Don't Die. Do Pullups.
How to do more pullups—or nail your first.
Why it matters: Pullups are a uniquely good exercise for health, performance, and longevity. Being able to do just one pullup (or working towards your first!) offsets many of the problems brought on by our modern environment.
Catch up quick:
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Onto today’s topic: Pullups, a simple but hard exercise everyone should do (or try to do!).
Those of you doing the Memorial Day Murph workout in two weeks have way too many pullups ahead of you. Godspeed.
But even if you’re not into tough CrossFit hero workouts, doing more pullups or learning to do your first can help you live better and longer. For real.
Today we’re covering:
Four big benefits of pullups
Why women can and should do pullups
How to do your first pullup
How to do more pullups if you can already do one
Tactics for doing a lot of pullups in one workout (like Murph)
How to avoid injuries from too many pullups
Four Benefits of Pullups
1. Pullups are a “body fat test without the dishonor of a skin caliper”
Pavel Tsatsouline told me that. He’s alluding to the fact that it’s hard to do pullups if you have excess body fat. Doing even one pullup suggests you have a healthy amount of body fat. This review in Nature found people with high body fat percentages were more likely to die due to any cause.
2. Pullups prove you’re strong for your weight—a key to not breaking Rule 2
Having enough strength and muscle for your body weight is like a golden ticket for living longer and better. It’ll help you not die. A recent study of 50,000 people in Canada, for example, found those most at risk of death registered a “healthy” BMI but had the lowest levels of lean muscle.
3. Pullups strengthen your grip
Even just hanging from the bar is an excellent workout because it builds your grip strength. A massive study found that grip strength is one of the best predictors of longevity. The scientists wrote, “Grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.”
4. Pullups can decrease pain
Desk work leads us to slump, which can set us up for pain and problems when we exercise. Pullups mobilize your shoulders and strengthen your back muscles, pulling you into a less slumped position and preventing issues down the road.
For all of those reasons …
Yes, women can (and should) do pullups
Major media outlets have written that women can’t do pullups. It’s nonsense—and the act of trying will make anyone healthier.
Few stories have annoyed me more than a 2012 New York Times story with the headline, “Why Women Can’t Do Pullups.”
There are some athletic endeavors that most men will be better at most of the time and other physical acts that most women will be better at at most of the time. This is likely due to a mix of anatomical and cultural reasons.
But women can do pullups. Exhibit A:
I could blast out thousands more video links, but you get the point.
Notably, women may be better served than men by doing pullups, because the movement requires upper body strength, which women seem to be more likely to neglect. One in five women over 60 suffer from dangerously low levels of muscle. Again: The attempt makes us healthier.
How to do your first pullup
If you have a high amount of body fat, focus on losing body fat while easing into some of the exercises below. If you’re not overweight (use BMI as a rough estimate), jump right into the exercises below.
The more body fat you have, the harder pullups become. Unlike muscle, fat can’t pull you up. It drags you down.
If you have a relatively high amount of body fat and haven’t strength trained much:
Focus on losing fat and doing exercises 1a and 1b to start.
Big bonus: Do all kinds of other strength training as you lose weight—whatever you can do. This helps you burn more fat than muscle, which improves your health far more.
If you’re lean-ish but can’t do a pullup, jump right into these exercises.
P.S. For visual people, I’ve included links to videos of each exercise.
1a. Hang from the bar
Everyone should do this exercise. It offsets sitting, improves your shoulder health and grip strength, and gets you ready to pull.
How to do it:
Hang from the pullup bar (when you start this, place a bench or box underneath for safety).
As you hang, squeeze your butt and abs so your body is in the shape of a very wide open C.
Breathe deeply. You should feel this in your abs. The area on the side of your ribs may also feel a stretch. If this feels too challenging, place your feet on a box or bench as you hang, as shown in the video.
(P.S., Try swinging across monkey bars if you want to level this up. Seriously. Track and field coaches have noted that monkey bars keep javelin throwers injury free.)
1b. Hollow holds
Knowing how to brace your core gives you a solid base to pull from. This exercise teaches that.
How to do it:
Lay on your back. Now lift your legs and shoulders and form your body into a wide open C while squeezing your abs and butt.
Breathe deeply. You’ll feel this in your core.
(P.S., if you want to level this up, do ab wheel roll-outs. Sounds weird, but it’s a similar movement to the pullup.)
Do each of these three times a few times a week. Once you can regularly hang from the bar and hold the hollow holds for 30 seconds each, add these exercises into your routine.
2a. Seated pullup
A 2018 study compared exercises that are supposed to help us with pullups. It discovered that the kneeling lat pulldown was the most effective. This exercise, the seated pullup, most closely mimics that exercise without machines (but if you can find a machine, go for it!).
How to do it:
Sit beneath a barbell, rings, or TRX handles that are slightly higher than you can reach if you’re sitting beneath them. (You can use a smith machine, a barbell anchored midway on the rack, or adjusted rings or TRX handles).
Grab the bar or handles and hang from it. Your butt should be just above the ground, and your legs splayed out in front of you with your feet on the floor.
Now slowly pull yourself up. If you can’t, move your feet into a position that allows you to, making sure that you still feel the exercise in your back. That’s one rep. Do 5 to 10.
2b. Inverted row
Progresses you into a pullup
How to do it:
You can use a bar or TRX straps for this. The handles or bar should be about the height of your waist.
