So you want to do pull-ups? Well, improbable things happen all the time, even in the most orderly of universes.
Here's what to do: find a bar just above your outstretched fingertips. Reach up and grab it, palms facing away from you1. Now, without pushing off the ground, pull your body up until your chin is over the bar, without kicking, swinging, or bicycling your legs.
What's with the writhing? Having some trouble? Do you even have a clue what you're trying to do?
Visually, yes, you are pulling your chin over a ridiculously placed bar — or at least attempting to. But conceptually, intellectually, anatomically, physiologically and even geometrically, you are trying to do something slightly different. Nerds, read onward. This is for you.
Conceptually, you are weightlifting. You are lifting a weight — your weight — with outstretched arms. How much do you weigh? Can you bench press that amount? Could you even lift that much weight with a wheelbarrow? So what put it into your head that you could lift it from a dead hang?
But don't worry — don't lose hope. There's no reason you shouldn't soon be able to lift your weight without a wheelbarrow. You can hasten that glorious moment by following the glaringly obvious logical conclusion of the above revelation:
Tip 1: The less you weigh, the easier your pull-ups will be. Shed extraneous weight.
Intellectually, a long and arduous journey lies ahead of you. If you are female, add a hyperbolic qualifier to that sentence. Pull-ups are not for the faint of heart. Pull-ups are the perfect exercise for those who believe in mind over matter. Your mind wants to overcome gravity, while your matter is attracted to the ground by a force proportional to your mass. But after all, life is about facing and overcoming adversity. Here is adversity identified in black and white (or silvery) terms: a bar to rise above. It will be rough-going; there will be pain, frustration and time lost that you could have spent reading the encyclopedia. Nevertheless, make up your mind to persevere and succeed. Self-doubt is inevitable. Those that cave in become accountants. Those that don't can conquer the world (or at least can do pull-ups).
Tip 2: Make up your mind to succeed. Then do it.
While on the subject of the mind, pull-ups could help you develop yours. In the strange but true department, a whole series of studies have shown that exercise keeps the brain healthy and even helps it develop. Elderly people who exercise stave off the onset of Alzheimer's disease while younger people actually grow new brain cells.
Every time a muscle contracts and releases, it sends out, among other chemicals, the protein IGF-1, which travels across the blood-brain barrier into the brain. There, it stimulates the production of (among other chemicals) brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF happens to be essential for higher thought processes. Regular exercise leads to higher levels of BDNF, which causes nerve cells to start branching out and connecting in new ways; another way of saying the brain learns. So if you're having trouble wrapping your brain around relativity, pull-ups are a relatively good study strategy.
Among middle-aged people, increased exercise and high cardiovascular fitness is associated with the growth of new brain neurons in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus — the area of the brain that controls learning and memory. Until recently, scientists didn't think the brain could grow new neurons after a certain age. It turns out, with exercise it can. In fact, it can slow or reverse the ageing process.
Weight-training is the superior form of exercise for shedding fat. Muscles burn calories when you use them as you train, but they also burn more calories when at rest than any other tissue, meaning that if you develop bigger muscles, you will burn extra calories even while watching TV.
Exercise makes the muscles more sensitive to insulin, which means the pancreas creates less insulin, which means your body moves sugar out of your blood more slowly, which means you don't get hungry as fast. Yes: pull-ups can be an appetite suppressant.
Exercise is also a known de-stresser. It lowers your level of cortisol, which is the chemical associated with stress (and the additional fat that comes along with it). Also, the high-intensity workouts you'll need will release endorphins, giving you that runner's high and making you feel just great.
When you dead hang from the pull-up bar, your arms describe a 180° angle in relation to your body; that is, they are straight. A full pull-up takes you through a range of motion that ends with your arms forming an angle of approximately 25° – 30°.
The most difficult part of the pull-up will be getting from 180° to 140°. A pull-up that starts from a flexed hang (140°) is known among tough guys as a 'girly' pull-up, because even girls can do it (with a bit of exercise). You will be able to do a girly pull-up long before you can do a manly one. Knowing this, you should emphasise early on the aspects of your workout that will develop strength in the muscles you need to manage those first 40 degrees.
At first, you will be a helpless dangler. Go ahead — dangle. Dangling and straining to pull yourself upward is more of a workout than it appears to be. (Note: if you get embarrassed easily, don't do this at a public gym.) Eventually, you will get to the point where you can flex your muscles while you dangle, though it won't change the angle of your arms a jot. Then you'll be able to flex an oh-so-difficult five degrees... and finally, you'll be able to drag yourself up to a 30° angle.
