Dr. Jon Hyman

Jon Hyman, MD

Why Girls / Women Can’t Climb the Pegboard ?

Dr. Hyman is an independent Orthopedic Surgeon. Our Mission is to provide expert sports medicine education. This is not a site for medical treatment. This site is not affiliated with, sponsored by, endorsed by, nor approved by CrossFit, P90X, Insanity or any other third party.

Before I begin.  Let’s be clear: some women can, many guys can’t.  A lot of it has to do with fitness, not so much gender.  That said, the 2015 CrossFit Games final event July 26th exposed an Achilles heel in female fitness: the Pegboard.  Almost none of the phenomenally elite women athletes were able to climb the pegboard, while the guys seemed to make it look easy (though it’s clearly brutally hard). Castro said all the women on the demo team were able to do it. A scant few women were able to do so in competition.  What made them different? Most of the women at the top of the leaderboard, however, were nearly paralyzed by the pegboard, effectively giving up on it to rest for the next workout. Fatigue alone can’t explain it, b/c the men were similarly fatigued and yet rolled through it. (Both had recently done a 100 pull-up WOD).

Dave Castro, CrosssFit Games Director, stated, “I was surprised more women didn’t go up the peg board. I tested it with my demo team and every single woman on the team got up it three times but the weekend caught up to them. It’s a great bodyweight element to incorporate into the plethora of bodyweight elements that we incorporate.”

Sara Sigmundsdottir may be the fittest women in the CrossFit world, as she was dominating the field until the final event, but she couldn’t even make half of one ascent on the pegboard. The hammer wielding Thor, with his inhuman grip strength, would probably have been disappointed, but not as much as she was, I’m sure.


Sara Sigmundsdottir. One of the most elite CrossFit athletes in the world.

As an aside, the Icelandic women have some totally cool names don’t they?!  

CrossFit notables:

  • Annie Thorisdóttir (2011 and 2012 CrossFit Games champion, 2nd place in 2010 and 2014, Injured in 2013, DNF in 2015)
  • Ragnheiður Sara Sigmundsdottir (3rd place 2015 CrossFit Games)
  • Katrin Tanja Davidsdóttir (2015 CrossFit Games champion)
  • Thuridur Erla Helgadóttir
  • Hjordis Oskarsdóttir
  • Ingunn Ludviksdóttir
  • Erla Guðmundsdóttir

Makes me want to try out HymanDottir.

Back to subject.  If a female climbs a pegboard, apparently it’s a noteworthy event.  Here’s a new story about the first middle school girl to do so in her school’s 50 year history.

Horizontal pegs are a frequent part of American Ninja Warrior training and I have some patients who’ve competed in that. The grip is a killer I’m told.  Having done rope climbs many times at the box, the grip fails fast, and is often the rate limiting step in couplets that involve climbing and the bar.  That’s one of the reasons we put an Endless Rope in our Physical Therapy rehab center:

endless rope
Endless Rope workout

Everyone knows that women have less upper body strength generally as compared to men, but that can’t be the explanation of why these incredibly strong women were standing around the bottom of the pegboard looking at each other in utter shock.  These are not your typical athletes.  They are affectionately referred to as ‘mutants’…i.e. they are MUCH stronger than 99% of women and much stronger than most guys. Their Popeye-ish muscles make most men look like Olive Oil.  There must be something more to it than lacking upper body strength.

men on pegboards
Men scaling the Pegboards.

Interestingly, the elite CrossFit women were also able to do ‘no leg’ rope climbs like it was nothing.  Their grips are strong and they are immensely strong overall.  So what could account for the inability to climb the board? I don’t think it was fear of falling nor the pressure of the limelight on prime time ESPN stage.  These women are nearly fearless and their training regimens and discipline are nothing short of super heroic.

Here’s my theories on the anthropomorphic factors:

  • they were extremely fatigued already and the relative weakness in their grip strength may have been greater than that of their male counterparts at the same level of final day competition
  • women tend to rely on leg strength more than males do and the slipperiness and lack of shoe grip / traction on that plexiglass pegboard was killing them
  • the movement requires locking the elbows and levering, which puts a lot of strain on the biceps and triceps to maintain near isometric strength in one arm while the other arm works.
  • it’s a very heavily biceps and lat straining exercise, and biceps and lat strength maybe harder areas for women to develop due to vector pulls of the pectorals major (which is an humerus internal rotator like the latissimus dorsi muscle).
  • the volume of breast tissue (and certainly implants) can affect the vector pull of the pec major and pec minor.  Not saying bigger boobs is an issue per se, I’m saying that having more tissue on top of the boob or a sub muscular implant could affect how close you get to the pegboard or how close you can bring your arms in to your chest during ascent. Flat may be better?
  • the size of the peg relative to the hand.  Gripping a baseball bat at the fat end is a different experience than on the small end.  The pegs were the same for the men and women.  Pullup bars are as well, but that’s where kipping and swinging can overcome it.  On a pegboard, swinging hurts you b/c it makes it harder to meticulously insert the pegs safely.
  • there maybe something to the vector forces relative to your body weight and distance your center of gravity is away from the pegboard. that would be influenced by the length of your forearm and upper arm (humerus), relative to your torso.  That physics and biomechanics are beyond the scope of this article but may explain why there may have been a height difference in the females who were able to complete it.
  • Body Mass Index (height / weight ratios) difference?  I doubt it was % body fat, as these women were ultra lean muscle machines.

In the end, I don’t know the answer.  I wish I could watch the event again, in slow motion, b/c I think I might have a better shot at figuring it out, and adding a little math to the analysis.  But alas, not enough time. In the same way women used to not be able to do strict pull-ups, and now they can bang them out, and couldn’t do handstand pushups, and now they kill them, they will figure this pegboard thing out quickly.

While most women probably still cannot do a strict pull-up, most CrossFit women can. They’re inspiring girls all around the world to get more fit and accelerating the ‘Girl Power’ movement.  Although they seem to benefit more from kipping, the kip is not essential for these women at the highest levels of fitness.  It will take more time and attention to technique and a fair bit of practice, but they’ll get it. Women will be climbing  pegboards like spiders before too long.  In fact, don’t be surprised if we see a SpiderWoman movie in the wake of it all.

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Our thanks to FlexBuilding: A New Way to Move. A New Way to Live. for providing the anatomical images for this website.

dr jon hyman

Jon Hyman, M.D.

Dr. Hyman is a Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine Expert who concentrates on helping his patients understand their problem and get the results they want. Understanding the problem from the patient's perspective, how it impacts their life, their family, their sports/jobs and goals is his primary concern.

Aside from surgical and technical expertise, he has a reputation of providing thorough second opinion evaluations. He seeks to answer all your questions and teach you about things you may not have known to ask, so you leave feeling informed, re-assured and satisfied. Knee, Hip and Shoulder surgery and non-surgical options generally, are his specialty.