The reasons why pull-ups are such a challenge are precisely the same reasons why they are one of the greatest of exercises. Many women, even fit athletes, struggle with them or don't bother trying. Many men are in the same boat, but here I'll focus on some of the challenges unique to women.
Here are a few of the largest reasons why women struggle with pull-ups.
1. Females are born this way:
If you took a cut of muscle from the upper body of a female and placed it under a microscope, you would visualize spindly pink gossamer threads, as opposed to a male muscle fibers, which appear as tetrahedral bundles of steel and steak.
That's actually a lie. At the cellular level, male and female muscle fibers are no different in appearance. But there are a few differences having to do with muscle structure.
-Females, on average, have a lower proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers and a higher proportion of slow twitch endurance type muscle fibers.
-Pound-for-pound, men and women have nearly equivalent lower body strength. But this is not true for the upper body, which mostly has to do with the fact that men carry relatively more of their total muscle mass up top.
-Women generally have more loose, flexible joints, and men generally have more stiff, stable joints. This type of hypermobility may allow you to reach your left thumb behind your back to your right hip, but it's not helpful for functional strength.
But many ladies can easily overcome these. It's worth it!
2. Many women don't care about pull-ups:
But they should. The typical person (of either gender) does not appreciate what pull-ups can do for their overall function and appearance. Pull-ups are an easily accessible way to build upper body size and strength. They work the arms and core (yes, the lats and abs are huge components of the core), which helps with staying efficient and injury free during running and other athletic pursuits.
All of those chasing "toned" should recall that it's impossible to appear that way without carrying a fair amount of muscles. And it's the muscle that is metabolically active and useful around the clock, which allows you to eat like a human (rather than a mouse) without gaining fat weight.
3. Many women who do care about pull-ups are doing them wrong:
Let's say that a teenage boy can't do even one pull-up and decides that he would like to give it a try. He will jump up and hang. He will flail his feet and tuck his knees and inch his way up with poor form. Later on he will bang out a few shoddy, half-range of motion pull-ups and claim that he can do them. Soon after that he will be able to do a half dozen full reps with decent form.
Contrast this to the typical female, who is far more likely to obey the rules of training: slow controlled reps, full range of motion, and no bouncing. She reaches up and finds herself stuck hanging from the bar in the bottom position. Unable to do one appropriate, full repetition, she proceeds to do sets of 10 pull-ups with the assistance of the huge rubber band for assistance, or a TRX suspension trainer or the Planet Fitness machine that provides lift under her feet.
Her low ego, good form, by-the-book training works against her. What she is missing out on is time under tension. Time where she must give her brain the input of what it feels like to support her full body weight. Time where the biceps, shoulders, lats and abs must fire quickly and in sync.
I'm not saying that it's always wise to use poor form during resistance training, but learning the pull-up is one situation when some leg swing and a lot of controlled partial reps are relatively low-risk and extremely beneficial.
Give this a try:
1. Hang from the bar with upper back engaged and chin over the bar in the "up" position. You may have to jump up or get something to step up on.
2. Keep your muscles locked and engaged as you lower a little less than half way down.
3. Once you hit that point, quickly transition to pull yourself up. Congrats! You just did a partial rep.
4. With your body now in the "up" position, again lower yourself, this time VERY slowly, through the entire lowering range of motion until your elbows are straight. Be sure to keep the shoulder blade muscles engaged until the end.
This is one rep. Repeat it for 2 to 3 sets of just 2 to 3 reps. Do not rush the recovery period between sets! Remember that the main thing that you want to keep track of is time under tension. Be patient. Give it a month or two, but keep trying.
Let me know how you do!