The Almighty Pull-Up
I’m going to make an un-studied guess and say that only 2% of the population of the entire United States can do even just one bodyweight (BW) pull-up. I will further guess that less than 5% of all the members of Lifetime Fitness Gym, even though most members are hard working, regular exercisers, I will guess that less than 5% of those people can do a set of 12 good pull-ups!
Just looking at the exercise you would expect the pull-up to work all the usual “pulling” muscles (latts, traps, delts, subscapularis, forearms and biceps) but you might not give much thought to the fact that pull-ups also engage: hamstrings, glutes, adductor magnus, pectoralis minor, and a multitude of “core” muscles .
So… if pull-ups give us so much “bang for the buck” and work all those muscles, why do people avoid doing them?
We both know the answer to that. Bodyweight pull-ups are very tough to do. And unlike other “tough to do” exercises, with pull-ups, you can’t start at a lower weight and work your way up. Either you can do one, or… you can’t. In fact, the BW pull-up is as much a strength tester as it is a strength builder. Being able to do pull-ups gives testimony to the fact that you have put in your sweat-time and that you have achieved for yourself, a favorable strength to weight ratio.
So… how do you get started doing pull-ups?
Phase 1: build some base strength by working the back muscles using traditional bodybuilding exercises. Those include; latt cable pull-down, seated cable row, T-bar row, single arm row. Work heavy enough to fail at about 8 reps. Once you can do a set of 8 latt pull-downs with about two thirds of your bodyweight, advance to phase 2.
Phase 2: begin doing “assisted” and “hop-up” pull-ups.
How to do assisted and hop-ups:
1) Assisted: This method requires the help of a training partner. First, do as many pull-ups on you own as possible, even if it is just one or two sloppy ones. Then, have your training partner step in and give you an assist by lifting some of your weight (you pull up the rest) to the top part of the pull-up where you then perform a negative contraction as you lower yourself, very slowly, resisting all the way, to the bottom of the movement. Repeat this for reps (or until your training partner poops out).
2) Hop-ups: this is my favored method because you can do it with no outside help. First, you perform as many pull-ups as possible on your own, even if it is just one or two sloppy ones, then, use your legs to do a “hop-up” off of a bench to the top of the pull-up bar, where you then perform a negative contraction as you lower yourself, very slowly, resisting all the way, to the bottom of the movement. Repeat for reps.
Over time, assisted pull-ups and hop-ups will increase your strength and ability to do full pull-ups on your own.
I promise you… the first time you do a perfect pull-up on your own, you will be smiling from ear to ear! And you will have every right to do so because you will have joined the 2% of us who CAN!
Your personal trainer, Tom.