Monday 30 July 2012

Pull-Ups: Are You Missing Out?

The all-too-commonly empty pull-up bar
Pull-ups have been a long-time favorite of mine and are one of the best upper body exercises you can do! I've often referred to them as the squat of the upper body. However, go into almost any gym and you can almost always count on the pull-up bar being free. Yes, they are hard work (and that is a big reason for people not doing them), but I also believe that if people really understood the benefits of them, we would see more traffic at the pull-up bar.

Here what you miss out on if you do not include pull-ups in your programs:

Muscle building
One of my favorite training partners had a great quote: "You're only as big as your back." Too many people with hypertrophy goals lose sight of what they cannot see in the mirror. Yes a big chest can be impressive, but big, thick back is what separates the men from the boys. Pull-ups along with heavy deadlifts and rows are the foundation of a solid back-building program. They are amazing for packing muscle on the lats and biceps. This summer when you watch the Olympic games, be sure to try to see some of the men's gymnastics (who don't do curls by the way). You will see first-hand what body weight exercises like pull-ups can do to your biceps! 

Fat loss
Yes, even fat loss is influenced by pull-ups. Because of they are so demanding, people naturally work harder on them than they do on pulldowns. This creates more EPOC and secretes more lean muscle building, fat-burning hormonal changes in the body. According to Dan John, female fat loss expert Josh Hillis has found that his female clients who were able to get and keep the fat off could do at least 3 pull-ups.

Performance enhancement 

While pull-ups may directly enhance performance in sports that involve pulling (e.g. rock climbing, Judo), they are indirectly helpful even for activities such as the arm pulling action in sprinting. If you are watching the Olympics this summer, be sure to check out the impressive upper body development of the sprinters. Interesting note: Dan John has found that the person on the team who can do the most pull-ups is usually the fastest.

Relative strength (testing & building)
Relative strength refers to your strength in relation to body weight. If you can crank out a bunch of reps with your body weight or a heavy set of 5 with a big weight tied to your waste, then you have great relative strength. Also, the high difficulty of this exercises gives the body a more serious reason to get stronger than easier machine and cable alternatives.

Injury prevention
One of the keys to injury prevention is structural balance. Exercises like pull-ups and rows are essential to balance out all the pushing exercises that most people do. Strength coach Mike Boyle found that shoulder injuries with his athletes went down dramatically when he was able to match their bench press and pull-up strength (i.e. if you weight 200lbs and can bench press 300lbs, then you should be able to do a pull-up with 100lbs tied around your waist). 

Time efficiency
I have already talked about time-efficient training (part 1 and part 2) in this blog. Just remember that pull-ups fit with all of those principles and are one of the most time-efficient upper-body exercises you can do. 

Pull-ups also offer tremendous variety. You can change hand positions (palms facing you, palms away, palms in), grip widths, bar thickness, use rings or suspension straps, pull your body up on different angles, etc. I will almost always include a pull-up variation in the programs I write, but will adjust hand & body positions, reps and sets as needed for variety and a fresh training stimulus.
Minimal equipment necessary
This one is obvious, but I'll mention it anyways. While they are a great part of a gym workout, pull-ups can also be done anywhere you can find something sturdy to hang from. Parks are great for pull-ups! I've even used rafters in a barn to pull-ups.

Ease of progression and regression
One of the common knocks on body weight exercises is that you are working with your body - a fixed weight. While this can be true of some body weight exercises, it is not the case here. Pull-ups can easily be regressed to machine-assisted pull-ups or band-assisted pull-ups. They are also one of the easiest body weight exercises to progress as you can easily add weight with a dip belt.

Women & pull-ups
A lot of women walk pass the pull-up bar, look up and say, "yah right" in their head, and then walk away  not giving pull-ups a second thought. Too bad! Ladies who chose not to get good at pull-ups miss out on all of the benefits I just explained. In addition, they lose out on an even more important benefit - confidence! It is my goal get every female athlete and most female clients doing pull-ups. When a lady can walk into the gym and crank out reps on the pull-up bar it impresses everyone in the gym and she leaves knowing she can do something that most women (and even a lot of guys) can't! 

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