"These should be illegal." That's what my husband said as he struggled through his 549th pull up the other day (he's on his third week of P90X). Anyone who's ever done pull ups would probably agree and wistfully smile at the thought of cops stalking into the gym, yanking the pull up bar out of its moorings and carrying it away in handcuffs and leg chains.
Yes, pull ups are one of the toughest exercises out there, but oh so satisfying when you are finally able to do them (or just one, as is the case for many women) without a chair, machine or other helpful prop. Pull ups work almost every muscle in the upper body, with an emphasis on the lats as well as the biceps and forearms. In the traditional version, your palms face out and your hands are wider than shoulders, although there are plenty of variations such as chin ups (in which the palms face in) or with your hands in different positions - closer together or further apart.
It is possible to build the strength and stamina for pull ups, but you have to practice and you may need to use different tactics to get you there.
Lat Pulldowns - The lat pulldown machine is your first stop if you haven't been doing any upper body training. This movement mimics pull ups (without the added challenge of hefting your body weight) and is a great way to start building strength in the lats and arms for the pull up bar.
Assisted Pull Up Machine - This is another gym machine that will help you work your way up to full body weight pull ups. This machine offsets your weight, allowing you to do the move with good form, gradually reducing the weight over time so that you're using more of your own strength to move your body.
Smith Machine Pull Ups - Using a suspended bar is another way to offset your weight, allowing you to practice and build strength for the full version.
Below are a few examples of pull ups using a pull up bar (compare prices here). It's important to take your time with pull ups to avoid hurting yourself, which is easy to do if you strain too hard. How many you do depends on your goals and what you can handle. For strength, stick with 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps (or working your way up to that number) and, for endurance, experts suggest 2-3 sets of 16-20 reps (which, again, you'll want to work up to with practice).
Full Pull Ups: In this version, your hands are wider than your shoulders and you hang down from the bar, feet off the floor, and pull your body up until your chin is over the bar. This is the most challenging version and many of us will find we can't do very many (if we can do them at all). You can also do these from a standing position, which is a little easier.
Assisted Pull Ups: In this version, I'm using a stool for support. With a stool or chair, you can easily get into full pushup position, hold it and then focus on lowering slowly, repeating for 8-12 reps and building strength during the negative portion of the exercise. Once you master that, you can move the chair further away and rest only one foot on it for support.
What about you? Do you do pull ups and, if you do, how many have you worked up to? If you've never considered pull ups, are you game to try? Leave a comment and tell us what you think about pull ups.