed-arm hang,” writes Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL and fitness expert, on Military.com. “At an early age, we have been telling young girls that they cannot do regular pullups because they will never be as strong as boys.

“Well, part of that statement is true,” he adds. “The strongest woman will never be stronger than the strongest man, but I have seen 40-50-year-old mothers of three do 10 pullups.”

For at least the next year, female Marines will have an option of doing the flexed-arm hang or pullups on the physical-training test. But it’s unclear whether a pullup-only test will finally be implemented in 2015.

The Marines delayed the 2013 test because they did not want to risk losing recruits and officer candidates because of pullup failures: “The commandant (Amos) has no intent to introduce a standard that would negatively affect the current status of female Marines or their ability to continue serving in the Marine Corps,” Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said in an email.



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