Women and Strength

A couple weekends ago, we were in our basement with my father-in-law and he saw the pull-up bar that’s set up in a doorway. He asked if I could do three pull-ups. After I demonstrated that I could, he said that I could be a Marine. I realized why he mentioned that when I came across an interesting article from The Washington Post a couple days later. Apparently fewer than half of the female Marine recruits in boot camp training last year could not meet the minimum requirement of doing three pull-ups. Because of the poor results, there is going to be a delay in changing the physical fitness requirements for women. In the past, women have been required to perform a flexed hang with the chin above the bar for at least 15 seconds.

It was interesting for me to read the article because I had just assumed that more was expected of female Marines. I hadn’t ever really thought about a few pull-ups being so tough, especially for women in such a physical job. The article made me realize that women aren’t usually trained to do pull-ups. The article quotes Stew Smith, a former NAVY Seal and fitness expert, who says, “At an early age, we have been telling young girls that they cannot do regular pull-ups because they will never be as strong as boys.” It’s really very true. Fitness tests back in middle school and high school usually focused on the flexed arm hang for girls rather than pull-ups, and I can’t help but think about those darn “girl” push-ups versus traditional push-ups. It sometimes seems like people are shocked if a girl can do “real” push-ups, pull-ups, or anything else that requires strength because we’re taught that it’s not really expected.

It makes me think about how I got started with strength training. We spent a little bit of time learning about lifting weights in one of my high school gym classes. Being a skinny girl, I liked believing that I was tougher than I looked. I enjoyed the weights segment of the gym class and kept interested in weights from that point on. Rather than just feeling like I was scrawny, I liked the idea of being strong. I always like to push myself to see what my limits are, and lifting weights is just one example of that. When I push myself I can see how I improve, and that improvement motivates me to keep with it.

Even though I enjoy strength training, something in me has always made me kind of shy about it. I’ve always felt like there’s a social stigma against women having muscles because they shouldn’t look like a “dude.” I’m not striving to be a bodybuilder or anything, so I don’t know why I worry about it. Maybe I feel like some men would react in a weird way because it’s just not as common for women. So, despite my enjoyment of lifting weights, I’ve always been pretty quiet about it.

In 2011, I ran my first half marathon in Kalamazoo. I saw that there was a “pump and run” challenge that people could sign up for and it intrigued me. People had to bench a percentage of their body weight based on age and gender. Time would be subtracted from the run time based on the number of reps. Since I like to lift weights, I thought it would be fun to try. I had gotten used to using the chest press machine, but had never actually done the conventional bench press. Matt gladly helped me at the gym as I attempted it the first few times, and I found that it was definitely more challenging than using the machine. I’m glad Matt was so encouraging because I got pretty frustrated. I struggled to balance the bar by itself and wondered how I’d be able to lift it when I added weights. I stuck with it and got the hang of it, and as I trained for the half marathon, I also trained for the pump and run challenge. The challenge occurred at the packet pickup the day before the race, and there was a spot at the expo with a couple of benches and a bunch of Marines helping people and counting reps. I got really nervous and it took a few minutes for me to build up the courage, but I had trained for it and eventually I got brave and went over. The Marines were very encouraging as they counted my reps and it was actually pretty cool. A week or so after the race they finally released the results for the pump and run challenge, and I was excited to see that I had won my age group and got a medal for it! I knew that not many women had even participated so there wasn’t much competition, but it was still cool. Despite my excitement, I was shy about actually talking about it. I happily talked to people about my first half marathon experience, yet I kept quiet about the pump and run.

Pump & Run Challenge medal

Pump & Run Challenge medal

Last week, my work/running buddy Jeff came back from the gym after lunch with info about a max pull-up workout designed to increase the number of pull-ups someone can do. He explained what it involved and I said it looked interesting. This time, I did actually speak up about being able to do pull-ups. He was kind of impressed because he doesn’t know a ton of women who can even do pull-ups. I don’t know why I get embarrassed about that kind of stuff, but I do. He was totally cool about it though when I said I was interested in giving it a shot.

A workout plan for increasing pull-ups (click for more detail)

A workout plan for increasing pull-ups (click for more detail)

Part of the appeal to me is that with training and practice, anyone can do it – men or women. Some women might say they can’t do pull-ups, but that’s because they don’t work on it. I know it’s easier for men, but women can do it too. I probably wouldn’t have been capable of running a marathon when I first started running, but with training and dedication I made that possible. Once again, I was driven by the challenge of seeing what I can do, so I started this pull-up workout last week. I was able to max out at 8 “normal” pull-ups, and I’m curious to see what happens as I stick with the workout. I do some pull-ups fairly regularly, but never more than a couple sets at a time. I was awfully sore the day after I started because I had to do five sets with as many reps as I could. The soreness faded after a couple days though and I’m sticking with it. Jeff wants to see how we both improve over time. It’s more of an individual challenge for myself, but it’s fun that he’s supportive and it helps me realize that I don’t always have to be so embarrassed to talk about strength workouts. Matt is always supportive too, yet that social stigma about women and strength keeps me feeling shy about it in general. It’s not holding me back from doing what I enjoy though, and I’m here to say that the 55% of women Marine recruits who failed the pull-ups requirements ARE capable – they just need to work at it.

– Janet

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