Female Marines and Pull Ups

Erin Pull Up

You may have heard around the first of the year that the Marines were delaying the requirement of female recruits to perform 3 pull ups.  This prompted quite a few articles and discussion. I found the situation rather interesting as a story like this is right in my proverbial “wheelhouse”.  As such, I searched around the web and read various articles as well as watched an interview on CNN.  Here is some of the information that I gathered and my thoughts.

First off, of all the talk I heard and read everyone uses the terminology “pull up”, which is slightly misleading.  To me pull up means palms facing away, or a double overhand grip.  This is a significantly more difficult way to pull oneself over the bar than with the palms facing you.  I have exclusively seen the old standard known as the flexed arm hang, which is temporarily being reinstated in the place of the 3 rep test, performed with what be called a chin up grip or both palm facing the athlete. From the various video and pictures in the articles that I saw it would appear that the recruit is able to choose the preferred grip, typically that of a chin up.  I’m sure the Marines themselves have this all figured out but it’s certainly confusing to the rest of us as to what the actual standard is.


As an experienced coach I know that 3 pull ups/chin ups is no easy task for women but it can, without a doubt, be accomplished.  I’ve seen it and I’ve helped many women get there.  In fact just today a woman in one of our classes set a new personal record by performing 6 chin ups.  All of that being said, probably the biggest difficulty is determining one’s current strength in the chin up when you’re starting from 0. Anything less than very close to completing 1 rep is nowhere near the same as other strength tests. For example, if the requirement were to deadlift 300 lbs. it’s rather easy to determine if someone currently has the strength to lift 100, 175, 250 lbs, etc. With the pull/chin up all we know is that the person is at 0 and determining how much more strength, practice or time it will take to merely get that first one, never mind third, is possibly an equally arduous task.

Another important consideration is the amount of time one has to work with.  I saw in the CNN interview that boot camp lasts 10 weeks.  Assuming that’s accurate, if a recruit comes to camp unable to 1 pull up, can she get to 3 in just a 10 week span? It’s possible but unlikely based on all of the other important qualities a recruit needs to develop.  Not only that, but as the interviewee stated, many of the women coming into boot camp are young.   Maybe 18-20 years old.  Again I’ve worked with a fair amount of women this age (and older).  Most are unable to perform 3 chin ups.  I have no doubt they can eventually get strong enough but just 10 weeks isn’t going to cut it.

So what can be done?  As with any other strength task you need to get in some practice and I believe there are a couple of ways to do that if we can agree that just hammering away at zero and practicing an all out effort that ultimately results in an unsuccessful rep is not the most effective way to go.  I find the progressions in the video below to be helpful.  The other method we use at Ambition Athletics is spotting or giving assistance from the lower lats.  An example of this can seen in the video at the bottom of the page.  We believe that is a superior method to using a band.

So, here is how I see it at this point: I believe a 3 rep chin up requirement for women Marines is a great way to test strength.  It’s not easy but sure as hell means a woman is strong.  I believe those in charge need to decide how important this test is to them as compared to other qualities.  And, if it’s a high priority (which I believe it should be) there needs to be a plan in place.  Women are 100% capable of doing this but if they are working in a 10 week span it’s not long enough and the path to point B has to be outlined. Use a spotter? Progress using the TRX? How often? What is the volume? Everyday or just a few times a week? There should be progressions across the board as to how they are going to make these women stronger, within a reasonable amount of time and then maintain it.  How does one answer all of those questions as they relate to the many, many other requirements of a recruit or current Marine?  I’m not saying I have the answers but someone needs to figure it out.  Currently THIS training template is offered to help one prepare for boot camp.  Looking at it I’m quite sure they can improve on that to help someone prepare for camp and ultimately perform 3 chin ups.  In other words, it’s junk.  I certainly understand the difficulty in trying to suggest exercises, reps, sets, to someone that could be living thousands of miles away but in my expertise these workouts are not as conducive to strength gains as they could be, especially in meeting a 3 chin up standard.   

– Mike Baltren

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