The Frailty Myth

January 2014


Pull-ups?A few weeks ago, I started writing a post that discussed a particularly relevant and compelling thesis written by a student at the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College. The thesis in question was written by a fellow Marine, Major Misty Posey, and is creatively titled “Duped by the ‘Frailty Myth:’ USMC Gender Based Physical Fitness Standards.” Great title, although it is so descriptive that it might lead some to believe that they can dismiss it without reading it. Don’t be fooled; it’s worth every paragraph. Mid-way through my work on the post (I write slowly), it became even more relevant, because the Marine Corps announced that it was going to postpone the requirement for women to perform pull-ups instead of the flexed arm hang as part of the Physical Fitness Test (PFT).

My first reaction to this news was to slap my forehead again. My second was to work harder at carving out the time to write this post in light of the news. Grad school and the holidays intervened, life happened, and I woke up this week to find two separate newspaper articles (Washington Post and San Diego Union-Tribune) beating me to the punch.

I wrote about pull-ups last summer, when I first heard that the requirement might be delayed. My opinion has not changed. But Major Posey’s thesis says it bigger and better; she describes the Marine Corps as “institutionally constipated,” a phrase I can only hope to use myself in my writing one day. I sincerely hope some of our leaders read her work.

She explains in great detail how men and women develop physical expectations and how this affects actual capabilities, and it rings true. I wrote earlier that while many male friends had to do pull-ups in high school PE, I was only required to run/walk one mile after a year of “training.” I had to learn line dancing in PE another year. And a third year involved a semester of “Jake on the Beach” aerobics tapes—the low-impact version so as to not hurt us girls. That’s a far cry from doing pull-ups. And the gap between what we expect our men to do and what we expect our women to do only continues to grow and become entrenched after high school. Remember the President’s Physical Fitness Test? No wonder women show up at 18-22 years old and can’t do pull-ups. I couldn’t either. It no surprise that it’s taking some time for women to develop the upper body strength and mental confidence needed to do pull-ups.

The pull-up requirement delay is causing mass hysteria among those who think such an event signifies the end of the world is approaching, or at the least that dogs and cats are starting to live together. I beg our leaders to take a step back and focus on a few brief points: 1) these are just pull-ups. And women are often starting from a lower level of strength. Of course they will get there, it will just take time. It has only been a year, for crying out loud. 2) These are Marines we are talking about. Again, they will get there. Just takes time. 3) Keep it at a delay and no more. Don’t throw out the requirement.

We really should make this whole discussion a discussion about the PFT itself, while we’re at it. It is meant to measure individual fitness, thus the gender-normed and age-normed standards (any takers on the age-normed standards? I don’t hear much about them). Yet it fails at that task, and is systematically used and interpreted in a very different way anyway. What are we really trying to do here, measure overall fitness or ensure we are aware of strengths and weaknesses in our units? What would benefit leaders more?

Truth is, women can get plenty strong, strong enough for all the pull-ups we need. I’m not in love with pull-ups; make the test pushups instead. Or handstands. Bear crawls. Whatever. But we should set one standard for all Marines and stick with it, and make it high. Separate standards hurt women far more than they could possibly help them, and they hurt the Marine Corps. Delaying the change is not necessarily bad…as long as the change happens.

Here’s the thing: the flexed-arm-hang requirement, the postponement of the pull-up requirement, lower physical standards…these things simply limit Marines. They limit personal expectations, they limit expectations of others. They effectively pat our Marines on the head and say, “nice try, honey, but we don’t think you should bother with this.” Why do that? Why shoot ourselves in the foot and limit our future leaders and the future of the Marine Corps?

Who determines any individual’s physical baseline? Who sets those limits? By delaying the pull-ups and questioning women’s abilities to perform to that standard, we are imposing external limits. We’re saying that women should not be expected to have great strength, that pulling our own weight up to a bar 20 times, or even 3 times, is too much to ask. And that, right there, is what makes me worry. I believed it for years, and I was wrong. And now I’m older—I could have been doing these for years! Instead of limiting our Marines, we should ask more of them: set the bar high, and encourage them to fly right past it. We’re not doing that right now.