Tip 3: Don't leave the first part for last. Work on the dead hang immediately.
Pull-ups will be a great lesson in anatomy. The morning after your first workout you will not only discover which muscles you were using to exercise, but also what other mundane tasks those muscles perform each and every day. It will be painful but educational. Here are the biggest culprits, vaguely in order of importance:
Latissimus Dorsi: These are the muscles that wrap most of your back, from a bit below the shoulder to your waist. It is known as the swimmer's muscle because it gets so involved in anything that requires reaching and pushing against a force. (Like water. Or a pull-up bar.) Pull-ups happen to be among the cruellest things you can do to your lats.
Brachialis and Brachioradialis: These fellows will make you wish you could chop off your arms at the elbow. Almost everything requires bending your elbow, and these fellas on the inside (Brachialis above the joint, Brachioradialis below) will scream every time. Even worse, while other muscles may stop hurting after the initial few workouts, your Brachialis will fuss daily for weeks - even months. Get used to it.
Pectorals: the pectoralii major are the slabs of muscle that make up your chest. The pectoralii minor are closer to your shoulders underneath the more famous pectoralii major, reaching up to your deltoids. For pull-ups, the minor are more important than the major, though both are used. Anything that requires reaching outward or across your body is the business of these fellows.
Teres Major, Teres Minor, and Infraspinatus (Rotator Cuff Muscles): Under and right behind your arms. Need to stretch or reach? These guys are on it. They are the ones who allow you to get your arms into your sleeves. Usually, anyway. The morning after your first workout they'll be wanting a vacation.
Trapezius: This is a sheet of muscle that makes up your upper back, beginning at the cervical (neck) vertebrae and narrowing downward to the middle of the spine.
Biceps Brachii and Triceps: the biceps form the bulge in the top middle of your upper arm while the triceps are below. Neither are excessively involved in pull-ups, but they have their input in almost anything that requires flexing the arm.
Choracobrachialis, Levator Scapulae, and Rhomboids: might as well throw in the rest of the arm and back muscles, because they're all involved to a certain extent. If you don't feel them initially, you probably will later.
Of course, you will only use these muscles if you do pull-ups the right way. Your arms should grip the bar at approximately shoulder distance apart. Your palms should be facing away from you, in what is known as a pronated grip. If your palms are facing toward you, the grip is supinated and the exercise is known as a chin-up.
Initially, some of these muscles will be more developed than others. While the only way to eventually do pull-ups is to work out by attempting to do pull-ups, you can speed up the process by performing peripheral, weight-lifting exercises to target specific muscle groups. (More detail later.)
Tip 4: Find out what the weakest link is and strengthen it.
Before you start on the actual workout, there are a few things you need to learn from your local bodybuilder. Yes, of course you're not becoming a bodybuilder, but you're building muscle mass — you certainly can't lose any — and that's what these guys do all day long.
Like all speciality workers, bodybuilders have their lingo. Lucky for you, bodybuilders on average are not as technical a bunch as, say, brain surgeons, so their jargon isn't too difficult to catch on to. Here are the most important three terms:
Rep: a rep is the single execution of a motion, eg, lifting yourself above the bar and lowering yourself back down. It's short for 'repetition', because you're going to aim to do more than one.
Set: a set is a number of reps repeated one after another. A set of eight reps means you're doing eight pull-ups in a row before resting. A number of sets make up a single workout. Between sets, take a one- to two-minute rest. Instead of lying inert during those two minutes, most pros recommend exercising a different group of muscles. This prevents you from losing momentum.
Total failure: total failure describes the weak, jelly-like feeling muscles get when they are no longer capable of supporting a straw. Initially, it probably won't take you too many reps to reach this interesting state. Opinions differ over whether this is a desirable state to reach, and when.
An exercise routine consists of a specific number of sets composed of a specific number of reps. Most people prefer to do a steady number of both, eg, 12 sets of eight reps each. Others believe in 'pyramid' routines, where you start with a set of one rep, continue to a set of two reps, etc, building up to eight or 12 reps and then working your way back down to one. The pyramid routine has the advantage of incorporating a warm-up and cool-down period.
