Pull-ups: an origin story

When hanging out becomes your secret identity

I tried a new neighbourhood gym the other day. It was terrible.

The space was great: large and airy overlooking one of London’s old docks, where men once lifted large weights as livelihood not lifestyle. But the layout, the design, the whole concept behind the place was stuck in the 80s. It wasn’t so much a gym, more your elected representative’s idea of what a gym should look like.

Every square metre was packed with machines. Around a hundred of them, all those steppers and walkers and pushers any fitness trainer knows don’t work. Barely a patch of mat big enough to stretch on. And — unforgivably — not a single horizontal bar above head height.

So I’ve started doing bar work. Not because the market for advertising writers has imploded — I mean spending quality time with one of these.

Put that doorframe to good use

Because in the urban jungle, opportunities to hang aren’t obvious until you start looking for them. And let’s face it — on your way to work, do you want to wreck your hands on that rusty scaffold? Risk septicaemia from a barbed-up branch? You’ll get calluses no matter what, but it’s better to get them from something you know where it’s been.

I like street workout as much as anyone, but there was no avoiding it: I needed a bar at home.

That meant a doorframe pull-up bar — the only kind most city-dwellers will have room for. They encapsulate a surprising amount of engineering know-how, and there are a few rules to follow so you won’t get hurt. Just remember they stay in place due to lateral forces, not vertical; your weight pulling downwards converts to the contact patches that snuggle each side of your door pushing towards each other horizontally, holding the bar in place the way you’d lift a book between your palms.

That means no jumping, joggling, or swinging on the bar, and definitely no holding it by the vertical grips at the back; such actions will de-load the forces that hold it in place and send it — and you — crashing floorwards. Also check its creds: there are plenty of cheap knockoffs around, many of which won’t take the weight of an adult male. As long as you spend more than $30 or so on a decent brand name, you’re good to go.

Bring back hanging

Pulls from a bar aren’t that different to squats or pushups, right? Wrong. They’re harder — much harder. In the overfed West, just 1% of adult males can complete a full pull-up with strict form.

The ability to lift your bodyweight against gravity makes you a rarity in the developed world. Since work became more about keyboarding than carrying, our hands and arms have atrophied. Men who can bang out a set of 30 push-ups still have trouble first time on the bar; lifters who routinely press and snatch twice their mass in the weights room strain to even bend their arms from a dead hang. If you’re starting from scratch, the pull-up bar is intimidating, demotivating, a source of frustration and fear.

Here’s why you should persevere. It’s about balance.

Balance on your back

Arguably, just three exercises are enough to maintain muscular strength and endurance: some sort of squat, some sort of push, and some sort of pull. Yet countless workouts ignore the “pull” one.

Most fitness programmes work the part of the body you see in a mirror, or the anterior chain. They’re about pushing. Pushups, bench presses, most weights. But while the pecs and abs are all very well, such work plays down the biggest muscle in the meat puppet: the lattismus dorsi. A giant butterfly-shape spanning either side of your spine. It’s the muscle that let our arboreal ancestors climb trees fast. And it’s developed by pulling.

Working the lats balances up the front and back of your body, supports your torso, futureproofs your spine. In the modern man it’s severely weakened. Which is why so many suffer chronic back pain and are prone to pulled muscles. We’ve lost our lats.

Pull-ups bring the balance back.

Starting without disenheartening

But for those 99 out of 100 Western males who’d start blubbing if told to grip a bar with straight arms and pull it to their chest, jumping in with both feet — rather, both hands — is likely to put them off for life. So whatever you do, don’t make your first pull a full dead hang. It might take months before you can lift your full bodyweight; it’s something you need to work up to.

There’s always a bar around

What’s the pathway? There are several. Lie under your desk and grip its edge, pulling yourself up just thirty degrees or so from horizontal; hang from your bar with your feet resting on a chair, to take part of the weight off; keep your arms bent until your elbow joints strengthen and your back learns to pitch in. (Two great books are Convict Conditioning and Raising the Bar.) Keep a training log and write down your numbers each day.

The human animal responds to resistance gratifyingly quickly if you’re out of condition; you’ll see big results fast. Enjoy the journey.

Hanging out at the bar

Once you’ve worked through the pathway of progressive resistance far enough to turn a single struggling rep into a smooth set, you’d think it’d be empowering. And it is. But here’s the bonus: it’s so much more than that.

Beyond badass functional strength, the benefits accrue to mind as well as body. When your body is your barbell, and you make a habit of lifting yourself vertically many times a day, you feel… different. As if gravity has lost its tyranny over you. You feel lighter, calmer, happier. As if you can do anything.

All you’ve done is complete yourself, reset your body to the functional abilities it evolved for. But you’ll feel the world no longer has the same hold over you. It’s like having your own little superpower.

(As an aside, pull-up numbers are also a great actionable metric. They show you why that 2kg of stomach blubber needs to go, give you a reason to practice more and eat less. Your back acquires steel springs under the skin; your spine feels bombproof; your grip becomes monstrous. And when you learn how closely grip correlates with lifespan, that matters.)

After a few short sets each day, your body starts singing to you. And the album goes on longer than 70s stadium rock.

You’ll leave the house each morning ready to take on the world, crackling with energy and feeling unstoppable. All from reaching up and pulling. Pulling balances you, joins the parts of you together. Completes you.

Start pulling up. And you’ll never look down.

London copywriter Chris Worth creates campaigns, content, and collateral for technology and finance marketers. His several articles on Medium focus on health; he’s into calisthenics, kettlebells, and Kindle. His guide to making a six-figure income as a freelancer, 100 Days, 100 Grand, is approaching completion. Contact him here or hire him here.