(Fun Facts from the Marine Corps Times: the first female PFT, in 1969, required women to perform a 120’ shuttle run, vertical jump, knee pushups, situps, and a 600-yard run/walk. The PFT has only been altered two more times for women: in 1975, it changed to a 1.5 mile run, situps, and the dreaded flexed-arm hang, and in 1996 the 1.5 miles changed to 3 miles. Maybe it’s time for a reassessment?)

Posted by Jeannette Haynie in Marine Corps
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  • ssgt val

    when the going gets tough the tough don’t get waivers… no matter how much you don’t like it men are men and women are not. in a perfect world, oh that’s right , we don’t live in a perfect world. we live in a world in which we put our lives and the lives of our fellow marines in jeopardy when we are not capable of doing only three pull-ups. oh please, three pull-ups, really? how man male marines can only do three pull-ups? their squad leaders and nco’s would never let them live it down…

    • Misty Posey

      Keep in mind, three pull-ups may not seem like a lot when you have always been expected to perform pull-ups. But when you’ve been made to believe you can’t perform even one pull-up, as women have been made to believe from the time they were children, three pull-ups seems like a lot. I am amazed at how much criticism the new proposed standard has received. The previous standard was the flexed arm hang. Essentially, the previous standard said that a 70 second flexed arm hang was equivalent to 20 pull-ups. Now, we are making the standard more difficult. Three minimum and 8 maximum. Yet, there seems to be more opposition to this more difficult standard than to the old FAH. Maybe it’s because only 50% of female Marines could do 3 pull-ups? Remember, women are not required to perform pull-ups before they go to boot camp. Men are. So, no surprise when men graduate, they can all pass the PFT. For the female recruits, the drill instructors only have them for 12 weeks. Considering the fact that women are only half as likely to have played sports or participate in rigorous exercise as men, most female recruits are further from their athletic potential when they show up to boot camp. The fact that 50% can do 3 pull-ups by the end of boot camp is pretty incredible. Also, many female recruits can do more than 3 pull-ups, 50% is just the percentage that can do “at least” 3 pull-ups (and that number has gone up as the depot’s pull-up training has improved). Also, 90% of female recruits can do at least one pull-up at the end of bootcamp. If you can do 1 pull-up, you can do 3, or 8 or 20. It just takes practice. Female Marines leaving bootcamp will get to 3 pull-ups and surpass the minimum standard, some just need a bit more time than 12 weeks. Believe it or not, not everyone knows how to train for pull-ups if starting from zero. Also, the depot is figuring out the best way to train. Once the depot optimizes their training, more female recruits will achieve at least 3 pull-ups before they graduate. Additionally, in the operating forces, female Marines are doing much more than the minimum. Matter-of-fact, many are surpoassing 8 pull-ups. But, they have had more time to train. They have had an entire year. At boot camp, the women only have 12 weeks. Just keep in mind how far we have come. No matter what, we are not going back to only a FAH option. It will take time, but eventually the standards will be equal (I think 8 max is pretty low) and pull-ups will be no big deal. Let’s support each other in the meantime. We are all on the same side, on the same team. P.S. Look up the history of the PFT and pull-ups for men. When pull-ups were introduced, men struggled. Some failed. Whole units failed. The average pull-up score for men in the 1940s for pull-ups was 8 (when pull-ups were first introduced). Do you know the average pull-up score for female Marines who elected to perform pull-ups on the PFT? It was eight pull-ups.

      • medic5392

        Misty, there is a vast difference between men and women physically, this is not a social construct nor is it something that is going to change unless we take a huge leap forward evolutionary wise.

  • Keith Turk Jr.

