Corps Delays Pull-Up Requirements for Female Marines

Jan. 1 deadline for key part of combat readiness put on hold indefinitely

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Marine photo

A female Marine shows how it's done.

In the push to put women on the front lines, the Marines are taking a knee. In other words, they’re delaying the Jan. 1 deadline requiring women to do pull-ups to help them prepare for the rigors of combat.

Last year, the corps said female Marines would have to begin doing a minimum of three pull-ups, just like their male comrades, beginning Jan. 1, 2014, as part of their annual physical fitness test. But in a Friday announcement to all Marines on Facebook, the corps said not so fast:

“The Marine Corps is extending the transition from the flexed-arm hang to pull-ups for the female Physical Fitness Test to allow for the further gathering of data to ensure all female Marines are provided with the best opportunity to succeed. All Marines are strongly encouraged to continue training under the assumption that pull-ups will remain a standard of measure for physical fitness.”

Pull-ups are a key indicator of upper-body strength, which can come in handy on the battlefield. The Army—which doesn’t require pull-ups as part of its annual fitness test—conducted numerous tests from 1970 to the late 1990s to see how men and women differed in various forms of physical might. “Test results varied widely except in the case of upper-body strength, which, it was generally agreed, seldom reached the male level among females,” a 2008 Army study noted. “Given the importance of upper-body strength for a number of military specialties, especially in the combat arms, these differences had to be taken into consideration in any Army training regimen.” On Thursday, three women were the first to graduate from the Marines’ punishing enlisted infantry course.

Marines says the delay is to make sure the change doesn’t adversely affect the Marines’ fine-tuned personnel policies. “The primary risks are unacceptable accession/attrition/retention rates for recruits, officer candidates, and current Marines,” says Colonel Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman. “These potentially translate into various second-order issues that present additional risks to the Marine Corps—the risks are not anything medical or physical in nature to the Marines attempting pull-ups.”

For the time being, female Marines will continue to be able to perform the “flexed arm hang”—holding one’s chin above the bar—for at least 15 seconds, in lieu of pull ups. The Marines demand “dead hang” pull-ups, meaning no swinging of the lower body to propel one’s chin over the bar. Males need 20 to earn the top score; women need eight.

“If you can’t pull yourself up, have the decency to pull yourself out,” says Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and military historian. “The military, despite all the post-modern technology, is still essentially physical.”

When the corps announced the change last year, female Marines were eager to take on the challenge. “Females have to stray away from the ‘I can’t’ mindset when it comes to pull-ups,” Marine Lance Corporal Katelyn Hunter said in a Marines news story when the corps announced the impending change.

“About a year ago, I was only doing two pull-ups,” added Corporal Ada Canizaleztejada. “I began weightlifting and targeting specific muscles beneficial for doing pull-ups, and now I can do nine.” YouTube features female Marines showing their sisters that pull-ups are possible.

The delay has focused attention, once again, on the proper physical standards that should be required for combat. Some, in fact, may be dated and irrelevant on today’s battlefield. But whenever a snag like this happens, it polarizes those involved.

“Some women will be able to do the pull-ups, some will not,” a former Marine said in response to the corps’ Facebook post. “There was plenty of guys that couldn’t when I was in. Still trusted them.”

Not everyone agreed. “If you can’t lift your own body weight,” a second poster said, “you have no business trying to lift mine.”

A third decided to pick on a new target. “You tell the Army to walk up stairs,” he asserted, “and they get winded.”