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The science of the pull-up

In the first of a series on how to master key fitness movements, Lounge tells you how to do the difficult, but extremely useful, pull-up

The pull-up is a key move that lies at the heart of strength training.
The pull-up is a key move that lies at the heart of strength training. (Istockphoto)

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No matter what your favourite form of exercise is, there is no escaping strength training. No matter the sport—running, cycling, cricket, football, boxing—every sportsperson needs to strengthen the muscles that they use the most while playing their sport. Even forms of exercise like yoga, Pilates, body-weight workouts, HIIT, animal flow all require some degree of muscle strength. In this first story of a series, experts will help you become familiar with pushups, pull-ups, squats, sit-ups and planks—the foundation of almost all workouts and sports.

You could brush up on the pushup and then take a deep dive into the pull-up. A 2014 study, published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, found that as many as 21 muscles in your back, arms, shoulders, chest and core go to work— concentrically on the way up and eccentrically on the way down—when you do a pull-up. It is an essential part of sports like climbing, gymnastics, swimming, rowing/paddling, gymnastics, pole vaulting and wrestling.

The pull-up has also been used to test upper-body strength and endurance in children, adolescents, and men and women attending the US military service academies, say Peter Ronai and Eric Scibek, the authors of the study.

The physics of the pull-up

The pull-up is the toughest move to pull off, say coaches and fitness enthusiasts. Since you are moving against gravity, the move requires you to not only recruit several muscles but also requires stability. It took Ashana Beria five years to complete her first pull-up. “I have been working out five to six times a week for five years now. I could do everything in the gym but I just couldn’t manage to bring my chin to the bar in a pull-up. I kept at it, used the trainer’s help, bands and all the tricks I could find online. In the last three months of doing CrossFit, I finally managed to pull off my first full, unassisted pull-up,” says Beria, a business school graduate.

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Even muscular people struggle with it, says Kyle Hill, a former climbing coach in his guest blog in the Scientific American magazine. Simple physics can explain their troubles. “Muscle men tend to flounder… because of their mass. The heavier you are, the more work is required to move that bulk,” he writes.

Apart from the physics, there is a psychological reason why we find pull-ups difficult. “We don’t pay attention to the muscles we don’t see in the mirror and we require strong muscles in the back to perform the pull-up. Since we don’t see the need to haul ourselves up like apes on trees, we never actively use the muscles in our upper backs,” explains Abinav Shankar, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Akada fitness centre in Bengaluru. “The day-to-day activities we perform mainly use anterior (front) muscles, so our posterior muscles aren’t as strong. One needs to work on posterior muscles as they support the anterior ones and also prevent injuries.”

Mastering the pull-up improves core stability and also prevents shoulder injuries. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Mastering the pull-up improves core stability and also prevents shoulder injuries. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Benefits of pull-ups

Not only does the pull-up improve core stability, it also helps prevent shoulder injuries—a joint susceptible to injury because it can move in all directions. “It improves grip strength which will help you lift heavier and among those who have trained with me, I have seen people who want to achieve the pull-up tend to lose weight instinctively because the lighter you get the easier it gets move the chin to bar,” says Shankar.

Once mastered, the pull-up sets the base for advanced exercises in the gym such as chest to bar pull-ups, weighted pull-ups, muscle-ups, levers, toes-to-bar, inversions, lateral pull-downs, upright rows, seated rows, and anything that involves hanging. It also helps tremendously in sports that require upper body strength such as swimming, javelin throw, pole vault, climbing, bowling and throwing in cricket and rowing, among others.

Mastering the pull-up

1. Grasp an overhead bar with your arms slightly wider than your shoulders. Your grip could be pronated (palms facing away from the body) or supinated (palms facing the body).

2. Tighten your core, pull your body up using your arms and back muscles till your chin touches or crosses the bar.

3. In a controlled motion descend to the starting position.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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