In general, you should perform per set (or at the top of your pyramid) the number of reps that lead you right up to total failure, without actually achieving it. In other words: you should end the set just short of total collapse. Don't kill yourself, but come close.
Tip 5: Don't pamper yourself. The point at which you think you're going to collapse is probably a good half-dozen reps before you really do. If you aren't breaking a sweat you aren't working out. Muscle burn has three stages: the warm tingly stage; the searing streak stage; and the tight knot of pain stage. Stop after the onset of stage three3.
The number of sets you perform should be the number you need to reach total failure for the workout. Here's why.
Muscle has been growing on man ever since he first lifted something heavy. Yet at our much later point in history, more research has been done on growing the brain, bonsai plants, and a successful women's shoe company than on growing muscles. In fact, most of the field is based on theory and anecdotal evidence. What is known for certain is that repeated stress and strain of muscles causes them to grow. Beyond that, there are only a few popular theories.
The long, slow workout: since the repeated use of muscles is linked to their growth, many advocate a lengthy workout that doesn't push the boundaries of what you're able to do. For example, if you can just barely pump 30 pounds for a few reps, advocates of this workout recommend pumping 20 pounds for many sets. This workout has been tied to growth in stamina and endurance. Bodybuilders disdain it as not leading to rapid and bulgy muscle growth.
The short, intense workout: since muscle strain is linked to muscle growth, many advocate a short workout using weights just beyond what you're able to do. For example, if you can just barely pump 30 pounds for a few reps, advocates of this workout recommend pumping it to total failure. This workout is linked to explosive but short lived power. Bodybuilders also claim it creates bigger muscles faster.
Both of these theories have some validity, and both have successfully built muscles, but both have their fans and naysayers.
Those who are against the long, slow workout point out that it takes too long to make significant progress. (Some say that long, slow workouts lead to harder muscles while short, intense workouts lead to larger muscles, but that is the bodybuilder's equivalent of an old wives' tale.) The naysayers for the short and intense workout mutter about tissue damage, brevity of strain and overworking.
Muscles go through three stages after a workout: renew, repair and grow. Renewal occurs after you collapse to the floor gasping following a set. Repair occurs after the workout, when the body repairs the tissue you've just shredded. Growth occurs over the course of the next few days, when the body tries to prevent damage from occurring again by strengthening the muscles.
If you work out daily, your body only gets a chance to carry out the renew and repair part of the process. It literally treads water, trying to piece the tissue together in time for your next assault. When this happens, you will not gain strength between workouts. That's why experts recommend working out only every other day, or even better, a mere three times a week. Those workouts, though, should be pretty thorough in their scope.
Tip 6: If you aren't getting stronger between workouts, either you're not working out hard enough or you're working out too hard. You're a nerd — think of it as the trajectory of a parabola; you can plot an optimal workout with a bit of calculus.
If you're a high-intensity-workout person, resting every other day might not be rest enough. Taking off a week every five months or so will let your body finish repairing the tissue; you'll be surprised to find you gain strength by just surfing the Internet.
A brief note about protein: protein is necessary to build and repair muscle tissues. Athletes take their protein very seriously, usually aiming to ingest at least half their body weight in grams of protein daily. Yes - that's a lot of tuna. Because they tend to want to keep their body weight down, many supplement their diets with protein shakes. For bodybuilders, comparing protein shakes is, like comparing workout routines, a source of social small-talk; the more disgusting your shake, the more of a right you have to swagger about it in the locker room. For the average pull-up doer, a protein shake is probably unnecessary. If you eat scrambled eggs and fish for meals instead of biscuits and a latte, you'll do fine.
Just in case you thought you were getting the hang of things, there's another type of workout: the military or 'push' workout. This workout consists of purposely overworking for an extended period of time, usually a week to ten days. During this period, the person does around twice their usual limit of reps in as condensed an amount of sets as possible. Afterwards, they rest completely for a period of four to six days. Done properly, this leads to explosive muscle growth — almost doubling their strength. The push workout is based on the military, where new soldiers manage to gain strength despite repeating the same intense workout day after day without let-up.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) developed, as part of an ongoing project to create superhuman soldiers, a tea-kettle shaped contraption they imaginatively dubbed 'the glove'. The glove sucks blood toward the hand it envelops, cools it and sends it back into circulation. By using the glove to cool off between sets, a DARPA lab technician raised his number of pull-ups per day from 100 to 600 within 12 weeks. (See, you're not the only nerd doing pull-ups.) DARPA researchers believe this suggests that muscles tire not because the mitochondria4 run out of fuel, but because they get overheated. Tiring faster means less repetition means less exercise and less growth.
