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.

Minor Injuries – A Blessing In Disguise

In the course of your training, it is highly possible that at some point you will come to class with some kind of pain from a minor injury.  Maybe you slammed your knee on a coffee table or jammed your fingers playing basketball.  Maybe in the last sparring class you banged your shin pretty hard.  No matter how careful you are, how well you sleep, how nutritiously you eat, there will be times when you will have to train when in pain.  Before taking class be sure to tell whoever is instructing about your injury.  In fact, use common sense to decide whether you should even go to class.  Realize, however, that it usually makes sense t0 train with minor injuries as you will likely be removed from part of class that might aggravate your injury and given something else to do that furthers your training.  Training with a minor injury (although painful) is often a blessing in disguise.

Training while injured can be a blessing in two ways.  The first revolves around what you did (or didn’t do) to get injured in the first place, especially if it occurred in class.  Many times the pain was caused by doing something incorrectly.  Perhaps you didn’t defend property or you executed a poor offensive technique or counter technique.   Maybe you fell wrong or weren’t listening to your body. Analyze the injury’s cause and learn to not do it again.

In the real world, there is no guarantee that you will have all of your weapons available to you in the event of a contest.  The second blessing is learning how to spar and apply techniques without the use of one or more hands and/or feet.  Students can sometimes become stagnant with their training and focus too much on their dominant side’s hands or feet techniques.  Damaging one of the dominant weapons forces you to learn and utilize techniques with the other hand or side of body.  This also forces you to utilize your entire body differently as all our techniques require the whole body to move in synchronization.  In san shou or sparring, put your damaged hand behind your back to protect it and do what it takes to defend yourself one-handed.  Be prepared to defend yourself with what you have – understanding you only have one hand, utilize your feet and leg for defensive movements.

If you have a damaged leg or foot, you need to decide if you want the damaged one to be your rear, weight-baring foot or your forward, non-weight baring foot.  Whatever you do, take care not to haphazardly use the damaged leg in some kind of technique that will injure it.  Proper footwork is key to move out of harms way and counter when you are damaged.  Should you train like this until your appendage is healed, these new techniques will likely stay with you as a part of your “arsenal” and you will agree that the damaged body part actually made you a better martial artist.

Sore Muscles

If you are consistently not getting sore muscles after your workouts, there is a good chance you are not pushing yourself as you should.  Powerful punches, fast kicks, low stances, explosive movements will push you to the brink if you are giving 100%.  Sore muscles are the result of your effort in class and the sign you’re muscles are growing and getting stronger.  This does face the student with an issue that may be unknown to them – how to quickly recover those muscles to train again at full energy?

Here are a number of things to minimize muscle soreness and general exhaustion from hard workouts:

  1. High Quality Sleep – A good 7-8 hours of consistent sleep is incredibly important to repairing muscle fibers
  2. Replace Fluids – Drink water, sports drinks, or even chocolate milk immediately after class to replace fluids and provide muscles with some energy (in the case of sports drinks and chocolate milk) to begin muscle recovery.  Most students sweat a great deal in class and those lost fluids need to restored.
  3. Eat Properly – Although theories differ on how to maximize muscle recovery via nutrition, a common idea is to eat high-quality proteins and carbohydrates within an hour or so post-exercise (as well as re-hydrate to replace fluids lost – see #2).  Ideally, a tasty variety of meats, nuts, fruits and vegetables along with plenty of water.  Post-workout meals are ideally the largest meal of the day.
  4. Take It Easy – When having overly sore muscles, a lighter workout (as opposed to taking a day off) is often very helpful towards recovery as it breaks up the lactic acid in those muscles.  Having another intense workout can be detrimental as the muscles can become exhausted and joints can be exposed to dangerous stress.  Additionally, becoming totally exhausted and wasted can require a good deal of downtime to fully recover from and subjects your body to potential sickness.
  5. Stretching – After class, gently stretch your body.  It doesn’t have to be intense, but it should certainly include the muscles that were worked the hardest.
  6. Massage – Whether self-massaging or having a professional masseuse work on loosening sore muscles, it is good to relax thru massage.  This manual circulation of lactic acid and blood helps promote nutrient and waste product transport throughout the body.  Using a foam roller is an inexpensive way to self-massage yourself consistently.
  7. Ice Baths and Hot Baths –   This is probably more important for professional athletes (getting a high-quality eight hours of sleep is far more important), but can be something you do when getting sore or bruised through training.  The theory is that the extreme temperatures stimulate blood flow in the body and helps flush out waste products from the body.

Train hard and get sore muscles as it’s the sign your trying pushing yourself and getting stronger.  However, spend some time and energy to recover properly so you can train with all your energy the next day!

