July 11, 2011

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!


  1. More great tips and good advice that I am unlikely to follow but love reading about.
    Crabby, you make me want to do this stuff. Fortunately it wears off after a few minutes and I can get on with sitting around.
    Oh, and "cooperative mammal" cracks me up.

  2. I want to whine about my shoulder. I can do three pushups before it starts whimpering, and if I don't listen, it screams. So I looked at the video and saw that MizFit's hands are far outside her shoulders and wondered if I was doing it wrong. (I do lots of Plank in yoga.) Not so. I can't do one at all in that position; I collapse to the floor immediately.

    I have largely overcome the weak (formerly sprained) wrist problem with pushups by lots and lots of wrist curls. (WristCurlLove!!!) But my shoulder problem remains.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  3. Excellent tips and advice, Crabby! And one day, perhaps, I will find a bar sturdy enough to support me and give this a try.
    Or not.

  4. I can do full push ups - somewhere around 10 in a row before I collapse. Pull ups? I feel like maybe never. But, I did install a pull up bar...and then I got lazy. Having made the investment, I must get back to it. Can't have the thing just hanging there taunting me, now can I? Cranky Fitness will be my inspiration for mastering the pull up! :)

  5. LOVE! This was a goal of mine a couple of years ago and I did it. I was ECSTATIC.


    Now I can barely do a push up but that's a whole other story. Darn newborns. ;)

  6. Must get back to upper body exercise. Must get back to upper body exercise. (Um, and that core stuff too.)

    Thanks for the timely kick in the pants (er, biceps?) as usual Crabby!

  7. Jody is gonna love this because she is a pull up/ push up machine!

    I like them also, and I support your effort to get women to do them. It's very attainable and it will give you a proud feeling when you have done it.

  8. Hey I'm new here, I like this post and laughed my ass off. I shouldn't tell you that I have been working out for years, and push ups and pull ups do get easier. Your tips on how to get started are great. Have a happy day!

  9. DR. J is right, I love this stuff & especially push-ups in every form imaginable! :-) With those push-ups, don't give up. Like everything else, patience is your friend keep at it & you too shall prevail!

    Ah the chins & pull-ups! As I told you Crabby, I got HUGE in my back lifting heavy to get that pull-up, wide grip. I can do the reverse grip chins, a couple & v-bat pull-ups, a couple but those wide ones, well, after I got my first one after many years of not doing them, I decided to just stick with the closer ones since I did not have to lift heavy to get them. My back is just a body part that GROWS & for me personally, I wanted it a bit less wide so I dropped my weights just a tad higher reps. BUT, the back is still wide! ;-)

  10. Funny you should mention this. My Pilates teacher, just this morning, was talking about how sore her pull ups had left her. Maybe i don't want to do them after all!

  11. I remember doing chin ups as a kid on the monkey bars and they were easy then. I wonder where all that energy went?

  12. I still, still, still don't have a damned dead-hang pull up. I remember my shock and awe the day I got my first jumping pull up...and the day I got my first kipping pull up (unassisted - I started with an embarrassingly heavy resistance band)...and the day I got my third kipping pull up. No more milestones since that, although when I try I can still do three kipping in a row.

    Apparently I need to, I dunno, apply some concerted effort or something to get the dead-hang out of the way. Mostly I just stare at my friend Tom, who does them more easily wearing a 65# weight vest that I do with a huge ass resistance band, and plot his slow and painful death. Um, er, I mean "admire his dedication."

    I have a pull up bar in my utility room doorway. Take a guess how often I use that thing...

  13. Great post...and as always, FUNNY!

    MizFit was an absolutely wonderful bonus!

    As soon as I finished reading the post, I got up and "crank"ed 12 out against the wall. OUCH! I can only improve!

    Once I have mastered the full push up...give or take five years, I will work on the pull up!

  14. Great tips and ideas. I've been slowly building up the number of real pushups I can do, to do burpees. First it was girly ones...then a few "real" ones.
    It's so satisfying to slowly be able to do more and more..I'm up to 2 sets of 10 burpees with real pushups now. I've been bragging about it, altho I don't think anyone really cares but me! :)

    The pull up though? That remains elusive. Hmmm...

  15. How much do I want a pull-up minion now?!? Great advice! My fave exercise is the negatives for pull-ups. Once I started doing those I got stronger so much faster than using the gravitron or what have you.

  16. It's weird. Push ups I can do with minimal discomfort, but I have NEVER been able to do a pull up in my life. Is there a secret to one being easier than the other?

  17. Excellent tips and advice. Must get back to upper body exercise. Must get back to upper body exercise. Please more tips to come. Thanks! :)

  18. I enjoy many of your posts they are most amusing. However, when exercises are described and demonstrated I sometimes have to cringe. Thankfully, most people stop when they get joint injuries and chalk the pain up to old age. When in actuality it could be simply a matter of poor positioning and muscle sequencing that causes pain.
    Keep on challenging yourself and always reward yourself!

  19. One of the best new pieces of exercise equipment for women is the push up Bench! It allows any user the ability to do good push-ups with perfect technique. If you don't have the strength to do one push up why would you want to do them.

  20. I just got really into pushups and have a really good way to build incredible strength with them. I set a goal of doing 100 pushups a day... no matter how I had to space them out. I have a counter on my phone and I just tick off a few at a time, until by the end of the day, I cram a bit to get in as many more as I need. I usually do them in sets of 10, and 10 sets of 10 sprinkled throughout the day (or even throughout the night if I get lazy) is REALLY not that hard for me anymore. My arms are becoming pretty defined as a results - I love it!

    Good luck to everyone :)

  21. I need to try this! I always wished I could do a pull up =(

  22. Cranky! I had removed you from my bloglines because your posts were so few and far between (and I don't need a life coach). But then I see this post linked on fit bottomed girls and there you are! You're back! And talking about something I am working on at this VERY moment! I am on day 37 of Body for Life and one of my goals is to do a full pull-up by the end of the 12 weeks!! So far I can flexed-arm hang for 12 seconds! I LOVE the resistance band pull-ups and just started to be able to jump up from the ground and hold the flexed arm position!

  23. Just stumbled on this and doing a real pull up is my GOAL this year ... that and continual double-unders ... oh and handstands, too. I need a lot of help - lol. But this is GREAT info and I will study up. Thanks!

  24. I have a fitness test in about 8 days time where i have to do a minimum of 1 chin up.

    I haven't been able to do them since i was about 13, i'm 29 now!
    I'm strong, do weights and so on but i am really not sure how i am gonna do 1 chin up with 8 days left to train

    Any genius ideas from anyone?!

  25. LOLOL. Love this post. I mastered the art of "kipping pullups" before I started doing dead hang pullups. I can still only do 5 or so of them but definitely started by doing negatives. You're right, you feel lame doing them...

  26. I just bought my Pullup Bar and set it up. So far, I'm just hanging. I can't wait to start improving with these tips. --Thanks a bunch.

    1. that comment made me crack my A** up....very true though....crossfit bands help tremendously, then after my knee surgery I had to start all over.....and negatives have helped...i am about 85% away from unassisted pullups

  27. Thank you for the letting me know it may take a long time to get to a chin up, but I did one the other day. First one EVER! 8 months of hard work.I lost my muffin top along the way too-bonus.

  28. Hey MsMoe that's awesome, congratulations!

    Took me forever to get there in the first place, then half of forever to get back after surgery, but doesn't it feel great to do chin ups? Well worth all the sweat and cursing.

  29. This is the first time I've ever seen any of your stuff, but I think I'll be coming back. You are hilarious and an amazing help!


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)