I first wrote about the pull up when I was a new born among the blogosphere. I won’t share that post with you here, instead I’ll let you go to the trouble of looking it up if you would really like to see it. Embarrassment is too strong. I kid.
Suffice to say, I shared my affection and adoration for the pull up as an exercise. I rated it my favourite exercise at the time and basically encouraged everyone to either……
- Incorporate them into their exercise routine or…..
- Work towards being able to do a pull up variation of some kind.
That was well over 2 years ago now, and here’s where we see blogging as more than some bragging platform or place to insist our ideas are the only way to do things. Blogging is a place to both document and observe transformation – a diary if you will. You can page back over old posts and see if/how your opinions, thoughts and tastes have changed.
Are pull ups still my favourite exercise?
Being the loyal son of a bitch I am, the answer is: YES. And that’s after having done around 1200 pull ups of any kind since then. (Don’t ask me to provide the equation for working that one out). 1200 isn’t even that high a number, but it nicely illustrates the point of this post………that numbers don’t mean anything. If you take nothing else away from this post, make it be this one absolute truth.
Numbers don’t mean anything.
I’m going to see if I can illustrate my point almost indirectly; using my personal experience as a tool. In that rusty, dust covered old post of mine, I encouraged one to be able to do 10-12 pull ups of any of the standard variations. Could I do 10 pull ups at the time? Barely. But I could do them. What’s my maximum amount now? 12-13. I know exactly what you’re thinking: that’s a terrible return on 2+ years of work. I would expect you to be able to do 25 or 30 by now. I know guys at my gym who say they can do 40!
I also know those guys. Here’s something I know in addition: my pull ups are different to theirs and my pull ups are different to yours, and yours are different to others’. Are you seeing my point yet?
It’s not how many pull ups you do, it’s how you do your pull ups.
My 12-13 pull ups are from a position of scapula elevation (basically arms fully extended), right up until my chest reaches the bar – for every rep. All while maintaining a hollow body (completely rigid core). My pull ups over 2 years ago weren’t. Not anywhere close in terms of quality. I couldn’t get my chest to touch the bar. I would cross my legs and lose core tightness. I didn’t/couldn’t pause at the top or bottom – or any point in the range for that matter.
Not so long ago I was frustrated with my rep count being ‘so low’. It’s easy to let the tide sweep you away, but I have slowly begun to see the forest for the trees – that there are more ways to progress at pull ups than simply adding reps. Delving into this further, we could argue that for people looking to improve pull ups, striving to add reps isn’t always what the doctor ordered. At least beyond a certain point.
The root cause of this wanting to add reps is the repeat offender: The ego. We don’t want to be behind anyone. We need the glory of boasting and feeling adequate and sufficient. So we want more. Sometimes what’s needed to get more isn’t what actually benefits you most in the long run. We get people doing chin ups and pull ups to build muscle, yet they end up rep chasing and denying themselves the muscle they sought in the first place.
Inefficiency or efficiency?
The human body loves efficiency. Efficiency is simply making a task as easy as possible. If we apply this fact to the realm of pull ups, we can explore all the ways to make a pull up easier……..
- Decrease the range of motion
- Use momentum
- Use the legs to manipulate the load
- Use muscles uninvolved with the pull up to assist the process
The reasons above are often responsible for those who can do loads of ‘pull ups’ yet have no lat development or can’t do muscle ups, and wonder why. Efficiency suits maximal performance such as CrossFit competitions, or any other competition that involves max reps.
Although if you’re looking for long term strength that carries over to more advanced moves like front levers, muscle ups and clap pull ups, rep chasing and sloppy technique WILL NOT get you there.
In fact, front lever training is a perfect example of this. I know handfuls of people that can do “over 10 pull ups” but can’t hold a tucked front lever position.
The Tucked Front Lever position as demonstrated by Jason Ferruggia
The tucked front lever utilises straight arm pulling strength – scapula strength is a determining factor here. When you half rep pull ups and don’t exploit a full range of motion, all the reps in the world won’t help you with moves like the front lever. You’ll be that guy who goes on forums asking why he can’t do muscle ups, when he’s been told you need 10 pull ups for muscle up strength. Then he finds out he can’t actually do a pull up that counts towards that tally of 10. Your training time is too precious for that.
Reps don’t mean sh*t
When I first start working with someone and I want to gauge their strength, I don’t ask them how many push ups they can do, I ask them to show me a push up.
In that one rep I can see all I need to see. It really is that simple. This doesn’t ignore the rules of progressive overload……i.e. adding reps or weight each workout, it highlights the need for some boundaries being set in terms of technique. I’d rather see you do 5 full range of motion anything than 20 half reps! You’ll get much more out of it and have more strength than you realise.
Pull ups are a very difficult exercise. Don’t disrespect them by being arrogant enough to expect to do hundreds if you’re just starting out. All this takes time – and loads of it.
Remember: Form = function.
For anyone who wants a laugh, here is a link to my very first post about pullups: https://straighttalkingfitness.com/2014/05/17/what-is-your-king-exercise/
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