It's a classic rite of passage in school - the fitness test in gym class. You may have passed running 2 mi around the track and folding forward to touch your toes, but right after the rope climb comes the king - the pull-up bar. This fiend takes no prisoners. Only the fittest of the fit, not even the cool kids, were able to conquer that beast. Well, now that you're grown, it's time to face that demon and get to be friends.
It’s not a big secret that I was “pleasantly plump” growing up. A quick facebook investigation will turn up some cute high school and early college photos of me with plenty of extra padding. That’s why learning to do pull-ups has been such a big, looming goal for me. It’s a most-of-the-body exercise (not so much the legs) that’s an excellent indicator of whole-body strength. If you can do a set of 10-20 pull-ups, you’re in pretty good shape.
Not being able to even do one, I had to start from the very beginning. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ve got pretty good grip strength from practicing arm balances and inversions, and core strength from plank and caturanga” but the main power for pull-ups comes from your shoulders and back muscles - the deltoids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi. The reason I couldn’t pull myself up was because I didn’t have a lot of strength back there. It can be tough to admit as a guy that you aren’t as strong in the body as you think you are.
Once I got past the initial shock of not being able to do it, I had to get smart. I created a plan to get my pull-ups in check (in case I want to become an Indiana Jones-like explorer, or zombie attack).
At first, it’s important to choose a grip and stick to it. I’d recommend starting with chin-ups, holding on to the bar underhand so you can see your fingers. Overhand is the traditional pull-up grip. Some bars even have parallel grips so your thumbs point back toward you. Different hand positions will work different muscles, but will also feel harder or easier at the beginning of your journey into beast-mode.
These will be your best friend until you get up to 1 or 2 full pull-ups. Take hold of the bar. Jump up, pulling your chest to the bar. Lower down as slowly as possible until your arms are fully extended. Repeat daily until you can complete 1 or 2 full pull-ups.
Originally developed by Pavel to train Soviet Special Forces, this system allows you to grow your max repetitions quickly over weeks or months. Theoretically, it builds the neural pathway your body accesses when you want to pull yourself up; the brain learns better which muscles to recruit.
Do pull-ups in this pattern:
Max number of pull-ups - 2 = X
1 2 3 4…X…4 3 2 1
Between each small set of pull-ups, rest for the same amount of time it took you to complete them. Imagine you’ve got a partner doing the same number of pull-ups as you between sets, and it should time out right.Play with this pattern a couple times a day and you’ll be a pull-up master in no time. I like to add them in before each meal so that food becomes a reward for hard work.
Wherever you are in your pull-up journey, the most important thing is the BREATH. Just like in yoga asana practice, if the breath is short and forced the body will get more stressed out. If breath is long and relaxed, the body becomes more lean and peaceful. That's what makes them YOGA Pull-Ups instead of BRO-GA Pull-ups.
Since adding this practice to my exercise routine (taking 2 whole rest days between workouts), I've been able to add one pull-up to my max each time. The secret? Keep breathing.
Written by Corey Loftus
Founder / Visionary : constantly quotable
Corey is a voiceover artist, yogi, and father to a fur-child named Eddy.
He'll work for almond butter.
corey [at] iamhom [dot] com