What Is It About Pull-ups?

What Is It About Pull-ups?

Raise your hand if you have at least one unassisted pull-up.  (Kipping or dead-hang.)

Raise your hand if you want one, even if you are not anywhere realistically close to getting one at the present moment.

Okay, is there anyone still with their hands down?

Now tell me this: Why are so many of us intrigued by the pull-up? 

The pull-up is sexy, no doubt about it. And an unassisted dead-hang pull-up is like slow-motion gym porn. (There I said it, and I’m not taking it back.) We turn and look when a man is doing one. And when a woman is doing dead-hangs? We kind of stare, even if we are sneaking a peek out of the corner of our eye. (Watch Miranda Oldroyd do 12 deadhangs.) The pull-up demands our attention.


And there’s no division on the dead-hang pull-up. If you love kipping pull-ups or you hate kipping pull-ups, almost everyone agrees that the dead-hang pull-up is badass. It’s like the vanilla ice cream of the gym: nobody hates it, except maybe the people who are allergic to ice cream. (If there is such a thing? I’m sorry if there is. Ice cream is a simple pleasure that reminds us that, despite all the messed-up things that happen, the world really should go on.)

Enough about ice cream, back to the pull-up: why is it so cool? Why do we want pull-ups? Why do we work so hard for them? Why do we feel so good when we have them? Why do we yell when we finally get one and tell all our friends and post video on social media like we have just been converted or baptized in the ways of the fit? Why are pull-ups the holy grail of the fitness experience for so many people? 

Because they’re hard. Yes, they’re functional and you might actually use that strength one day. (I say “might” because I’m not a cop, or a Ninja Warrior, or in the military anymore. In my work as a writer, I rarely have to pull myself up from a building ledge or catapult over some wall on an obstacle course. You might be kind of similar.) Pull-ups are badass though because they’re hard, and to do them you have to have strength. And for women? Doubly cool because we rarely have them unless we work on getting them.

crying woman pullups

Let me take you back a few years. In 2007, before CrossFit started to gather a lot of steam in the fitness arena, it was rare for many women to do pull-ups. Why? Because pull-ups require an upper-body strength that many women just don’t have. Why don’t women have this strength? We could get lost in a discussion of biology, but I might offer a simpler answer: because most women don’t work on pull-ups or on building the muscles necessary to achieve pull-ups. In fact, in my youth, most women were not encouraged to have any kind of upper body strength. Times change a bit, but I’m guessing that building upper-body strength in females is not a huge focus of gym classes now either. In 2005 (as a military spouse) I worked out in the Edwards Air Force Base gym, and I was one of the few women who had one pull-up. One, and that was only ten years ago. Now, I’m sure that’s changed, and I think some of that change can be credited to CrossFit, Whether you like CrossFit or not, you have to give the movement credit for popularizing pull-ups by women, giving this response to the New York Times when they seemed pessimistic about women and pull-ups, and in general enabling many women to become strong enough to do pull-ups. Other fitness programs and gyms might have been there first or helped, but give CrossFit its due for being a major player on popularizing pull-ups for women.


On the psychological realm, however, perhaps one of the reasons many women in fitness love pull-ups (getting them, having them, increasing their number of them) is because pull-ups still, to this day, feel a bit like getting to do what the boys got to do for so long. Maybe it’s a psychological component we don’t always think about, but when we do it makes sense: pull-ups (like full push-ups) make us feel badass. And maybe it’s a bit related to what noted intellectual Susan Sontag once said: “No intelligent or independent or active or passionate woman I know has not wanted to be a boy when she was a child … When you’re very little as a girl, you’re always being told that you can’t do things, and you wish you were a member of the sex that seems to have more liberty.”

Maybe, in that way, pull-ups make us feel young and more like kids, running through the sprinkler in the hot summer sun, shirts off, feet slippery on the grass, and then over to the swing-set, hand by hand over the slick painted monkey bars, the apparatus creaking under even our tiny weight and the sound of our giggles reaching high like spirals into the bright, blue, cloudless sky. Just us, alive in our physical beings and what we can do. Simple and fun.

So, if you don’t have a pull-up, what are you doing to work towards one? And if you have one, or ten, or twenty, what are you doing to get more?