    3 pullups only, lol how pathetic, 20 seems like a lot, but when you are thin and can pass the run, do the push ups those pull ups just fall into place. Im not in the military, Im 35 years old, im overweight and I can still do 15 pull ups.
    If your going to take a paycheck to protect me you should be stronger than I am, its not an insurmountable request.

  • robert_k

    Some interesting logic applied here.

    How do you conclude that performing to established standards (although you may question them) for all Marines is some how “limiting”?

    Are the ability to pass a BST, qualify in water survival, complete a 20 mile forced march, complete a confidence course, or pass pistol/rifle quals also limiters of potential? Or do these tests of ability/knowledge, in aggregate, form the foundation for being a basically qualified Marine? Do NATOPS quals limit your potential as a naval aviator or serve as a foundation to perform in combat? If you fail to complete them, perhaps you are in the wrong profession – being part of an elite component of American society isn’t for everyone.

    The fact that only 50% could do three pull-ups is an indictment of the quality or focus of recruit training. Commit to pull-ups (or whatever upper body strength test) and the desired outcome will follow. Why not do a 4 week strength training program (similar to Pre-BUD/S) if you want every female to pass the PFT? I’ll bet if the policy were everyone must do at least three pulls or they couldn’t leave PI, the percentage would be higher. Why were the females who couldn’t do 3 allowed to progress through the training program?

    You should apply for a research grant and conduct an experiment. Take 100 undergrad females who meet height/weight standards (or limits as you say) and put them through 13 weeks of crossfit (or other structured program) while controlling their caloric intake/nutrition and rest and see if your results are better. My $$$ is on you.

    I disagree with your argument for pre-existing conditions. Before starting ROTC, I could run and do push-ups all day long but I couldn’t do three pullups – it just wasn’t an exercise I trained for. My roommate at NSI was a SEAL and after 8 weeks, working on pull-ups 5 days a week, I was able to do 15 easily. I’ve seen NCOs in the fleet provide some “personal attention” to weak Marines and achieve similar results, particularly when PROS/CONS were a factor. Proper incentives goes a long way to improving performance.

    • Jeannette Haynie

      Robert_k, thanks for the comments. Re: your first point: You should read Maj Posey’s thesis as she says it much better than I did. Bottom line, by doing away with a specific standard for women because after a short amount of time (and decades of telling them they don’t need to or can’t do them) women aren’t passing in droves, we are setting them up for failure in that area. We have pullups in the PFT for a reason. If we think it’s an important test to include, then we should keep them for all Marines. A large failure rate at first is not reason to wave our hands in the air and say “see, women can’t do these!”
      As for NATOPS, water survival, etc…apples and oranges here. The difference is I’m talking about specific exercises or requirements (pullups) vs the amount people are asked to perform. “Women can’t do pullups so they are not required to for the PFT” is very different from “Women only need to do 8 to max”. Although I also feel that having the max as 8 vs 20 is damaging as well. I want to see one standard (this is a tangential post though). If I can only do 8 or 10, then so be it. That should motivate me to work harder at them. Just as having the max score run time for women at 21:00 minutes (vs 18:00 for men) is limiting in that most will only train to that standard.
      As to pre-existing conditions, you said yourself that you could run and do pushups all day. Which is a higher baseline than so many come with. Which is also why I’m not as offended by a simple delay in implementation as I am a cancellation. Proper incentives DO go a long way, which is why I think we need this requirement. If the threat of embarrassment or removal from the Marine Corps is the result of not working up to the standards, then that is quite the incentive. One reason I made my earlier post this summer was to motivate myself more to work on pullups. It is working.

      • robert_k

        Point taken – your use of “limit” threw me off.

        I think my point of reference for this topic is skewed. I had the good fortune of making Megan McLung’s (Mason) acquaintance while I was on active duty. She was a superb officer and athlete. I’m not sure she had any limits.

        Keep up the good fight…

      • Jeannette Haynie

        She was an amazing person and an amazing Marine. I wish I’d known her better.

        If you know anyone who would fund me to do a study like that let me know…it would be a fun one. Thanks for the comments.

