If you’re like me, part of the appeal of Primal living is the simplicity of it all. Modern society has a funny way of making things more complicated than they need to be. In studying the intricacies of healthy eating and proper exercise, we often get lost in the details and miss the big picture. You don’t need to know about antioxidants in order to know that blueberries are good for you. Likewise, you don’t need a degree in anatomy or kinesiology in order to implement a safe and effective fitness program. Unfortunately, much of the fitness industry is designed to make you feel like being healthy is a complicated and difficult objective. Modern gyms are equipped with lots of expensive, high-tech machinery in order to give the illusion that complicated exercise contraptions are more effective than timeless bodyweight movements requiring only minimal equipment. The irony is that many of these facilities, in spite of having three different types of elliptical trainers, dozens of different selectorized strength training stations and (my favorite in terms of the dollars-to-dumbness ratio) the vibrating power plate, lack the one piece of fitness equipment that I actually deem essential: the humble pull-up bar.
Pull-ups work your entire upper body, especially the muscles of your back, as well as your abs and your biceps. Thanks to pull-ups, I haven’t felt the need for crunches or bicep curls in years and I don’t expect to ever again. In spite of this, my abs and biceps are strong and well developed. Pull-up bar training is essential for the simple reason that gravity only works in one direction. If all you do for your upper body is push-ups and other floor work, you may develop a muscular imbalance, which can lead to poor posture, shoulder pain or worse. You need to pull against resistance as well to avoid these pitfalls.
Whether or not you are strong enough to do a pull-up, a pull-up bar is still the best piece of fitness equipment you could ever own. If you aren’t ready for pull-ups yet, there are three primary exercises that you can do on an overhead bar to help you get there: flex hangs, negative pull-ups and dead hangs.
A flex hang involves holding yourself at the top of a pull-up with your chin over the bar. It is best to start by using an underhand (chin-up) grip. Use a bench or a partner to help you get in position and then simply try to stay up. Think about squeezing every muscle in your entire body. If you can hold this position for even a second on your initial attempt, you are off to a good start.
Once you can hold the flex hang for several seconds, you’re ready to start working on negative pull-ups, which just means lowering yourself down slowly from the top position. In the beginning, it might be very difficult to perform a controlled negative, but with time you will be able to make your negative last for ten seconds or longer. Once you can do this, a full pull-up will be within reach.
If you are not strong enough to do a flex hang or a negative yet, your first objective is simply to get a feel for hanging from the bar. This will build grip strength and work your muscles isometrically. With some practice, you should be able to work to a flex hang fairly quickly. Even once you can perform flex hangs and controlled negatives, it is still helpful to practice dead hangs at the end of your training session when your arms have gotten too fatigued to do more negatives. When performing a dead hang, think about keeping your chest up and pulling your shoulder blades down in order to fully engage your back muscles.
The Australian pull-up (also known as a horizontal pull-up or bodyweight row) is another great exercise for anyone who is working their way up to a standard pull-up. The Australian involves getting “down under” a bar that is a little above waist height, with your feet resting on the ground. Keep a straight line from your heels to the back of your head as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your chest to the bar. Novices may choose to bend their knees and push gently with their heels in order to give their arms assistance if needed. When you get a little more comfortable with this exercise you can angle your heels to the floor with your feet pointed up and your legs straight. Just like the dead hang, be sure that you are not shrugging your shoulders up when performing Australians. You want to pull your shoulder blades down and back – never up. This is the case for all pull-ups. Start getting in the habit of doing this right away – it’s the most common error I see people make when performing these moves.
When you’re ready to go for the full Monty, it’s generally best to start with an underhand (chin-up) grip. Chin-ups put more emphasis on your biceps, while an overhand grip will recruit your back musculature to a greater degree. Though the muscles of your back can potentially become bigger, stronger muscles than the biceps, deconditioned individuals are more likely to have some bicep strength from everyday activities, while their back muscles will be nowhere near their full potential. With practice and patience, the disparity in difficulty between different hand positions should begin to even out. It can also be worthwhile to practice a neutral grip pull-up, which involves gripping two parallel bars with your palms facing each other. This can be a nice intermediate step between the underhand and overhand grips. The neutral grip may also be less stressful on the shoulder joints of people who’ve had injuries to that area.
Once you get the hang of full overhand pull-ups, there are still many challenges ahead, including the muscle-up, which involves pulling (and then pushing) your entire upper body up and over the bar, as well as the elusive one arm pull-up. In fact, there is much more that can be done a pull-up bar than just pull-ups. The bar can be used for dips, hanging leg raises and countless other variations on these moves.