Push Ups and Pull Ups for Women, Too!

What, you can't do this wearing a weighted vest? What's wrong with you?
(Photo: Amber Karnes)

Finally--the updated 2011 women's guide to pull-ups, push-ups and/or press-ups has arrived!

If you landed here via search engine and are trying to figure how to do your first "real" pullup or pushup, congratulations, you've come to the right place.

But what if you're a regular at Cranky Fitness and saw a post covering very similar ground that I wrote a few years ago?  Well, no worries! If you're a typical Cranky Fitness reader, you have trouble remembering your own phone number. There's not a chance in hell you'll remember what that post said about push-ups and pull-ups, so you're good too.

As to the guys? Well, it's the same instructions, but there's a dude-friendly resource included too, so you won't die of estrogen poisoning trying to figure out how to do these exercises. 

Anyway, so what kind of moron says women can't do pull-ups and push-ups?

Well, I guess I did--the first time I wrote a post about this back in 2008.

Um, sorry about that.

In my defense, I was really only trying to say that women (or men for that matter) shouldn't have to do full-on "boys" push-ups or unassisted pull-ups in order to feel that they are fit and strong. After all, your ability to lift your own bodyweight depends on how heavy you are! There's no reason for someone on the big side to feel badly because they have more trouble defying gravity than someone who is naturally skinny.

Thing is though, there are a lot of female googlers who come here looking to learn how to build up to their first "boys" push-up or unassisted pull-up. Why should they have to wade through a long whiny post about how mean and unfair these exercises are? We want them to hang out here with us, where it's safe and warm and cozy, and not leave discouraged only to get caught up in some evil acai berry colon cleansing scam elsewhere on the interwebs.  So here is a new improved push up and pull up post: now with 50% more instructions and 90% less whining!

Let's get crackin', shall we?

First off, there's an Obvious Secret to mastering the push up and pull up.

(And yeah, I know an "obvious secret" is an oxymoron, sort of like "painless dentistry" but whatever.) Anyway, here's the secret: You have to build up to them gradually.

Well duh, right? That's what you do with any tough exercise. The problem is, both these exercises require lifting your body weight up off the ground. Just how are you supposed to do that gradually?  Start amputating various limbs and then sew them back on one at a time? That doesn't sound like much fun. The trick is, then, to find easier versions you can handle now and then build up to the "real" exercise.  (And no, sprawling on the couch reaching for a bag of Doritos does NOT count as an easier version!)

How to learn to do your first push up.

1. Step one: wall push-ups. Place your hands on a wall a bit more than shoulder width apart and do push ups from there. Find a height where you can just barely crank out 8-12 in a row. (And as with all varieties of push ups, keep your body straight and stable; don't bend over at the waist and stick your butt out, nor should you let your ass sag against gravity.  Your lower abs should be pulled in.)

(Note: should family members interrupt you as you are doing this, just explain that you thought you'd save money remodeling your house by knocking out a few walls the old fashioned way.)

For a great demonstration of these, MizFit, the most inspiring fitness blogger on the planet, is our go-to gal;

If you can do 3 sets of 12 with no problem, you need to get lower on the wall; if you're as low as you can go without risking a face plant then...

2.  Step two: Table top push ups.  Same as above, but put your hands on a table or counter top, stabilize your body, and do pushups from there.  Probably best not to do this at a fancy restaurant during dinner hour no matter how enthusiastic you're feeling. Once you've getting good at those...

3. You'll want to get lower still.  Do you have a staircase in your house you can do push-ups from? Keep choosing lower and lower stairs to put your hands on until you get to the bottom. Otherwise, have you got any heavy immobile objects in your home of varying heights, like armchairs, couches, teenagers, coffee tables?

4. So what about bent-knee "girls" pushups?  Well sure, throw these in the mix too for variety!  They are also explained in MizFit's video above.  But you'll get more core work (I think!) by doing the full extended version from higher up than doing bent knees off the ground. 

5. By the time you can do a bunch of almost-to-the-ground pushups, you'll be ready for your first "real" pushup. Do one and feel smug. And congratulations, you rock!

6. Do more.  And then some more! And then more after that!

How to learn to do your first pull up.

(Personal Aside: In my experience, these are really f#cking hard to do. However, you will feel so damn bad-ass when you get there, it will be worth all the pain, suffering, frustration, sobbing, exhaustion... wait, where are you all going? When I finally got up to 3 or 4 pull-ups, I managed to work this superhuman feat into every single conversation I had last summer, to the delight of all my friends and relatives, I'm sure. But then sadly, I got sidelined with surgery and a broken arm, so now I'm starting over myself. I stare up at that little steel bar above my head with equal mixture of loathing and yearning, and am working hard toward that joyous day when I will once again be able to claim mastery of the Unassisted Pull Up.  But enough about me...)

1. Step One: As with push-ups, you want to build up your strength with easier versions of the pullup.  You may want to vary your grip to include chin ups too--palms facing inward rather than outward.  Chin-ups are slightly easier that pull-ups, and help give you a cute little bicep bulge.

Also, you want to drop and retract your shoulder blades so that you can show off your boobs you can better engage your back muscles.

Easier pull-up alternatives include:
  • A lat pull-down machine at the gym;
  • A pull-up bar with a chair under it to put your legs on to support some body weight;
  • An exercise band looped around a pullup bar to put your foot in and lighten the load;
  • A friend, spouse, personal trainer, indentured servant, minion, or other cooperative mammal with opposable thumbs who can hold your legs and help hoist you up; or
  •  One of those gravitron thingies at the gym. (The main option I used the first time; very helpful.) From the name it sounds like it should be able to launch you into outer space, but it's just this contraption that allows you to adjust how much help you need getting up to the top:

(Hey, what the heck, build one of these babies yourself! Couldn't be that hard, could it?)

Step 2:  Negatives.  (These are aptly named, because that's the way you will feel about life while completing them. They are weirdly unsatisfying even as they are kicking your ass.  But they do work well).  To do these, use a chair (or if you're really fit, jump up) to start at the top position of the pull-up.   Lower yourself down slowly.  Start again at the top.  Repeat until exhaustion or suicidal thoughts, which ever comes first.

Step 3: Start "playing" with tiny real pull-ups while building up more fake assisted pull-ups and negatives. You can start at the top and lower yourself an inch or so and then heave (no not the barfy kind of heave, the muscle kind) your body back up. Or you can start at the bottom and inch yourself up as far as you can go and then repeat. Or, if you try that and don't go anywhere at all, you can hang for a while at the top, middle, or bottom, it's all good!

Step 4: At some point, possibly when you least expect it, execute your first pull-up! Personally, I plateaued for ages and ages, needing 30 lbs of assistance as seasons changed and time marched on and I about gave up. I have NO IDEA why all of a sudden one day I was up and over the top!

Advanced Versions of the Push Up and Pull Up

There are lots! But that's the subject of another post. Please check back at Cranky Fitness every two to three minutes for the next year or so to make sure you don't miss it. Or I suppose you could subscribe to the blog by feed reader or email on the left sidebar...

Additional Pull Up and Push Up resources, some with pictures and actual experts:

Experience Life: "Clear the Bar"--instructions on getting to your first pull-up.

Women's Health Magazine: Do 15 "real" pushups

NerdFitness: This one's more a more manly, rugged, dude-friendly guide to doing pull-ups.

Our pal Jody at Truth2Being Fit explains and shows what it means to drop and retract your shoulders.

Anyone trying to master the push up or pull up? Already there? Don't give a crap and just want to say hi or whine about something annoying? It's all good!

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