Conquer the pull-up - East Valley Tribune: Health & Fitness

Conquer the pull-up

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Shannon Sorrels is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and owner of Physix LLC in Ahwatukee Foothills. Reach her at (480) 428-5660 or

Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 9:55 am, Mon Aug 13, 2012.

There’s one universally loathed exercise: the pull-up.

We helplessly dangle, barely able to grip the bar, begging our muscles to move something, and all we usually manage are wild feet kicks — if we can hang at all. We avoid the whole nonsense, thinking “How often do I ever need to pull myself up? Who am I, Rambo?”

Allow me to convince you otherwise. The pull-up is THE upper body exercise. There’s a reason the military requires them; they are stupid-hard and a quick indication of your upper body fitness.

But don’t despair; you, too, can do them.

First off — and be honest — are you overweight? Plain physics is my reason for asking. The more you weigh, the more you have to “pull up.” Drop some weight, and it will make pull-ups and everything else easier.

Second item to consider: Can you hang by your hands? If you can’t, then you’ll need to start working on your grip strength. Start carrying heavy things, things you must struggle to “grip” and walk around with: milk jugs full of sand, dumbbells, 5-gallon buckets of rocks. Let the weight hang from your arms; make your hands work.

If you have access to a gym, you can start working on a “pull-up assist” machine. Using a weight stack, it allows you to offset your body weight and try the pull-up motion. (Just keep moving that weight pin to progress yourself.)

You can also try Super Bands, giant rubber bands you secure around the pull-up bar and put your knee (or foot) through. They also offset some of your body weight, making the pull-up motion possible for beginners.

Once you’ve lost some weight and can hang by your hands, it’s time to start on the pull-up bar (make sure the bar can support you).

The easiest way to start is the “jump-n-hang.” Using a sturdy step, reach up and grab the bar tight, then “jump” so your chin is above the bar. Stay there, arms bent, as long as you possibly can. When you feel your muscles starting to give out (which might be less than a second), ease yourself back down to the step as slowly as you can manage.

Take a short break, and do it again. Aim for three to five times in the first round. Rest a couple of minutes, then do another round (set). Do two sets two to three times a week on non-consecutive days. Each time, stay in the “hang” as long as you can. It will get longer as you get stronger.

Be patient and persistent. Eventually, you will feel ready to try a “real” pull-up, where instead of jumping into position, you pull yourself up using your arms. Pair your new pull-ups with push-ups, which we covered in last month’s column, to create a great upper body workout that’s simple and extremely effective.

Oh, and listen for the phone. Rambo will be calling you for a mission any day.

• Shannon Sorrels is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and owner of Physix LLC in Ahwatukee Foothills. Reach her at (480) 428-5660 or

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