Hard Training – Not for the Faint of Heart

Kung Fu training is hard.  Whether it’s your first class or 5,000th class, there is no way to get around it (at least at our school).  Intense and consistent physical conditioning is a pre-requisite to develop the “kung fu body” that can successfully employ martial techniques against one or many non-cooperative, determined opponents.

Hard training comes in many forms.  First, your muscles will consistently get sore from the numerous exercises and drills that have trained kung fu fighters for centuries.  More than anything, your legs and core will be pushed and pushed to get stronger and looser at the same time – no easy feat.  Kicks, stances, forms, sparring, and exercises will test your will to overcome exhaustion and pain.  For those simply wanting to get in shape, this will take care of you.  Second, you will undoubtedly receive bumps and bruises as you learn how to employ your newly learned martial techniques against both cooperative and uncooperative opponents in san shou and sparring.  These bumps and bruises will heal and sharpen your skills.  A simple way to think about it is that you must be willing to accept bumps and bruises from friends in a controlled environment in order to successfully defend yourself from those meaning to hurt or kill you in an uncontrolled environment.  It’s a small sacrifice.

There is more to having heart and courage than to simply withstand the physical struggles of training.  Having the heart to consistently attend class, maybe two or three classes a day, even when you are not feeling up to it shows heart.  Perhaps you have a minor injury and still train while taking care not to aggravate the injury .  Some might feel they’ve reached a plateau that can’t be improved upon and lose confidence.  By accepting that training is “the way” and a part of their life, these students will will have the courage to push onward  instead of giving up.  They will reflect honestly on their relative weaknesses and continue on their path knowing that effort and time are the overwhelming factors in breaking through plateaus and improving both their character and martial skill.

This is why traditional martial arts is so particularly valuable and important for children.  Kids facing their fears, weaknesses, struggles, and pains develops strength of character, which is so difficult to acquire.  This strength of character, physical fitness, and self-defense skill will prove invaluable to them as adults as it creates massive self-confidence.

Proper Posture

Posture is important both in training and out of the school.  It is important in class as it develops proper weighting and balance in most movements (kicks, punches, san shou, shuai jiao, forms, chin na, sparring).  Should your posture be off, your technique will be off and your power, speed, fluidity won’t be maximized for optimum results.  Outside of class, your posture says a lot to those around you.  For those who don’t mean to harm you, your posture can indicate confidence or lack of confidence in your workplace or social environment.  For those who do mean to harm you, your posture can tell your assailant a good deal about you as a potential target.  For all these reasons, your kung fu training focuses a good deal on maintaining proper posture at all times and you must be especially cognizant of it in your practice.

Both in and outside of school, proper posture is to have the spine – including your neck – roughly perpendicular to the ground.  That said, you need to maintain the natural curves of a healthy spine,which has a natural curvature.  Keep in mind that there are hundreds of different kung fu styles and some of their principals differ from our school’s, including this principle.  At our school, you are to push your stances as low while maintaining a relaxed, perpendicular spine.  There are other aspects of posture, such as:

  • Shoulders are relaxed and not raised.  Any tension in them is released.
  • Chest has no tension and is not overly extended.  There is no rigidity in the upper torso.
  • Chin is not extended out and head is raised upward.
  • Lower back must be relaxed and not bent forward or back.

Outside of the school, slumping over tells people around you a great deal.  Poor posture is typically a sign of low energy, poor self-esteem, and a general lack of confidence.  Simply put, it displays weakness which is something potential aggressors innately recognize and use when deciding who they should prey upon.  On the other hand, proper posture – indicating strength and confidence – can thwart potential aggression.

Of course, posture is no substitute for fighting skill, which can only be gathered through hundreds and thousands of hours of intense, proper training.  However, it is interesting to think that proper posture is needed to develop fighting skill, yet it is also helpful to prevent fighting in the first place!

Three Basic Powers of Chin-Na

The three basic powers of chin-na, using sticky hand techniques are:

1.  Apply the movement in a sudden, quick way so as to surprise the attacker while also breaking both their balance and mental, physical concentration of their attack.

2.  If the attacker tries to counter or make an adjustment to the movement, then more power is to be applied.  Enough so that the attacker is not only physically disadvantaged, but shouldn’t even be able to fix their eyes on the defender.

3.  Executing the technique in an overpowering and complete way.  This would not only disable the attacker’s counter movement or resistance, but usually damage their body as well.  This includes tearing muscles and/or tendons, as well as severely damaging or breaking joints.

Chin-na techniques are excellent control movements that can be used to deal with any type of attacker.  The first two powers are designed not only to stop an attacker, but also to insure the defender isn’t harmed as well.  The third power can be applied anytime.  But it must be kept in mind that it will most likely result in severe and permanent damage to the attacker.