The Ultimate Fitness Challenge: Doing Pull-Ups

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It seems simple enough doesn’t it; using both hands, hold onto a bar and pull yourself up until your chin is on or above the bar. This common exercise routine performed by millions around the world is known as a pull-up; and yet as simple as it seems, this exercise is so difficult that millions of individuals around the world can’t do more than a few before throwing in the towel. So what makes a pull-up so difficult? And just how many can the average individual perform?

There are many variations of the pull-up exercise practiced by individuals, but this leads to confusion on what a proper pull-up really is. The most common pull-up variations around include:

- Standard pull-ups
- Chin-ups
- Behind-the-neck pull-up
- One arm pull-ups
- Muscle-ups
- Supine row
- Mixed grip

The simplest and truest form of a pull-up is the standard pull-up. Proper form when doing a pull-up is to grasp the bar with both hands just outside shoulder width, palms facing away from the body. Beginning from a hanging position with feet off the floor, individuals pull their body up until their chin passes above the bar.

Other variations on the pull-up challenge the body in different ways, or challenge other parts of the body. The fact that many of the pull-up variations available are more challenging, or in some cases dangerous, makes them less suitable for the average individual looking to improve their pull-up ability. Consider the following information about variations on the standard pull-up:

Chin-ups: This exercise is performed in the same manner, with the hands closer together and palms facing inward toward your body. This shifts focus of the exercise away from your back muscles and onto your biceps and shoulder muscles in particular.

Behind-the-neck pull-up: Although it targets the back muscles effectively, this variation puts extreme stress on the shoulders and can lead to rotator cuff damage.

One arm pull-ups: While this exercise is a great challenge for the body, individuals must possess superior muscle strength in order to properly perform this maneuver.

Muscle-ups: Although not as difficult as one arm pull-ups, this exercise also requires an above average level of strength that most individuals do not immediately possess.

Supine rows: Also known as Australian pull-ups, this variation requires a bar just three feet off the ground. Individuals lie on their back below the bar and pull themselves up.

Pull-ups are regarded by many fitness experts as the ultimate muscle building exercise. Despite its popularity, the pull-up is an exercise that most people skip because it is too hard. There are many different reasons this exercise is difficult for certain individuals. Many women struggle more than men to perform pull-ups, and most point to less upper body strength in women as a weak point. The National Strength and Conditioning Association points to body fat as an indicator of struggles with pull-ups. The association found that those with higher body fat levels perform fewer pull-ups than those with lean muscle mass.

In general, boys and men are capable of performing more pull-ups than girls and women. While this is not always the case, it is most often the truth. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness sets the standards for a healthy existence for Americans. According to the council, boys should be able to perform the following numbers of pull-ups:

Ages 6 to 10: at least one pull-up
Ages 11 to 13: at least two pull-ups
Ages 14-17: pull-ups increase by one each year from three at age 14, to six at age 17

The President’s Council has also set standards for healthy living for girls, men, and women as well. According to the council the following groups should be able to perform at the following levels:

Men: Healthy men should be able to perform 15 pull-ups. The average man should be able to perform five to nine pull-ups, while those in poor health can perform no more than five.

Women: Due to less upper body strength, it is considered excellent for women if they can perform one or two pull-ups.

Information regarding the expectation for young and adolescent girls is tough, but again the President’s Council on Physical Fitness provides some insight. In order for girls to qualify for a President’s Award during Physical Education courses in school, they must land in the 85th percentile or higher in a number of physical fitness tests. The standard for girls to reach at each age is as follows:

Ages 6 to 9: 2
Ages 10 and 11: 3
Ages 12 to 15: 2
Ages 16 and 17: 1

Regardless of the opinion of fitness experts and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, anyone can do as many pull-ups as they like with a little bit of training. The first step to becoming better at pull-ups is to actually do pull-ups. Because of the difficulty of this exercise many individuals skip it altogether when they exercise. If you can only do two pull-ups today, then make it your goal to do three pull-ups next time. Keep reaching for that goal and adjust it as you get better.

Other exercises to consider if you want to improve the number of pull-ups you can perform include:

Perform negatives: Stand on a box or chair that puts you at the height of the bar. Perform this exercise by slowly lowering yourself down to a hanging position, then let go and start again from the top.

Perform assisted pull-ups: Using an assisted pull-up machine or bands at home allows a portion of your body’s weight to be supported, giving you the chance to perform more pull-ups and conditioning your muscles.

Increase pull-up frequency: If you do pull-ups just once a week you will never increase your pull-up ability. Each muscle group should be trained twice a week, three times a week if you are just beginning.

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