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The Pull Up

July 14, 2010

By Gerard Bochese

One of the best ways to train your body is with body weight exercises such as pull ups, push ups, body weight squats, etc.  Of the variety of body weight exercises out there, the pull up is one of the best and may be the most difficult.  Most people cannot perform even one pull up. However, since pull-ups offer so many benefits, it’s important to add them to your fitness regimen.

A pull up is a compound pulling exercise that works a large number of muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms at the same time.  More specifically, a pull up will work your large “lat” muscles, your “traps”, your biceps, your forearms, and a variety of stabilizing muscles in your upper body.

If you really want to give your upper lats a workout, you’ll want to try a wide grip pull up.  This pull up is performed with the hands separated by a distance roughly twice the width of your shoulders. A close grip pull up emphasizes the lower lats and the hands are separated by a width of 6-8 inches.

A chin up typically emphasizes the biceps. Chin ups are performed with an underhand reverse grip with the palms of your hands facing you during the exercise and the hands spaced 6-8 inches apart.

Again, though an excellent exercise, many people struggle to perform even one pull up.  Here are a couple of ways to begin to prepare yourself:

Assisted chin and dip machine

This machine essentially makes you lighter so that it is easier to pull your body weight. If your gym has one of these, start to do pull ups on it.  Set the weight so that you can comfortably do a set of 10.  As you progress, add more reps at the same machine weight until you can do 15-18 pull ups. When this becomes comfortable, lower the weight (this will begin to add back on your original body weight) and try to do 5-8 reps. Continue increasing the reps until you can do 15- 18.  Continue this format until you can do several pull ups of just your own body weight.

Assisted resistance band pull up

If you do not have access to an assisted chin and dip machine, make your own.  Attach a resistance band to a high, sturdy pull up bar, making it into a loop. While holding the pull up bar in a pull up position, place one knee in the loop to help spring your body up as your doing a pull up.  The springing action will help assist you in doing a pull up.

Modified pull up

Place an Olympic bar in a rack about 3 feet off of the ground.  While lying under the bar with your body flat on the floor, grab the Olympic bar with a pull up grip.  Begin to pull your body up from the floor with your feet remaining on the floor at all times.

Negative pull ups

If you are unable to pull yourself up (50% of the exercise), you can strengthen the movement by lowering yourself slowly from a pull up bar – the negative (the other 50% of the exercise).  Stand on a box at a pull up bar that is high enough to put your chin over the bar and try to slowly lower your body to a hanging position. The same muscles used to pull yourself up will be engaged to lower yourself.

Pull down machine

This is the reverse of doing a pull up.  Sitting at a pull down machine, grab the bar above you with a wide grip and pull the bar toward your chest.  Try to use as much weight as you can for 6-8 reps.  It must be heavy in order to help build the muscles responsible for pulling your body weight when performing a pull up.  This exercise will have the least carryover for performing pull ups but may be a place to start for people who are beginners or extremely weak in the “pull up” muscles and have trouble performing any of the above exercises.

The pull up is such a beneficial exercise that it would be a good idea to begin to work on some of these modification exercises to enhance your ability to do pull ups and include them in your routine.  Remember the best way to get good at pull ups is to actually do pull ups.  So once the above exercises enable you to do even 1-2 regular, good form pull ups, start doing them with the goal of adding at least one more pull up every couple of weeks.


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