      • medic5392

        How is this a good fight? What Haynie is advocating is for lowered standards in the end and she continues to ignore the real differences physically between men and women that no amount of intensive training will change. Here is a fact that you can garner from the US Army and the UK MoD studies over the last three decades-only about 1.5% of females will meet the average performance of males. Now, of that 1.5%, they will have nothing close to the endurance overall due to orthopedic injuries caused by their skeletal frames which are (gasp!) different from men. You people kill me.

      • Jeannette Haynie

        Never worry about actually reading the post in question before commenting. If you ever have something to say that responds to something I’ve actually written, it would be welcome.

      • medic5392

        Jeanette, your position has always been and will always be about lowered standards. You never advocated for equal PT standards in your career as long as it benefited you. You continue to ignore honest physical differences between men and women. You ignore those who counter your views with actual hard facts because it does not agree with your premise.

        I reply to not to just this thread, but to your article and past ones as well. You are much like the rest of those who advocate the view of full integration of females- you are about yourself and not the greater good or what’s best for the military.

      • Jeannette Haynie

        I suggest that before commenting on a professional forum such as this you have the class to actually read the posts in question so that you can comment intelligently. Since I have repeatedly advocated for the same standards for both men and women, I can only guess that you are an internet troll and are purposely ignoring my words so that you can label me whatever you want.

        In the future, don’t bother commenting on my posts unless you take issue with something I have actually said in them, in which case I will happily engage.

      • medic5392

        Jeannette, I have read this post and your past ones, they are all on the same theme and you have not repeatedly advocated for them or you would gone on the record in the past during your training as taking the male standards and turned down the set aside quotas which are given to females for positions (You know they are there, feel free to check the academies too).
        In the future, don’t bother framing the debate as though you have always been pushing for the same standards when you have not. If you had been and also were against quotas then I would happily support your view, but that is not the case.

      • Misty Posey

        I had not heard of only 1.5% of female soldiers meeting the average performance of males. I am wondering if this is based on a non-incentivized population? In other words, based on current PRT scores? People train for what’s on the test. If the standards for women are lower than men (gender-nromed), which they are in the Army (and every other service), then I am not surprised so few women are meeting the average male performance. But this is not likely a true measurement of a female soldier’s athletic potential. For example, in the USMC, 38% of female Marine officers who participated in a proxy test study achieved a first class male PFT, agaist the male PFT standards. That’s doing pull-ups and using he same scoring for the run. One of the reasons they did so well was the Commandant had announced his intent to change the PFT to pull-ups. So, the populaiton was “incentivized” to improve their physical fitness to the new standards. WRT your second point, women do get injured more than men. Some of it is indeed genetic (q angle in hips) and some of it is lack of conditioning/training. The injuries can be mitigated considerably with functional movement screens and training. This training can even account for the problems created by the q angle (genetic). The same is true for men. Functional movement screens can predict which men will be injured and preventive measures can be taken. All service members will benefit from functional movement screens and interventions. At the end of the day, even though women tend to get injured more than men, the majority of women do not get injured. For example, only 2 of the 100 or so enlisted women who have attended basic infantry training in the USMC have been dropped for injury. And many more than 1.5% have passed the training (somewhere between 30-50% have passed). True, only one man in every 100 or so is dropped for injury at the same course, so the female rate is “double” that of men, but it is still very low. One reason it is so low is the USMC required the women to meet the male PFT standards before attending. This protected them from injury (it can’t eliminate the chance of injury). Also, women tend to have an advantage over men in endurance sports, especially as women age. Gasp.

