There are so many measures against which we hold ourselves. If you can’t hold a plank for 2 minutes then you’re a wimp. If you can’t deadlift extraordinary loads you’re not strong. If you don’t look like a fitness competitor/model you’re not thin enough.
It’s desirable to have goals – of course. It’s healthy to “reach for the stars.” But some of these strength standards – and comparing ourselves to others – only serve to make us feel inadequate.
Doing pull ups – hanging from a bar, palms facing out, and using your back and arms to raise your chin over the bar – is a feat we can aspire to. Lifting your own body through space is a rush, and if you can do even one you’re near beast status. That’s because using your back and arms to lift yourself up is hard.
So if you have to be a beast to do them, are they a good measure of upper body strength?
A recent study conducted at the University of Dayton set out find out. Seventeen normal-weight women were trained 3 times a week for 3 months and given aerobic training to lower body fat.
The results: Although the subjects increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent and lowered their body fat by 2 percent, only 4 of the 17 women (about 23 percent) could do one pull up by the end of the study.
A subsequent New York Times article about the study pointed out that women have less testosterone and higher body fat, so it’s more difficult for them to do pull ups. It also mentioned that in both men and women, tall and long-limbed people have a harder time doing pull ups mechanically.
Some readers took issue with the insinuation that weakling girls shouldn’t even bother trying to do the hard stuff. I get this completely; women have worked hard to be respected athletically. You might even argue that by saying pull ups are harder for women, it discourages them from even trying.
I agree that women and men should aspire to do pull ups (as long as it doesn’t cause pain or injury). Plus it’s motivating for everyone else to see those 23 percent who can do one.
But I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to do things that are supposed to be the “golden standard” of strength, when in fact there are other measures that are more valid. Why make people feel bad about themselves because they can’t fit this particular standard? In all honesty, I have seen only one woman at the gym ever do pull ups (or was it chin ups?) and she did them without full range of motion (I was still impressed).
Take me, for example. I’m short and my back is strong. I also have low body fat. So logically I should be able to do pull ups. But I have never been able to do more than one or two. True, I haven’t practiced them – pull ups feel uncomfortable on my tweaky shoulder and elbow so I avoid them.
I do chin ups (palms facing in) instead and am very happy with that (I’m currently stuck at six or seven, depending on how I feel). Chin ups are deemed easier because they recruit the arms more than the back. But I’m not going to let someone tell me I’m not strong because I can’t do 10 pull ups in a row.
The PR Standard
Powerlifters use their PR (personal record) to measure progress, so you see lots of PRs posted for deadlifts, squats, bench presses, etc. So if you see PRs posted, don’t feel that you need to compete with that number (unless you are want to). Powerlifting and Olympic lifting have become main stream and the message seems to get out that everyone should be lifting for super strength.
The problem is that many people don’t train for super strength and most of us are not powerlifters (including myself). We simply aren’t interested in that particular goal, much less competing or posting PR’s. Joint issues can also play a big role in that decision; no matter how much I love Olympic lifts my knees and wrists cannot withstand the impact.
Estimating Your Own Strength
So instead of comparing yourself to people who have different body mechanics, goals, and training methods than you, measure your own strength against your one-rep max (1RM). You don’t actually have to do a 1RM test; you can estimate your 1RM by doing a safer test, such as a 5RM or 10RM.
After you estimate your 1RM for the bench press and squat, compare it as relative percentage of your body weight.
This allows bigger and smaller people to compare their strength on a relative, or pound-for-pound, basis rather than on an absolute basis in which the larger person has a distinct advantage.” (Read more here.)
Then use this calculator to see how you stack up against normative data. You might be pleasantly surprised to see that despite how much others lift (and who are training for strength and power), you are doing quite well for your size. Or you may see that you can push yourself a bit more.
Be the strongest you can be and train for performance. Don’t try to live up to someone else’s expectations or try to be like an online strength expert who makes a living by becoming more educated in strength training. You can be very healthy and strong without being as strong as a powerlifter.
That doesn’t mean you should give up without trying or give yourself limitations just because you’re a woman. There are some crazy strong women out there who are completely amazing. Let’s admire and respect others without comparing ourselves to them. Be the best you can be given your personal goals and body mechanics.