The simple pull-up rises in exercise popularity
01/17/2013 12:00 AM
01/17/2013 7:35 AM
The old-fashioned, no-nonsense pull-up, all but forgotten amid user-friendly fitness machines in gyms throughout the country, is making a comeback.
Thanks to high-intensity CrossFit aficionados and mixed martial-arts athletes, among others, who often incorporate bodyweight exercises into their training, the classic pull-up seems to have reached critical mass, coveted for its simplicity and respected for its difficulty.
You don't have to look far to find countless fitness experts who consider the pull-up a crucial exercise to build a powerful back and develop overall upper-body strength for men and women.
"From my standpoint, pull-ups have always been popular," said Allyson Goble, head trainer at BodyTribe Fitness, a midtown Sacramento gym known to embrace classic weightlifting movements and eschew gimmicks. "There is a resurgence with body-weight exercises. When anybody does a bunch of pull-ups at a gym, people stop and watch because it's pretty impressive – if done properly."
California Gov. Jerry Brown, lithe and fitness-minded at 74, has been known to challenge reporters and staffers to pull-up contests. How fit is the governor? In 2010, a staffer wrote on Brown's blog that Brown did 12 pull-ups before hitting the floor and doing 50 push-ups. (By the way, Gov, you know where to find this reporter if you're looking for another challenger.)
Yes, pull-ups are not only good for you, they will make you look cool, as well.
There's just one problem: Pull-ups and chin-ups are really, really hard. In fact, doing them with correct technique – hanging from a bar with arms fully extended and pulling yourself straight up until your chin is over the bar – is so challenging that only the most accomplished gym-goers attempt them in public.
Pull-ups, with palms facing away, are considered marginally more challenging than chin-ups, in which your palms are facing you, though both work the back muscles thoroughly. Depending on the number you do and the amount of weight you're pulling, the exercise can build significant muscle mass for men and lean muscles for most women.
"Of all the upper-body exercises that you can choose from, the pull-up ranks at the top of the list," writes fitness expert and author Chad Waterbury on his popular blog. "That's because it builds strength and size in your upper back, arms and gripping muscles . You'd be hard-pressed to find another single upper-body exercise that does so much good."
But along with the growing popularity of body-weight training and the recognition of this old-school movement as the ultimate expression of one's strength-to-weight ratio, came something of a pull-up buzz-kill this past fall.
An Oct. 28 article in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Women Can't Do Pull-ups," summarized a study at the University of Dayton in which 17 average-weight women were enlisted to train to do pull-ups, performing a variety of preparatory exercises targeting the arms, back and shoulders.
After three months, participants increased their body strength an average of 36 percent while dropping their body weight by 2 percent. And most were still unable to do a single pull-up.
The article created a stir – and in some circles, an uproar.
Many women saw it as an affront, arguing that pull-ups are eminently doable with the right approach, preparation and commitment.
Several of Goble's clients at BodyTribe have trained with the goal of doing pull-ups. And when they get there, Goble makes sure the accomplishment is celebrated.
"It's a big deal. It really is. It requires a lot of work, commitment, tenacity. It is a very empowering exercise if – when – you reach your goal," said Goble, 44, a 130-pound competitive powerlifter who can bang out nine consecutive pull-ups. "We throw pull-up parties every time it happens."
She said most folks have flawed technique. Some put their shoulders in a position that can cause injury.
And she said you should "pack the shoulders down" rather than allow them to stretch and extend close to your ears when at the bottom of the movement. She added that many people rely too heavily on the biceps instead of "firing" the larger, more powerful lats, or latissimus dorsi, that give a well-developed upper back that fanned-out appearance.
Goble said pull-ups should be considered maximum-effort training, meaning you focus on it with the same intensity you would for a one-repetition bench press or overhead press.
"You have to teach your central nervous system to fire as hard as it can one time," she said.
One of Goble's students, Milly Nunez, 33, hopes to qualify for a pull-up party.
"Doing a pull-up was actually one of my goals when I began training with Allyson," she said. "It's one of the most challenging exercises. It requires you to incorporate all of your strength to move your own body weight. It's extremely challenging."
For those unable to do pull-ups, Goble suggests they use a heavy-duty rubber fitness band that stretches like elastic and provides an assist on the way up. You can also do "negatives" to strengthen the right muscles – starting at the top of the movement and slowly lowering yourself to a full hang.
Nunez, who lifts weights and has begun competing as a powerlifter, is chipping away at her goal by doing supplemental lifts such as the pulldown and overhead press, and using fitness bands to assist on pull-ups. She is very close to success, able to pull herself close to chin level with the bar.
"If I can get one successful pull-up by April, I will feel I have reached my goal," she said.
But pull-ups are considered a vital exercise for both genders. Mark Lauren, author of the popular book on body-weight exercises, "You Are Your Own Gym" (Ballentine Books, $16, 192 pages) says those unable to do regular pull-ups can start with something he calls "let me ups," in which you lie on your back under a bar, broomstick or edge of a table and pull up, sort of the opposite of push-up.
When you're strong enough for pull-ups, Lauren insists you can do them practically anywhere. All you need is to open a sturdy door, place a towel across the top and start your pull-ups. On the streets of Sacramento, pull-ups can be done at any intersection with pedestrian crossing signals – the heavy iron bar supporting the signal is a perfect pull-up bar.
Megan Fidell, 40, works on her pull-ups when she walks at Sacramento's Southside Park. She did her first pull-up at age 38 and built up to doing multiple reps. She says she's working to return to that level.
Describing herself as "not naturally thin," Fidell said her weight, at 5-foot-8, has fluctuated between 160 and 200 pounds.
"I firmly believe that if I can do pull-ups, anybody can. It can be broken down and methodically learned," she said. "My goal for pull-ups now is to be able to do at least one all the time – mostly because it's badass."
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