      • medic5392

        No, they have tried to mitigate the Q Angle, cannot be done unless you stop the movements required to actually do the job. The Q Angle is your skeletal system, not something you can “stretch” out of and mitigate much. You continue to act like the physical differences are something that can be overcome, even implying incentives are something that might help. If that were true, wouldn’t the incentives of going into professional sports in terms of money and prestige be enough incentive to perform at the same level as men?
        As for the 1.5%, if you have not seen that then you have not read much that does not agree with your premise. Read the POTUS Report on Women in the Armed Forces or the UK MoD report on the same topic, it was a male to female test of same standards in 2002′ and reviewed in 2010′. The MoD decided not to allow women into the combat arms due to it.
        The females that “passed” the USMC Infantry training are one, not held to the same standards as the men and two, there are no official standards in the Advanced or Basic Infantry training except the fitness test, it is a false comparison.
        The incredible cheery picking that goes on about the physical abilities of men and women is stunning! Really, really stunning. Your physical strength even when trained is about half what a mans it, same for VO2 Max and then combine that with smaller frame, the Q angle and what is required you are setting those females up for failure in terms of mission success and having their bodies not be permanently impacted from that same training. The big problem is that they will not be the only ones damaged by this, their teammates will be to and this is not McDonald’s or Burger King, this will get people killed.
        Then, outside the physical factors, let us touch on the other problems-
        Frat: This is going on like crazy already and it is not just a distraction, it is a toxic leadership problem.
        Pregnancy: 38% of females on duty are or have been pregnant at one time or another, this takes them away from their jobs and leaves the team shorthanded. The Center for Naval Analysis did a study that showed female sailors were 2.5 times more likely to be an unplanned loss than their male counterparts and when pregnancy was factored out it was still 2 times more likely that the female sailor would be an unplanned loss vs their male counterparts.
        So, when you add in the lack comparable physical ability, the quotas of females in positions which is already how they are in the service in the first place (Services all have 15% “goal” for female recruits with the Navy having a 20% “goal”) and General Dempsey already saying that a 10-15% goal of females in the combat arms is what is needed to change the “culture”. Oh, that same GO also said that if the standard were too hard then they have to ask do these standards need to be that hard?
        Combine the lower physical ability, orthopedic injuries, pregnancy, frat problems (worse in a combat unit due to time and place, promise ya that), goals/quotas, lowered standards that are already being implemented (See Army testing, joke) and you are pretty much ignoring reality thinking this will be a fair and good move for the military.

      • Mustang45

        If you want low standards and PC BS, how about you run for Congress, mkay? You definitely have the logic, judgement, and intelligence to run!

  • Chaps

    It just takes time and training. Yes, with a lot of time and intensive training, female Marines can get to the level that men have to meet the day they report to boot camp.

    • grandpabluewater

      Time, time, ask me for anything but time.

  • JP

    So true. Low standards hurt. Keep writing Jeannette.

  • Richard N. Scoates

    I am an 80 year old retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer. I support the position that physical fitness should apply to all marines. That GOD that we had physically fit marines during WWII, especially in the Pacific.
    Without that edge we might be speaking English today as a second language. I was lucky, I didn’t have to be as physically fit. GO MARINES.

  • grandpabluewater

    I firmly support letting the Marines run their Corps as they see fit. I have a few modest suggestions for saiors.

    Pick a dozen male sailors at random and a dozen female sailors. Run a DC olympics course and an R&A olympics course with the male dozen vs the female dozen as teams, critique it for realism and improve it and do it again. Then have them swim clothed through oil covered cold sea water to clear water and tread water with self inflated britches for 12 hours. Give them all a small CO2 actuated horn to pin to their uniform shirt, allow them signal dropping out when exhausted. Provide Seals for lifeguards, maximum use of realistic firefighting and flooding trainers. Repeat 10 times, all fleet sailors, all warfare qualified. Analyze results by task and minimum strength required to perform successfully.

    Redo with mixed teams; male & female count proportionality same as a DDG and a CVN. Analyze results by task.

    Analyze all data resulting Pick a standard. Make it one your granddaughter’s life could depend upon.

    Pull ups?. How about carry a 220 lb unconscious sailor up two ladders single handed, or lower a portable submersible pump and hose down two decks and start it, alone.