This doesn't mean you should avoid getting hot and sweaty. Sweat and muscle burn are signs of strain, and strain means gain. However, it does mean you should try to keep as cool as possible. Air conditioning is the most obvious way; soaking your T-shirt before the workout might be effective; taking freezing showers between sets might be going a tad too far; but after all, it's in the name of cutting edge science.
Nor does it mean you shouldn't warm up before a workout. Warming up with a few easy sets prepares the body for exertion by loosening the muscles, increasing blood flow and metabolic rate and focusing your attention.
Tip 7: Warm up. Perform an aerobic exercise (like star jumps5) or a few easy sets before starting a serious workout.
The DARPA research does punch a hole in the short, intense workout, demonstrating as it does that repetition is central to advancement.
Tip 8: Cooling off between sets will increase your stamina and hasten your progress.
OK, so now you know the parameters of a healthy workout. But what should your workout consist of? And what equipment will you need?
A firmly parked pull-up bar. There is no getting around this. You can't do pull-ups without it. Don't even try to get along with thick moulding above a doorway or those swinging rings in a local playground; you need a good ol' bar three inches above your fingertips for doing the job right. Some bars install into doorways. These are very convenient, but are usually quite low, and will require you to bend up your lower legs when you exercise. Others need to be installed into ceilings. Whichever you choose, do no attempt to do any pull-ups until you are positive the bar is solidly installed.
A low chair or footstool. Something you can stand on to get level with the bar.
A bungee cord (optional). The cord should either be just long enough to stretch between your belt and the bar or long enough to make a swing-like loop that you can step into. Bungee cords are a solid investment anyway; they're excellent for tying things to the roof of your car or preventing splattering when you jump off a cliff.
Weights and a rope (optional). A weights-and-rope combo is a potential replacement for the bungee cord. It's more awkward because there's always the chance that something will come untied and land on your toes. However, if you're a dyed-in-the-wool dweeb, you'll want a set of 5lb dumb-bells for peripheral exercises that will get you up to speed.
Nothing else. The nice thing about pull-ups is that they're a low-maintenance exercise. The only thing you really need is a bar above your head (and some clearance above the bar).
Doing Pull-ups When You Can't
When you have your equipment, you'll be wanting to do pull-ups. Problem is, you're too darn heavy for yourself. So lighten up. There are a few ways to go about this:
Use a spotter: This is a very obvious technique, which you will probably not use, for equally obvious reasons. The logic is that since you're too weak to lift yourself, you have someone help you along. The problem is that it requires another person who is willing to grab you around the knees and lever you up three times a week for around a month or two when you are at your sweatiest.
Use the bungee cords: If you hook one end of a short bungee cord to your belt and the other to the bar, it will exert a helpful pulling force. This method places some limitations on your workout wardrobe. Another way is to tie the ends of a longer bungee cord to the bar, creating a tight loop you can step into, which will push you up. This only works if your bar is above your fingertips at stand height, since it relies on a stiffness in the body that won't be there if your knees are bent to accommodate a lower bar.
Use the weights and rope: Just like the bungee cord, a rope with a weight on one end and your belt on the other with a bar in between will work a bit like a deadweight pulley system. Unfortunately, there is the awkward difficulty of getting the weights out of your way so they don't bonk you in the stomach or shins.
Use the stool: This makes the most sense because less can go wrong. The stool should put the top of your head about level with the bar. Push the stool either forward or backward, so you can exert some upward pressure with your feet when you're at a dead hang, but not enough to make this an exercise in standing up and sitting down.
Other stuff: You can do pull-ups on the side of the pool or in reduced gravity if either of them is available or convenient.
All these methods help you do what is called an 'assisted pull-up'. Another way to work up to pull-ups is by doing a 'reverse pull-up'. You'll need your stool again for this. Climb up to the proper ending position for a pull-up (30 degrees). Slowly, with maximum agony, lower yourself to the proper starting position. Instead of starting with slack muscles and flexing them as you pull up, you are starting with flexed muscles and slackening them as you go down. It doesn't matter—they're the same muscles.
