I have a bit of an obsession with pull-ups and I’ve just always thought that being able to bang out multiple, full range of motion pull ups is cool. They are simply a great test of upper body strength and body control. 10+ pull-ups for a guy is an impressive number, whereas 3+ for a woman is excellent.
Just to clear up any terminology, a pull-up is performed with a pronated (or palms away) grip whereas chin-ups are done with a supinated (or palms facing you) grip. Chin-ups are slightly easier to perform as the biceps assist in the movement, whereas pull-ups are slightly harder as the biceps are taken out (for the purposes of this article I will use the term pull-up, but this means both movements as they are interchangeable).
When people ask me whether they should do pull-ups or chin-ups the answer is always “do them both as they are equally awesome”.
A proper pull-up is always performed through a full range of motion. That means chin over the bar at the top and arms fully extended at the bottom. Nobody is impressed with half reps so please don’t do them.
A lot of people shy away from pull-ups for the simple reason that they are very hard. Instead they are done through half a range of motion (more like a bicep curl) or the lat-pull down machine gets used and I think this is a big mistake. The lat pulldown has its uses, but the demands on stability and core control are far less when you are seated. As a result developing pull ups will have a far bigger impact on upper body strength than lat pull downs.
But how do you do pull-ups if you cannot even do one? Glad you asked! Getting that illusive pull-up is difficult but far from impossible. There are several ways to approach this and get over the hump to performing 1 repetition.
Ring rows are a great way to develop pull up strength. This is essentially the same movement as a pull up, but because the feet are on the floor there is less resistance. If you don’t have rings, just set up a bar in a squat rack or use the smith machine.
Simply hanging from a pull up bar is a good way to get comfortable in that position and support your bodyweight. Make sure that you are in an active position, the stomach is contracted and squeeze your bum to create a stable body position.
Negatives reps are a great way to build pull-up strength. Start at the top of a pull up (use a box or step to get to that position) and simply lower yourself down to a full hang under control. Don’t go too slowly. The key is to have a controlled descent. Be careful of this type of training as eccentric contractions (anytime you lower a weight) can make you very sore indeed. Initially you want to limit the total number of reps to no more than 10 (2 sets of 5 is a good place to start).
Once you can do this, work on jumping pull-ups. Position a box under a pull-up bar so you can jump to the top position and then lower under control.
Banded pull-ups are really good for getting the feel of a proper pull up with some assistance. The gravitron machine is an option here, although not as good as bands as not as much body control is needed. This is the machine which works together with a counterweight. The heavier the counterweight, the more assistance provided and the easier the movement.
Pull-ups and other bodyweight movements lend themselves well to frequent practice. However, the key is not to go to muscular failure. It is far better to do 10 easy reps every day than grinding out 50 reps once per week.
Here are a couple of easy programs for those with no pull-ups and those with 1-2 pull-ups.
Day 1: 5 sets of hanging from the bar (try for a minimum of 5 seconds). Try to increase by 5 seconds each week.
Day 2: 5 sets of 5 ring rows (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
Day 3: 5 sets of 5 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
1-2 pull ups
Day 1: 10 sets of 1 pull-up. Rest 30 seconds between each rep for a total of 10 in 5 minutes. Try to increase that total number by 1-2 reps each week
Day 2: 3 sets of static holds at the top of a pull-up. Stay in the top position for as long as possible and try to add 5 seconds each week
Day 3: 3 sets of 10 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent rep)
How to read scientific studies
Newspapers love scientific studies. It gives them the opportunity to promote big bold headlines. Usually telling us that something is about to kill us and the world is on the verge of disaster.
The Daily Mail in the UK is the master of such scare stories. Some recent gems have recently informed us that eating red meat will kill you, brazil nuts will give you a heart attack, oral sex will give you cancer, morphine will give you cancer, mobile phones will give you cancer, anti-ageing creams will give you… you get the idea.
Now I’m a gym guy and my focus is on health and fitness. Nonetheless, nutrition plays a huge role in getting results in the gym and I am constantly battling concerns from clients who have read the latest scare story and are worried.
One way I try to counter misinformation, is to ask people to look at the actual study from which the newspaper is reporting. How were these studies conducted? Are they credible? What did the researchers conclude and is it the same conclusion drawn by the journalist who wrote the article? I want to take the red meat will kill you story as an example, as this is a particular bugbear of mine. According to the Daily Mail “eating red meat is not much healthier than drinking arsenic”, a rather extreme premise, but is there any truth behind it?
One of the key tests of the legitimacy of any study is how many people participated and over what time period. A study of 100,000 people over 2 years will provide much more useful data than a study of 5 people over 2 days. In this case 120,000 people participated over 30 years, so all seems good there.
The next point is how data was tracked, and here we hit our first problem. The study used a food frequency questionnaire which was updated every 4 years. Essentially the main question was ‘how often do you eat meat?’, with answers ranging from never to 6 or more times per day.
Just think about that for a second. If I asked you right now how often you had eaten meat in the past 6 months (let alone the last 4 years), would you be able to give a reply that is remotely accurate? Can you even remember what you had for lunch 3 weeks ago?
So essentially our starting point is a very, very rough idea about peoples’ eating habits, perhaps not the type of hard information from which strong conclusions can be drawn.
The second, massive red flag of this study is the link between correlation and causation and something which is seen time and time again in the interpretation of medical studies.
Imagine that you received a visit from a Martian, who you graciously decided to give a tour of the earth. You finish the tour and the Martian tells you that he loves the planet, but he would definitely advise ridding the world of the police. That would obviously seem strange as you know that the police are responsible for law and order, but the Martian sees it differently so you ask why.
Simple, he says, the police were at every crime scene we passed so they are clearly responsbile for all criminal activity. This is an example of correlation, not causation. Yes the police were present at the scene, but they were not responsible for committing the crimes. You can see why the Martian would draw this conclusion, but it is obviously false.
Drawing correlations in studies is a very dangerous business indeed, because there is no proof that causation equals correlation. In our study, we see that the group who had a higher consumption of red meat also tended to be smokers, overweight and drank more alcohol. Could it be possible that these were the cause of increased mortality rather than red meat intake?
Now I’m not saying definititively that red meat won’t kill you (although I suspect you will all be just fine), but the point is that I don’t know and neither do the people that conducted this study. They are simply drawing very tentative correlations from the (admittedly poor) data they have at their disposal. The journalists have then taken these tentative correlations and turned them into scaremongering headlines, so suddenly we are all about to drop dead thanks to the steak we had for dinner last night.
So beware of big, scary headlines from newspapers whose sole purpose is to sell as many issues as possible, do some research and draw your own conclusions.