Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Pull-Ups Shouldn’t Stop at Your Chin

I remember first learning about pull-ups during the physical fitness tests back in grade school. A repetition only counted if your chin went above the bar so there was lot of neck craning and leg kicking during those gym class pull-ups. When scrawny kids are only trying to beat their friends, they don’t care about form or the benefits of exercise.

As adults, pull-ups are no longer a mandatory activity (unless you’re in the military), and are a great way to build strength and functionality. Despite the change in goals, we often stick to doing them the way we first learned them, stopping with the chin just above the bar. While still effective, I would argue that this isn’t the most effective use of your time and effort.

Instead of artificially stopping with the chin just above bar-level, why not keep going? A chin-level pull-up is actually less than half of the range of motion that our arms are capable of. You can actually keep pulling higher until your lower chest is at bar-level. As you can imagine, this is even more difficult, which means a better workout for your muscles, and more bang for your workout time.

But it doesn’t stop there. If you keep going up, the movement transitions from mostly pulling to a pushing movement. That means you can work on even more muscle groups with the same exercise! At the very top, you’ll be supporting your body weight on the bar with your arms straight down, just like the top of a dip. This combined pull-push movement is called a muscle-up. When done in a controlled manner (little swinging or momentum), you can develop great strength throughout the entire range of motion with this exercise alone.

I emphasize the importance of relying on momentum as little as possible since that works your target muscles maximally and imparts the most strength building benefit. Just as in grade school, going quickly, kicking, or kipping like you often see in CrossFit may help you notch a couple more reps but that doesn’t maximize the strength-building benefits for your time spent.

Besides looking cool and being more time efficient, muscle-up training imparts more functionality. Training this combined pull-push movement erases the strength gap that most people have when they are transitioning between pulling and pushing. This means better performance for many sports. For those of you who like more extreme sports, it’s also quite handy if you ever find yourself hanging off a building or cliff and need to climb up.

So, the next time you do pull-ups, don’t stop at the chin. Keep going up as high as you can. You may not be able to do as many repetitions this way but you’ll gain more benefit in less workout time.

For the best muscle-up I've seen to date, check out the video of Olympic gymnast Andreas Aguilar below. The applause is definitely well-deserved!


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