Self-Study: Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups

Like push-ups, pull-ups (and chin-ups) are an outstanding upper body workout that can really benefit your overall level of fitness and kung fu training.  Unlike push-ups, however, they do require a pull-up bar and they are a bit more difficult to execute.  The reason why they are so difficult is the required strength per pound of body weight to complete even one.  People carrying extra body fat will find pull-ups more difficult than those who don’t because the extra body weight is literally weighing them down.  That said, a simple way to do more pull-ups is to lose body fat (maintain a diet of high quality calories and eliminate calories that don’t provide any nutritional benefit), train hard at least every other day, and practice pull ups daily (or at least every other day.)

Pull-ups are the perfect complementary exercise to push-ups for developing upper body strength.  As the names suggest, one is pushing and the other is pulling.  These different actions work different muscle groups.  Pushing something simultaneously engages triceps, chest, shoulder, and midsection.  Pulling exercises work most of the remaining upper body muscles such as:  biceps, forearms, upper back muscles, and midsection.  Together, push-ups and pull-ups are all anyone really needs to develop upper “body armor”.

In fact, pull-ups are such a barometer of physical fitness that many armed forces around the world use them to determine how fit a member is.  The U.S. Marine Corps uses pull-ups as one of three components in its Physical Fitness Test (the other two being crunches and a three-mile run.)  Most of these groups want to see 15-20 pull-ups done consecutively before feet touch the ground.  That is a good goal to have.  If you can manage to get 3 sets of 20 reps of pull-ups you will truly have high level of fitness.  If you can do that many one arm pull-ups, very few people will have your level of upper body strength.

There are a number of pull-up variations and methods for developing a pull-ups.  We’ll start from the most basic and move up to the more advanced:

1.  Australian Pull-Ups (an upside-down push-up)

Australian Pull-Up

These are a great introduction to pull-ups/chin-ups as they develop many of the same muscles, but aren’t as difficult as your feet are touching ground and supporting the body as much as needed.  Accessibility can be a problem.  Parks with jungle gyms or even putting a broom handle/pole on the seats of two chairs will do the job.  When you can get to 20 straight Australian Pull-Ups, you will be on well on your way to doing regular pull-ups.

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2.  Chin-Ups (Palms facing athlete)

Chin-up

Chin-Ups are slightly easier than Pull-Ups, but work many of the same muscles.  If you can’t do one chin-up, either continue to work on the Australian pull-ups or get a chair and start from the top of the pull-up and resist going down as much as possible.  Even better, hold for 5 seconds at the top, at the midpoint, and at the bottom.  Continue to do that until you can do a chin-up.  Gradually build until you can do 50 chin-ups in a day and then try to string together 3 sets of 20 pull-ups in a row.

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3.  Pull-Ups (palms face away from athlete)

Pull-ups

Pull-ups are what many people confuse with Chin-Ups… pull-ups have palms facing away.  Strict pull-ups are when the arms and back “pull” the body up and down in a linear fashion without much swinging.  “Kipping” pull-ups occur when the body swings (kips) in order to get to the top of the chin-up.  Typically, people revert to kipping when they approach failure during the final strict pull-ups and they do whatever it takes to get their chin above the bar.  The kip works a few different muscle groups from the strict.  Either one is fine to do as long as you do them consistently and to failure.  How wide you grip the bar is a similar story.  Narrow grips on the bar work many of the same muscle groups as wide grips, but they also work other muscles too.  Switching these up is a smart way to increase difficulty and strengthen more areas of the body.

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4.  Muscle-ups

Muscle-Ups

Muscle-ups are something we most commonly see gymnasts do in competition.  Typically, the practitioner does a kipping pull up to get their waste on the bar and then pushes up with their arms until straight.  This exercise can be thought of as combining a pull-up with a dip.  For this reason, it’s level of difficulty is fairly high. Try them if your at a park with a high bar.

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5.  Clapping Pull-Ups

Clap Pull-Up

For those who can do a good number of straight pull-ups, adding a clap at the top of the pull-up can up the ante with explosive speed and power.  Like all pull-ups, you must have a good deal of strength per pound to accomplish clapping pull-ups.  These typically require a kip to get enough momentum to clap and get your hands back on the bar.

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6.  One Arm Chin-Ups

One Arm Chin Up

One Arm Chin-Ups are the most difficult of all the chin-up/pull-up options, with maybe an exception being weighted pull-ups/chin-ups.  As the pictures suggest, you need to grab the wrist of the arm not pulling to maintain a center of balance while performing a one-armed chin-up.  No weight machines or plates are needed for those exceedingly strong people who can perform a number of one-armed chin-ups in a row.

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