    Combat is serious business, test for real tasks, not calesthetics.

    • Jeannette Haynie

      Agreed. Thus the stupidity of what has been going on. And the need for actual standards to be developed, that are both realistic and high. Oh, and the same for all. Gender and age aside.

  • Misty Posey

    Excellent summary. Women are stronger than they think. Stronger than they know. “Physical intelligence” is what’s lacking for most women, which is an awareness of a person’s physical potential. I fully support pull ups for women as they contribute to a woman become more physically intelligent. They are a phenomenal way to promote and measure muscular strength. That being said, I’ve always advocated a phased approach to pull-ups on the PFT, such as a hybrid flexed arm hang/pull-up requirement. The reason is too much change too fast can be counter productive. First of all, most women do not know how to train for pull-ups if they are starting from zero. Neither do most men or many physical trainers, for that matter. Most pull-up novices do not spend enough time on a pull-up bar doing pull-up progressions, such as negatives, partner assisted pull-ups, jumping pull-ups, partial range of motion pull-ups, jumping negatives, isometrics, etc. Many eventually figure out how to train, but it’s taking a bit longer to learn a pull up than it would otherwise. Further, the USMC does not have the right equipment. It simply needs shorter pull-up bars. But instead of investing in shorter pull-up bars (which can be accomplished by buying plyo boxes or actually constructing shorter bars), well intentioned commanders have been spending money on pull-up assist machines–but these machines DO NOT WORK!!!! Complicating matters is the recruit depot does not have a whole year with each female recruit to train her to perform 3 pull-ups; the depot has 3 months–the duration of boot camp. So even though the Commandant gave female Marines in the operating forces a year to learn pull-ups, the depot has only ever had 12 weeks since 3 pull-ups are a graduation requirement. As such, a delay to the pull-up requirement was necessary to figure out how to deal with this dynamic. Since 3 months doesn’t seem to be enough time for all or most female recruits to get to 3 pull-ups, the USMC needed to examine the “3 pull-ups requirement” for female recruits to graduate. Whatever the USMC decides, the requirement needs to account for the low initial fitness level of most female recruits, and the short amount of time drill instructors have with them. Otherwise, there will be a “back log” of female recruits at bootcamp for failure to pass the PFT. The take away is not to give up. Pull-ups are coming, the USMC has not abandoned the requirement. What will the exact standards be? One pull-up minimum? FAH minimum? I am not sure. But pull-ups will be a part of the test. Eventually, it will become possible to make 3 pull-ups the minimum for all female Marines, even newly graduated recruits. But it will take time. In the meantime, all women can optimize their training by getting on a pull-up bar immediately. Ditch the bands. Ditch the pull-up assist machine. Use your body weight and gravity to train. Get on a bar 4-5 days a week and practice negatives, partner assisted pull-ups (have your partner push on your back vice feet), etc, and you’ll get there. The first pull-up is the hardest to learn, but once you cross the chasm from zero to one, additional pull-ups come quickly. Don’t give up. You’re not weak. You’re not frail. You’re just further from your potential than most men. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Not even when you get to 8 pull-ups. If you can get to one, you can do twenty.

    • medic5392

      Wow, you are basically saying that the problem is that there is not enough time? So, again special exemptions for females?
      Also, even if they can do pull ups, it is only part of it, rucking 50-80lbs over long distances, being able to drag an average male on their own while in kit, pulling THEMSELVES up and over walls in full kit, moving as fast and as long and as weighed down as the men while in full kit and then being able to repeat the efforts over and over again. They also need to not be in the “shop” getting rehab all the time because the above actions cause recurring orthopedic injuries.
      Your entire premise is that these things can be overcome with “physical intelligence”, but biology is biology, a women at her max when trained the same as the males will only have the op 1.5% perform in the middle performance rates of the males and then break down due to it. Wishing things away or hoping they can be overcome with what amounts to a view that some of these things are essentially cultural is not a moral honest or intellectually honest view.