by Jonathon Cabot
“Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower
It wouldn’t be overly melodramatic to say that the application of this one might just save your hide someday.
The pullup. Arguably the most effective and practical strength exercise in existence. A much more telling measure of the upper body than the standard pushup will ever be, and the one the Marines got right–the Corps is the only branch of the US military that tests their boys with this criteria in lieu of pressing the deck. But for far too many of us, this particular drill is a major chink in our fitness armor. A casual glance through the front window of most any commercial gym at its peak hour will be met with men benching. And incline pressing. Perhaps even decline pressing (DON’T do this one). There might just even be one or two working on the dip bars, and I’m not even going to get into the myriad of wacky machines. Based on my experience, I’d be willing to bet my pension that there are more double bodyweight bench pressers in this country than there are men who can chin themselves strictly twenty times, let alone those who can chin themselves with the benefit of just one arm; a rare feat of strength indeed.
Why is it so? Could be in part our culture messing with us again. The mostly unspoken perception that pushing away (against external forces) is “manlier” than pulling towards. It could well be an unholy marriage of our collective vanity and myopia–after all, pulling doesn’t directly target the big chest and shoulders we want to see in the mirror (although both are taxed by pulls more than we may think). But perhaps equally to blame is the fact that pulling our well fed masses up, up and away is HARD, no two ways about it. Case in point, I’ve seen way too many dudes who could bench over 300 pounds, yet couldn’t manage to chin themselves three times. Unfortunately, big egos are fragile things, and rather than confront this deficiency, too many of us will persist in failing to do anything about it. Yet denial, as comforting as it may be in fair weather, is absolutely worthless when the real world happens.
Could our very lives one day depend on our proficiency at pullups? It’s entirely possible. Plenty of good people have died when they discovered to their dismay that they were unable to lift themselves up and out of danger. Case in point, the unfortunate death of a Disney World custodian named Raymond Barlow. In February of 1999, Mr. Barlow was out sweeping one of the narrow platforms on the now defunct Skyway system in the Magic Kingdom. The ride operators, unaware that anyone was out there at that hour of the morning, fired it up. Spooked by the oncoming cable car and apparently lacking any other option, Barlow grabbed ahold and tried to climb inside. Not strong enough to do so, he fell 40 feet into a flowerbed after hitting a tree on the way down and died. Ultimately, Disney was fined for a major safety standards violation, and this incident should never have happened. But had the victim only been strong enough to handle his own weight, it wouldn’t have ended in tragedy.
Okay. Now that we’re completely bummed out, let’s say you’re sufficiently inspired to incorporate some pullups into your training. At this stage, our “gym minimum” finally acquires its first piece of a equipment: a good chinning bar. While they come in a few different styles, the best for our purposes is probably the simple adjustable style for a doorway that are available in any decent sporting goods store (for most of us, this does require that we lift up our legs and cross our feet behind us so that we’re off the floor during the exercise, but that’s alright). I do however STRONGLY suggest investing in the kind that secure into the doorframe with screws. Don’t let this be you:
While it’s been covered at length any number of times elsewhere, let’s go ahead and repeat here that properly performed pullups work the posterior chain of the human body like nothing else. Those lats; the “wings” of the back, take the lion’s share of the work, but there is very little of the upper body that is not involved. I’d go so far as to call them the best bicep builder out there, in particular once the trainee has advanced to weighted, and with a whole lot of dedication, one-armed versions. They’re also a surprising abdominal worker–you might be amazed at how sore your gut feels after your first few sessions.
Pulls, like all effective strength drills, are a compound exercise–they work a lot of muscles at once. Let the record show that so-called “isolation” exercises warrant being discarded on the junkpile of history, right next to communism and Crocs. While I feel obligated to reiterate that I hold no monopoly on wisdom, fitness or otherwise, I will insist that the notion of “isolating” a muscle, contrary to what the schmucks occupying the squat rack at the gym with barbell curls will tell you, is neither possible nor desirable. When we start regarding our muscular system as a unit rather than a collection of unrelated bits, we can really start to make some headway in our pursuit of strength and general physical preparation.
With our shiny new cylindrical friend installed in a doorway of our humble abode (humor me and make it the bathroom door, if at all possible), we’re ready to get to work. Once again, I’m going to venture to say that most of us already have the basic mechanics of the exercise, but just to drive home the finer points, I present this gentleman:
Time to find out where we stand. Get a good thumbless overhand grip, the kind described by the video, and give it your best shot. From arms just about fully extended at the bottom of the movement, to chin at least over the bar at the top (anything less tends to not be counted on Marine Corps PFTs, so let’s just get into the habit of doing ’em the right way from day one). How did it go? If you could bust out even one solid rep, that’s a start, and we can work with that. As with the pushup training hyperlinked last week, this plan is pure dynamite for getting pullup numbers from subpar to superstar. If you’ve humored me and installed the bar in your bathroom door, make it a point to practice a quick work set each time you leave. Just make sure you wash your hands first, of course.
In the event that the final score was a big fat zero, don’t throw in the towel and resign yourself to believing that you will never be cut out for pulling your own weight. This especially goes for you ladies. There are many good tools in the box to build you up to your first honest pull, but this would probably require its own article to do justice to. Some moons ago, I had the pleasure of training a young woman while on deployment. In five months time, I had coached her from zero to five solid pullups. Few things that tour brought a smile to my face like the way the entire gym would invariably stop what they were doing to watch each time she’d approach the bar. And I assure you, she was nothing less than 100% feminine in her grace and bodily proportions.
There isn’t much limit to just how far pullups can take a dedicated trainee. Once twenty good reps have been achieved, I’d recommend either the addition of external weight (think heavy training vests or a weighted belt), or beginning the journey to one armed pulling. For some inspiration, look up names like John Grimek and Olympic lifting legend John Davis, who could both knock off six or seven one armers with either arm in the ballpark of 200 pounds each. Eugene Sandow, the Prussian strength legend, could chin himself one armed with only one of any of his ten fingers at around 190. Another man named Marvin Eder turned in a score of eleven one armers, and 80 of the two armed variety (would’ve loved seeing that one–the best I can recall witnessing in person was somewhere in the 40s). And for the big dudes, look up Bert Assirati. A British wrestler, he could do three one armers weighing in excess of 250. Incidentally, I’ve heard that he is also the heaviest man on record to have performed an iron cross on the gymnastics rings. Keep in mind, all of these feats were accomplished long before steroids, protein shakes and the rest of our contemporary nonsense came along.
Get to it. And Happy Thanksgiving. Without getting overly preachy, I’d like to take a moment to remind my countrymen that as an American, you have little (if anything at all) to apologize for, and have a whole hell of a lot worth defending.
Let’s be careful out there.