At 4'10", Marine Corps Major Misty Posey doesn't exactly look like someone who could kick your ass. But she's not to be underestimated. Posey could take just about anyone in a pull-up contest, and now, she's on a mission to help other women in the Marines master pull-ups, too.
Posey's mission is to equalize the standards for men and women in the military, and she's starting by challenging the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT), a series of exercises to measure physical strength. All Marines who take the test are required to run three miles and complete a series of abdominal crunches, but only male Marines must complete pull-ups (as many as they can) while female Marines can opt for a "flexed-arm hang"—basically, just hanging off the bar for 15 seconds. In 2012, the Marine Corps announced they would start requiring women to do pull-ups, just like their male counterparts, but they reversed the decision by the end of 2013, as more and more women failed to meet the standard. Now, women are back to just hanging.
For Posey, those standards don't give women enough credit. "When a man cannot do a pull-up, it is because he is weak. When a woman cannot do a pull-up, it is because she is a woman," she wrote in one of her training guides. The problem, she argues, has nothing to do with gender differences. The problem is how women are trained.
And so, for more than 20 years, Posey has been teaching women how to do pull-ups—both informally and in her pull-up clinic at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. "Most men do pull-ups when they're young, so they don't remember how they learned them. Then when the Marine Corps leaders tried to train women, they didn't know how," she told VICE. "I put a lot of detail into [my] program because I knew women and men would blame our gender if we failed."
Women were first allowed to join the Marine Corps as reservists in 1918. It would be decades before women could enlist as permanent members, under the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.
Women weren't allowed to become pilots until the 1970s and weren't able to join combat roles until this year. As recently as one generation ago, training for female Marines included things like an Image Development Course, where they were taught to apply their makeup. Women are no longer issued makeup kits on arrival, but as of February 2016, there are fewer than 1,500 female Marines on active duty compared to 19,000 men.
Posey wants to change that by sending a clear message: Women are tougher than you think. That starts with making women as strong as possible. Her six-week pull-up clinic teaches women how to do pull-ups, and includes other exercises like burpees, sprints, L-sits, jumping rope, and planks.
Pull-ups can be harder for women because they have a higher limb-to-torso ratio and less testosterone, making it harder to build strength, according to Jordan Metzl, a New York–based sports medicine physician. That's not to say that women can't learn to do them, but Metzl says women are still at a disadvantage in reaching the bar. "If I move to Kenya and train for years to do high-altitude marathons, I'll still never be as good as a Kenyan," Metzl told VICE.
Posey, who says she's yet to meet someone she can't train to do a pull-up, isn't buying it. She calls this the "frailty myth"—the idea that women don't have upper-body strength and therefore aren't fit for combat roles. Plus, as others have pointed out, there are physiological differences among men too. Building muscle is easier for some individuals than others, but any able-bodied individual can learn to do a pull-up.
On the first attempt, Posey said most women in her clinic are able to pull up only about a quarter of an inch. Some women are simply lacking the strength, but in other cases, it's a matter of understanding how to engage their muscles. If not trained properly, they leave discouraged and blame weakness, when in reality, "their central nervous system doesn't know what to tell the muscles to do." Within a few days, Posey said most of her trainees learn to complete their first pull-up.
"It will almost bring tears to your eyes when you see someone get their first pull-up," Posey told me. "The look of amazement that they're the master of their own body. And then it's a domino effect: They start lifting weights, running more."
Posey's day job involves traveling the country and meeting with Marine Corps leaders to discuss how to best integrate women into combat roles. Since women became eligible to take combat roles this year, a total of 233 women have qualified and completed combat training. As of last month, only two have requested to join the infantry.
If the reactions to Posey's training videos are any indication, women on the front lines will have some hard days ahead of them. (One comment on her video: "Do you like the smell of scented candles after a long day of hiking and carrying your female counterparts rucksack? Life is a cabaret in the Marines!") But Posey's advice works just as well for overcoming the doubts about women in combat as it does for mastering pull-ups: If they tell you you're not strong enough, prove them wrong.
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