Lay below the bar or handles, reach up and grab them, hanging roughly parallel to the ground.
Now pull your chest up to the bar or handles. If this is hard, make your body more vertical by “walking” your feet a bit so you’re more upright. That’s one rep. Do 5 to 10.
2c. Slow lower
Leverages gravity to make you stronger at pullups
How to do it:
Use a bench or step stool so you can easily step up and reach the pullup bar.
Grab the bar and get into the top position of a pullup.
Hold yourself at the top of the pullup, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Then slowly lower yourself until you’re hanging with straight arms. Jump back up and repeat. That’s on rep. Do 5.
Do those three exercises for their prescribed reps two to three times a day, two to four days a week.
How to do more pullups once you can do one pullup
We spoke to Truett Hanes, who regularly bangs out 1,000 pullups in less than a couple of hours. Which: Insane! He revealed the secret to doing more pullups, which is to … do more pullups. But not all at once. Do small sets throughout the day.
Truett Hanes does more pullups than perhaps anyone alive. He regularly does workouts of 1,000+ reps.
“The only way you can get better at pullups and increase the amount of reps your body can withstand in a set is both a simple and hard fact to swallow,” he said. “You MUST do pullups to get better at pullups.”
And not, like, more pullups at the gym. You’ll only be able to do so many across an hour at the health club. And you’ll have to cram in so many reps that you’ll get burned out, and your form will suffer.
The solution is to make pullups a part of life. Truett has a set of pullup handles in a door frame at his home.
“I’ll do sets of pullups right before going to the bathroom, right before showering, when I wake up,” he said. “You can’t always make time for the gym, but you can always make time to crank out some pullups at home.”
Truett uses Jayflex CrossGrips. “I did over 70K reps on those last year,” he said. “And they held their integrity the whole time (and didn’t damage the door frame).” (P.S. Truett did so many reps on those CrossGrips that the company gave him a coupon code. Use TRUETT for 15% off.)
Truett also said doing as many reps as possible every time you do a set of pullups isn’t helpful. It can slow your progress and raise your risk of injury.
Russian physiologists noticed long ago that pullups respond better to smaller sets done across the day. This idea was popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline, the aforementioned Soviet Special Forces trainer who now heads StrongFirst.
In his Fighter Pullup Program, you do five sets of pullups across the day, starting with close to one max set and then doing successively fewer pullups each set. Here’s a sample week if you can do five pullups right now:
Day 1: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 2: 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
Day 3: 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
Day 4: 5, 4, 4, 3, 2
Day 5: 5, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 6: Off
Day 7: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
And so on and so forth for 30 days. The program often doubles the number of pullups a person can do in one month.
Tactics for doing a lot of pullups in a single workout
Break up the reps into mini sets. Protect your hands with sponges.
Truett is the king of doing way too many pullups in way too short of a time span. Here are two rules if you plan on following his lead, like for the Murph workout.
Follow the ⅓ rule
Let’s say you can do 10 pullups, and your goal is to do 100, as in the Murph workout. If you try quickly doing 10 sets of 10 reps, you’ll blow up by your third set. You’re far better off doing smaller sets.
Take the figure that is ⅓ of the maximum number of pullups you can do. That’s the number of pullups you should do every set.
For example, if you can do 10 pullups max, you’d do sets of 3 pullups. Rest for a handful of seconds, then do three more. So on and so forth until you reach 100 reps.
Obviously, the ⅓ rule doesn’t usually give us perfectly round numbers. If you have a decimal, round down. So, for example, if you can do five pullups, you’d do one rep each set rather than two.
Break out the sponges
Doing many pullups in a row can “shred your hands,” Truett said. And that can force you to stop.
His elegant solution: sponges. “Specifically,” he said, “Scotch-Brite sponges. They’re cost-effective and work better than any gloves, straps, or tape I’ve used.”
How to avoid injuries from too many pullups
If pullups hurt, do fewer reps (and slow your reps down), push more, and change your grip.
We asked Mike Reinhardt, Doctor of Physical Therapy, for some advice on what to do to prevent and fix pullup-related pain.
Do fewer pullups
Many pullup injuries are because people do too many too soon. Lay off the pullups for a few days, then ease back in by doing half of what you were. If you were doing the Fighter Pullup Plan mentioned above, put it on hold. “It’s probably best to perform pullups every other day or every thing day to start as opposed to daily,” said Reinhardt.
Use a rep ladder
Injuries often happen due to bad form. Bad form tends to happen on the final reps of a set. “Using a descending rep ladder scheme can be a great strategy to accumulate more overall reps without sacrificing the quality of your form,” said Reinhardt. So, for example, you’d do 8 reps your first set, 7 your second, 6 your third, etc.
Do pushups, presses, etc
“Balance your pullup work with a variety of push movements such as pushups, overhead carries, and overhead press variations,” said Reinhardt. “This balance will help to maintain good shoulder flexibility in all directions.”
The faster you do your reps, the more reps you can do, thanks to momentum. But this also puts more stress on your joints, leading to issues. “Early on, focus on controlling the speed of the movement,” said Reinhardt. Go purposefully, awkwardly slow.
Change your grip
Try to do neutral grip pullups, or use rings. A neutral grip is when your hands are turned inward and facing each other as you do a pullup. It tends to be better for your elbows.
Thanks for reading. Have fun, don’t die, and do more pullups.
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