“I find I’ve got a lot of strength in my legs but I can never manage a pull up…”

Hey Everyone, I hope you are happening to your week in a positive way.

I have had an interesting question from one of my StrengthRocks BootCamp team members, thank you Jeroen.

Jeroen’s question is;

“balance between upper and lower body. I find I’ve got a lot of strength in my legs but I can never manage a pull up…”

I’m going to give my response to this and hopefully as with everything in life this will lead to more questions to further our knowledge and goal setting.

Upper and Lower body – what are we designed for? We have evolved to get around on our legs and generally do more fine controlled movements with our arms/ hands. Therefore if you asked a Thai boxer to perform ten kicks as fast he could perform ten punches he would tax his bodies energy systems much more quickly. Equally if you asked him to punch as hard as he could kick, he would struggle.

If you consider your body weight, the whole caboodle, bits that digest your food, holds you together and looks good when you moisturise etc! You are a dead weight! Your lower body has evolved, is used more everyday and generally designed to shift the wonderful lumps that we all are around. Initially our lower body is simply more adapted to heavier weight bearing movements.

Strength – A definition of strength is “the ability to withstand or exert great force, stress, or pressure”* but for what … our bodies are wonderfully adaptable and strength for a rock climber will mean something different to a cross country skier.

Specificity – It is key in defining our goals that we are specific in our goal setting to ensure that we design an appropriate system to achieving them. Think aforementioned rock climber and cross country skier trying to get “stronger” for their event.

Strength to weight ratio – from experience I can perform a hell of a lot more pull ups the lighter I am (or the less tubs I’m carrying). If you consider a small sports car will have a much higher strength to weight ratio than a truck with a larger engine. The same applies to us humans, a midway goal on the route to an un-assisted pull up may be to lose 20+lbs!

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The Pull Up – This all being said that is why the pull up is such an awesome exercise and goal to work towards. It is a bar against which a barometer of strength is set and can mean the same for tall people, small people, men and women. It’s about persistence and grit, how many times can you haul your bodyweight to the bar under control? Been in a Gym recently, how often and for how long is the pull up bar busy!?

If you talk to strength athletes and body builders you would find the Pull Up in the top 10, if not top 5 of their exercises, amongst the Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press etc. Strictly speaking I would class the Pull Up as a compound back exercise with the main muscle worked in an overhand pull up being the latimous dorsi a large muscle located on your back. Compound because it works muscles across more than one joint and gives a lot more ground for your pound (my take on “bang for your buck”) for those on a tight schedule.

So you want to Pull Up?

As I mentioned the Pull Up is no gentle animal and as such needs a strategic approach to taming this awesome beast. Among others the below exercises are what I adopt for a client who is completely de-conditioned to an exercise such as the Pull Up.

Dead – Hang

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  • The dead hang – simply grip the bar at just wider than shoulder width and lower yourself to a complete hang and hold for 30 seconds. 5 sets x 2 mins rest between sets.
    1. Top tips – squeeze the bar tight, it’ll help!
    2. Top tips – imagine you’re the hulk and try to bend the bar in half, this will encourage you to adopt the correct position to Pull Up.
  • The Assisted Pull Up – Attach a heavy resistance band to the bar and stand or kneel on it. Complete full pull ups. 6-10 repetitions 5 sets x 2 minutes rest between sets.
    1. Top tip – complete under control with no bounce!
    2. Top tip – Focus on pulling using you back muscles and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
  • The Negative Pull Up – either use a bench or jump into the top of a Pull Up and as slowly as possible lower yourself to the dead hang position. 6-10 repetitions 5 sets x 2 minutes rest between sets.
    1. Top Tip – Once on the bar you’ll agree the pull up is a “long exercise”, if you feel particularly weak at any stage of it, focus on this area, By this I mean you could focus on lowering more slowly for the top, mid or particularly the bottom third of the exercise.

The Lat Pull Down machine – This as it suggests works the latimus dorsi and closely mimics the pull up. It is useful as the weight can be adjusted as you become stronger. However I would not recommend using it if full pull ups are a mid/short term goal. The position on this machine is different to the Pull Up and the key thing about a pull up is that it is a technical movement not just a sheer power exercise. Get on the bar a get a feel for your challenge. Master this exercise and you’ll have the confidence of a “strong individual” and the physique to match.

Warm Ups & Injuries – The Pull Up is an intense exercise and I would recommend that anyone with any shoulder pain or pre-existing injury approach this exercise with the respect it deserves. By all means get a fitness professional to assess you current ability and readiness to embark on this challenge. Everyone, I mean all of you, should also warm up before approaching this exercise.

Pull Up Club – I will be running a “pop-up” Pull Up club taster on Wednesday 16th August 6-7am. Spaces are limited to 10 participants and I will need 5 to run this session. – The session will cost £10 for non-members (StrengthRocks Members go free). Get in touch to register your interest below (you’ll also receive my future fitness blogs).

Takeaway – Best of luck, I hope to see you pulling up soon, by all means like, comment or share this post if you think it useful.

* http://www.dictionary.com/browse/strength

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