Weight a Second
You can also hasten the moment of your first pull-up with some weight training that targets the right muscles:
Rowing: Rowing exercises your latissimus dorsi (aka 'lats'), biceps and trapezius. If you don't have a rowing machine, fear not. Find a bench or stool and support one knee and hand on it. With the other, lower and pull back up a dumb-bell, using a rowing motion. Don't do any swinging.
Shoulder press: This will work your deltoids, brachialis, brachioradialis, triceps, and to a certain extent, your trapezius. Hold a dumb-bell in each hand with a pronated grip. Slowly straighten your arms skyward and then lower them down again. If you move your arms outward, you can even get your pectoralis minor into the game. The motion imitates reverse pull-ups, but is less intense because you aren't lifting your body weight.
Dip: This works your triceps and pectoralis. You need two benches (or bars, if you want to be utterly uncomfortable). Sit on one, put your feet on the other. Place your hands on the first bench and lower yourself off from it, until your arms are bent at a 90 degree angle (no more). Lift yourself back up.
Lat pull-down: This is another reverse-pull-up style exercise. You pull down at a bar suspended by a tight elastic cord. Most gyms have one, but you can probably rig one up yourself with that bungee cord.
Bicep curls: These tackle your brachialis, brachioradialis, triceps, and of course, biceps. You hold two dumb-bells in front of you against your thighs in a supinated grip. Slowly bend your elbows and raise them to your shoulders and back down again. Don't swing—not only will you probably hurt yourself, but you won't use the full range of muscles.
Push-ups: These work out your pectorals, triceps, and deltoids. Lie on your stomach, palms flat on the ground just outside your shoulders. Keep your legs straight and your toes tucked under against the floor. Press yourself upward until your arms are straight. Keep your back straight too. Lower yourself to a fist's distance from the floor and repeat.
The best way to train for pull-ups is to do pull-ups. But until you can do that first pull-up these exercises can help you along. Just remember: the best way to train for pull-ups is to do pull-ups. Don't let any secondary exercises exhaust you so that you can't do the primary exercises.
Tip 9: The best way to train for pull-ups is to do pull-ups. The best way to train for pull-ups is to do pull-ups. The best way...
Designing a Workout Routine
There are websites that claim to design a workout routine for you. They tell you to do this many reps per set of this exercise for two weeks and then switch to this amount of that... Forget it. Get used to designing your own workout. It'll work best. Only you know how much you can really handle, and if you do less it's because you know you're being lazy, and not because you're using recommendations made by someone who doesn't want to be sued.
A mix of the short and long workouts is probably best. You want to reach total failure, but you don't want to do it until you've worked out for at least 30-45 minutes (but less than an hour) and done a considerable number of sets. Every two weeks, evaluate and upgrade your workout so it continues to be a challenge.
Until you can do one pull-up, you'll want to increase the intensity by adding weight. After you can do a pull-up, increase the intensity by adding reps. As long as you keep pushing yourself to the max, you're on the right track.
It isn't just the physical act of doing pull-ups that is difficult — mentally getting up the nerve to train for them is even harder. Beginning a workout is like diving into a cold swimming pool before breakfast. It means attempting again and again to do something you know you will fail to accomplish, over and over again, for weeks. Most people like to succeed, which is why most people don't do pull-ups. It is daunting. You will doubt yourself. You will doubt your goals and priorities. You will doubt your physical ability. Everyone does, so get used to it.
It will be encouraging if you keep track of your progress. Begin every workout with the same reverse pull-up routine to see how many reps you gain each week. Note when weights begin to feel light, or when assisted pull-ups require less assistance. Measure muscle size or hardness to see how they're developing. Talk to people who have put in the effort and succeeded.
Tip 10: Remaining motivated should be as much a part of your routine as assisted pull-ups.
One great foe of the workout is boredom. Try to stay focused on the physical presence of the workout, in a sort of 'be here now' meditation kind of way. A wandering mind is detrimental to the workout. For that reason, the steady beat of rap or heavy metal is more conducive to a good workout than listening to your favourite Richard Feynman lectures.
Unless you already work out, it will probably take you a month or two (depending on gender, workout intensity, genetics...) before you can do that first pull-up. There will be little or no advanced warning - no drumroll or dramatic music - leading up to it. One day you won't be able to do a pull-up. The next day you will. Feel free to test your disbelief by repeating it several times throughout the day. And congratulations! You have joined a fairly exclusive club. The drive and determination that saw you to this milestone will doubtless aid you in many future goals.