Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ode to the Pull-Up

A friend and colleague of mine asked me the other day what the best exercises would be to improve posture.  She was looking to counteract the sort of hunched forward posture that so many of us experience as a result of sitting in chairs and staring at computer screens all day.  My immediate response was to suggest anything that would strengthen the back of the body, i.e. the 'posterior chain' that so many training gurus seem to speak about these days.  That is, I told her to do pull-ups, rows, deadlifts, supermans, back extensions, etc., anything that pulls the body backwards and strengthens the muscles to resist that forward, hunched posture.

On reflection, I realized that I recommended pull-ups first on the list.  I don't think that it was accidental.  To me the pull-up (chin-up too, don't get me wrong) is the perfect exercise.  If I was forced to only do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the pull-up.  My reasons are both pragmatic and metaphysical.
Besides what's been mentioned about posture, the pragmatic reasons are as follows:  They can be done anywhere with no equipment.  Do you have a body?  Great! You can do a pull-up.  It might be an assisted one at first.  You may need to jump a bit and work on negatives before you can do the real mccoy.  You don't need equipment or a gym.  You can build your creativity and resourcefulness by finding places in your natural or built environment that allow you to pull your body upward against gravity.  Could be a tree branch, could be a bar of scaffolding on your way to work, could be the underside of the stairwell in your office building, could be the monkey bars at your kids' playground.  No other exercise is as adaptable or scalable.  It CANNOT be outgrown.  When I was younger I struggled to do 3 or 4 regular bodyweight pull-ups.  Now I do them with 110 lbs hanging from a weight belt.  Nobody in the world is so strong that they can't find a more challenging variation to elicit further growth.  I'd also argue that no exercise give you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of both usable upper body strength and aesthetic development.  Want the illusion of wider shoulders and a smaller waist?  Do pull-ups. Want to be able to save your ass from a burning building? Do pull-ups.

Now for the airy fairy philosophical subtext.  The pull-up is not just an exercise, it's a powerful metaphor.  It's pulling yourself up by your own motherfucking bootstraps.  It's resisting the suck of gravity that drags our immortal souls down to the wretched earth.  It's telling inertia and complacency to go suck it.  It's rising above all of our self-imposed limitations.  It's saying that no one but me is responsible for my own success and happiness.  It's saying that not even the gravitational force of a planet can resist my willpower and the strength of my sinews.  It's showing yourself that no matter how tough things get, no matter how senseless things seem, no matter how much weight and shit and pain gets piled on you - there's nothing in the world that can keep you down.


  1. Great article!

    Speaking from a female stand point, doing pull ups is incredibly powerful and validating. Perhaps it's because I had always viewed (or been taught) that particular exercise as something only men could do... unless your Linda Hamilton. So for me, I wanted to be able to do it as a big 'Fuck You' to the world. I trained in reverse as you mentioned, starting in the pull up position and lowering myself slowly. It was so incredibly euphoric and rewarding when I could finally pull off 4 or 5 in a row. Great overall exercise! If it weren't for our societies new 'hunched over-lap top shoulders' I'd also say the push up is another great, versatile, basic total body exercise as well. But having worked out in various gym settings it does seem that 'back day' is commonly forgotten. lol

    1. There are few things in the world that impress me as much as a woman doing pull-ups! I have a colleague who can do a couple with a 35# plate added...never fails to inspire me.
      And you're right, pushups are a very close second! I'm convinced that the majority of the population could have a very acceptable level of fitness by doing those two exercises alone...supplemented with some sort of sport like running, soccer, basketball, hockey... whatever, that would supply the cardio and lower body conditioning.