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Paige Waehner

Exercise of the Week - Pull Ups

By January 25, 2011

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"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.

January 25, 2011 at 7:13 am
(1) Dan says:

Pull ups are a tremendous exercise, but they do penalize people with heavier physiques. People in power sports, like football linemen, are going to have much more trouble performing them than Olympic gymnasts will.

Serena Williams is one of the most powerful and athletic people in the world, and yet I heard her say, in an interview once, that she couldn’t do a single pull up. So it’s not the end of the world if mere mortals can’t.

Negative pull ups, as described in Paige’s article, are very good for pull up-challenged beginners.

Personally, though, I’ll just stick with deadlifts, bent over rows and barbell curls. For me, they’ll have to do. At 5’9″ and 205 lbs., I’m never going to be the pull up champion of the world.

January 25, 2011 at 10:15 am
(2) Irwin says:

I’ve done pullups my whole life. At 40 I lost 20 lbs., jogging and playing racketball. As the weight came off, I could do more pullups. This feeds on itself…I start each visit to the gym with 18 complete up & down. It really gets my heart pumping.

January 25, 2011 at 10:20 am
(3) Donovan says:

Reminds me of my army basic training in 1966. We had to do hand-over-hand back-and-forth across horizontal ladders. The lighter guys usually did okay but the heavier guys often struggled, even some who seemed to be otherwise fit. This, like the push up, could be an important part of a full-body exercise routine, of course.

January 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm
(4) JAMES says:

I love to hate pull ups but they are oh so good for you. Love your website and ALL THE GREAT INFORMATION!

January 25, 2011 at 1:22 pm
(5) Fit_zaang says:

My wife and I are currently four weeks into P90X. Tony Horton’s and Erik’s – from Legs and Back – ability to crank out pull-ups is equal parts nauseating and awe-inspiring. When following the P90X routines I can do push-ups till the cows come home – then I switch to pull-ups and they become my coup de grace (and I am fairly fit).

As Dan commented – pull-ups are a tremendous exercise. I rank them along with push-ups and deadlifts as one of the all around best compound exercises one can do. It is too bad; in my experience pull-ups are oft neglected. At any given moment in most gyms you will see lines at the lat-pull down station and dust on the pull-up bars.

January 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm
(6) Mike says:

I once went on an exchange exercise at Fort Ord California. They sent some of their soldiers to my base and we went there. I have always loved doing pull ups and chin ups. The one time I enjoyed them the most was on this exercise. They had chin up bars outside the mess hall (eating establishment for soldiers) and you were required to do chin ups while waiting in line to get in and on the way out for every meal of the day. For me at the time I was able to do anywhere from 10 to 15. So that translated to 60 to 90 per day.

Another good variation of doing them is to have a bar that is similar to the triangluar low pulley row handles that you can be hooked over the bar. You hold each handle and pull up alternating your head to left and right side of the bar. You can also just grab on to the bar with an overhand and underhand grip to achieve a similar pull up.

January 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm
(7) Jeff says:

@Dan – don’t give up…using the methods Paige describes and doing 3 sets of however many you can do 3 times each week…you’ll find that in time you can do a lot.

I’m 5’10″, 195 and after several months of adding pull-ups back into my regular workout, I can now do 3 sets of 10 full pullups with a 10lb weight vest on. Once per week I do 3 sets each of pullups, deadlifts, bent-over rows, and curls supersetted with a variety of chest presses and flies.

All – If you’ve never done them because you are intimidated, don’t be…just grab a bar and go for it. You’ll be glad that you did. Everyone who does them has been right where you are at one time or another and will appreciate your hard work and effort. Those who are too intimidated might just get inspired by you.

January 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm
(8) Sue says:

I don’t use a gym. My fitness classes at the community centre don’t have a place to do pull-ups, and I don’t have a place at home. The only place I can try them is on the kid’s playground equipment at the park, and I can’t do a full one. Any suggestions on how to set this up at home easily and safely?

February 11, 2011 at 7:20 am
(9) Sara P says:

I like the idea of negative pull-ups but are there any other exercises that don’t use machines to build up to pull-ups?

November 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm
(10) TC says:

I never thought this was possible. After working hard with a trainer, never been to a gym before, I could actually do 5 or 6 after 3 months. The kicker is that with enough of these babies you can definitely “shorten” your workout. Pull-ups + abs + squats is all the weight lifting exercise you really need unless you are seriously into building muscle mass.

Now I just have to get back up there…

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