I am huge fan of body weight exercises – if you hadn’t picked up on that already from this column – and, as a matter of fact, I train exclusively with body weight exercises. I find that exercises that use only your body weight are not only more than enough for anybody to reach a substantial level of fitness, but also, they are accessible to everybody because they generally don’t require gym memberships or equipment to do them. You just need, well, you.
This leads me to discuss the next exercise in this series, which in fact requires just a little bit of equipment – a bar. It is a highly revered and often feared exercise that turns boys into men and girls into women. We are talking today about the one and only pull-up.
Pull-ups are a serious exercise, involving grabbing onto a bar that is over your head with an overhand grip, and pulling your entire body up until at least your chin clears the bar.
Difficulty aside, pull-ups are an excellent upper body exercise, and they specifically target the muscles of the upper back, the rear deltoids (back of the shoulders) and the biceps (the muscles you flex when you bend your arms). They are hugely important for individuals who engage in exercises that work the opposing muscles (chest, front deltoids and triceps). The reason for this is that folks love to work the chest, but they often fail to work the opposing muscles. The unfortunate result of this is what I call “concave back,” where your tight chest muscles pull your shoulders in and give you a hunched-back look. Not cool.
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So what if you can’t do pull-ups? If not, don’t be bothered about it, first of all. I couldn’t for a long time, and the only reason that I can do several now is because I worked at it for years. My initial reps were sloppy and terrible, but I dedicated myself to working a full range of motion and doing as quality of reps as I could possibly do.
Let me give you a couple of options now to help you get that first pull-up:
Threshold pull-ups: Stand in a doorway of your home and grab the threshold on both sides at approximately shoulder height. Slowly extend your arms and allow your body to go backwards as your arms begin to support more of your weight. Keep your feet planted. After your arms are fully extended, pull yourself back to the starting position.
Short bar pull-ups: Find a playground that has a pull-up bar that is approximately waist height or lower. Bending down, grab the bar with an overhand grip, and walk your feet under the bar until your body is totally straight, and your body weight is being supported by your arms. Pull yourself up until your chin or chest almost touch the bar, then lower yourself to complete one repetition.
Practicing the above pull-up variations should have you on your way to mastering the almighty pull-up. Remember, pull-ups are a great way to balance out your musculature and to keep your posture correct as you age. And don’t count yourself out; I witnessed 80+ year old bodybuilder Ernestine Shepherd doing a pull-up on my pull-up bar a couple of years ago at the Georgia Wellness and Fitness Festival. If she can do it, you can, too!
Macon resident Shawn McClendon is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, podcast host and owner of the health/fitness blog YourHealthAtTheCrossroads.com. E-mail him with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @ShawnB2B on Facebook.