Pulling Techniques for Everyone – The New York Times

I’ve always loved pull-ups, partly out of spite. There’s a common fitness refrain that women can’t do them, and I don’t like being told I can’t do something – especially if the reason is my gender. As a teenager, I pushed lawn mowers and carried rocks just to show that being a girl didn’t mean I was weak.

I love how the pull ups make me feel – powerful, strong. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of lifting. Pull-ups are also beautiful for their simplicity. They require nothing more than a barbell and engage at least a dozen muscles, from the lats to the glutes. Experts say they improve upper body strength, shoulder mobility and core stability, while helping to fine-tune coordination.

Doing a pull-up is “an amazing feeling,” said Chilasa King, weightlifter and trainer at LiftedMBK in New York. Exercise builds confidence and turns heads at the gym, she said. “It’s a simple exercise that’s really hard to do.”

Herein lies the paradox of pull-ups: pull-ups are simple, yet difficult, and many people who think they can’t do one really could, if they put the effort and time into it.

Everyone has a good chance of pulling off a pull-up if they train for it, said Meghan Callaway, a Vancouver, Canada-based strength trainer and creator of The Ultimate Pull-Up program. Most people who don’t master the pull-up struggle not because they’re physically incapable, but because they’re not training the right way, she said. The trick is to focus on good technique and approach your training with patience and determination.

The first thing to understand is that pull-ups are a full body exercise. “A lot of people think of a pull-up purely as an upper body exercise and they overlook what’s happening from the chest down,” Ms Callaway said. Your body should be stiff and not slack. Which would be easier to move, Ms. Callaway asked, a stiff board or a soft sandbag of the same weight? If your torso, hips, and lower body are stiff, it’s much easier to lift them than if they were dead weight. (Kipping pull-ups, done by swinging your legs for momentum, is a completely different exercise, she says.)

Grasp the bar slightly larger than shoulder width apart with your palms facing you. (Holding your palms out would be a pull up, a different exercise – and most people say easier.) Your body should be aligned in a relatively straight line with your feet slightly in front of your body so that you are in a very slight arch . It’s best to have the bar just within reach on your tiptoes, but if you’re doing them in a doorway, you can bend your knees with your feet behind you, Ms Callaway said.

To initiate the pull-up, move your shoulder blades toward your spine (think of it as the opposite of shrugging) while simultaneously driving your elbows toward your ribs. Keep your abs and glutes tight to maintain a rigid body position. When you stop, don’t raise your chin, Ms. Callaway said, but instead keep your chin tucked in, your neck in a neutral position and your eyes staring straight ahead.

Not everyone can do a pull-up the first time. Before you can even perform a full pull-up, you can break the movement down into its component parts and practice for each one. Use these four exercises to help you get stronger and more skilled in the essential parts of the pulling motion.

The first step is to learn to hang in a rigid position, rather than a flaccid one. Ms. King asks beginners to practice hanging by grabbing the bar, engaging their abs and glutes to make their body stiff like a plank, then holding for 30 to 45 seconds.

This is a way to practice the initial pulling motion. Start by hanging onto a barbell, then engage your mid and upper back muscles to move your shoulder blades toward your spine. By doing this you will feel yourself uplifting just a small amount. Hold in this elevated position for a moment, then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position. Do not bend your elbows. Your arms should be straight throughout the movement.

Start in the top position of a pull-up with your head above the bar (climb into a chair to get up from it if you need to), then slowly lower yourself to a suspended position using a smooth and controlled movement.

This exercise strengthens the back and improves shoulder mobility. Get under a barbell as if you were about to do a bench press. But instead of lying on a bench, hold on to the bar with your heels on the ground. Hold your body in a straight, rigid line and pull yourself up, initiating the movement using your back muscles rather than your arms. Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled motion. Imagine pulling your shoulder blades away from your spine and around your rib cage.

“Be patient,” Ms. King said. Getting your first pull-up “takes time and a lot of consistency; it doesn’t happen overnight. Consistency is crucial, she said. “There’s no getting around it. You have to work on it, week after week and month after month.

For Casey Johnston, a health and science writer, pull-ups were just part of a larger quest to get stronger. She had been weightlifting for about a year before she was finally able to do one, but it was worth it for the sense of accomplishment in mastering this quintessential show of strength. “No one is required to do pull-ups,” she said. “I have long arms and I’m relatively fat, which are two challenges.”

It is true that pull-ups are easier for some people than for others. “In general, as mass increases, the strength-to-weight ratio decreases,” said Greg Nuckols, founder of StrongerByScience.com and weightlifter who holds three world records. A tall person will probably have more weight to lift than a short person, even if they are of similar height. Some may never be able to handle a pull-up no matter how long they try, and others might decide it’s not worth it.

I will never set a pull-up record with my long arms and legs and taller than average height. But I do have a few advantages: good upper body strength from years of cross-country skiing and not too much middle-aged pudge. I still have to work on the pull-ups, but the result is deeply satisfying.

“Pulling yourself up on something — a bar, over a fence, up a wall — makes you feel like a superhero,” Ms Callaway said. Not only that, she added, but it also makes the nearby playground’s monkey bars a bit more fun.


Christie Aschwanden is a Western Colorado-based writer and the author of “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.”

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