“You Do Pull-Ups Like a Girl": The Marines' Dubious New Pull-Up Requirement

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Monday, January 13, 2014

In a development reminiscent of the well-known schoolyard taunt, the U.S. Marines are seeking to eliminate the so-called “girl pull-up” from the fitness tests they have been using for new female recruits. Under the old standard, formally known as the “flexed arm hang,” female recruits were required to hold their chins above the pull-up bar for at least 15 seconds. Under the new standard, implementation of which is presently delayed, they must do at least three pull-ups in order to pass the Marines’ basic fitness test.

The new standard has come on the heels of Defense Secretary Panetta’s rescission of the 1994 directive that excluded women from units and positions charged with engaging in direct combat on the ground. Now, women must be integrated into newly opened combat units by January 1, 2016. But the integration has come in hand with revised physical tests for all would-be female applicants, not just those in combat units, making the Marines’ new general fitness test a lightning rod for the critics of women serving in combat roles.

Proponents of the new fitness test argue that the revised pull-up requirement will more adequately test female recruits’ upper body strength. In particular, they contend that regular pull-ups test the same muscular strength necessary to accomplish a variety of tasks, such as scaling a wall or carrying munitions.  Of course, while fitness is important to being a Marine, many Marines—such as communications officers or air traffic controllers—don’t climb walls or carry munitions, and most other Marines will do so only rarely. 

Furthermore, it’s questionable whether pull-ups are indispensable for predicting success in tasks such as wall-climbing or carrying munitions anyway. For instance, in 1982, in Berkman v. City of New York, a New York federal District Court Judge charged with examining the validity of New York City’s firefighter entrance exam found that technique, rather than upper-body strength, played a vital role in scaling walls. The judge’s opinion noted the example of a woman who had successfully scaled the wall, not due to her upper body strength, but rather by reason of a simple technique: running up the wall wearing rubber-soled shoes before grasping the wall’s top. 

Indeed, experts warn that one’s ability to do a pull-up correlates with physical characteristics other than upper body strength. In a post on the New York Times Well Blog , Paul Vanderburgh, professor of exercise physiology at University of Dayton, points out that taller and bigger men with long arms are apt to experience greater difficulties doing pull-ups than their shorter and smaller counterparts. “Generally speaking, the longer the limb, the more of a disadvantage in being able to do a pull-up,” says Vanderburgh. Yet none of the critics who worry over women’s decreased ability to do pull-ups has advocated for the exclusion of tall, big men from the Marines.

Before countless fit, strong, capable women are excluded from the Marines, the requirement for pull-ups—a task more suited for the male physique—should be tested to ensure it actually results in better-performing Marines. Until then, those debating this issue should note the very real possibility that the only thing the new test can really determine is the recruit’s ability to do pull-ups like a boy.