Re-Post: Mastering the Pull-up

Combine these with push-ups and you'll hardly need a gym

If you want to improve your appearance and boost your confidence, there is no substitute for building muscle.  The good news is a man can build muscle at any age, and you don’t need a gym membership or even a set of weights to do it.  If you’re healthy enough to exercise — and if you say you’re healthy enough, I believe you, but check it with your doctor — the express lane to building your upper body is the overhand grip, dead hang pull-up.

Power to the people. This is the grip I recommend for pull-ups

Power to the people.
This is the grip I recommend for pull-ups. Note the position of the thumb

Prospective Marine Corps officer candidates have to pass regular physical fitness tests.  To obtain a perfect score, a candidate has to run three miles in 18 minutes or less, complete 100 sit-ups within two minutes, and complete 20 pull-ups with strict form.  When my son went through the candidate selection process, he had no trouble with the run or the sit-ups, but to get him up to speed in pull-ups, the officer selection officer told him to look up the Armstrong Pull-up Program  and do it.

Although I had done wide-grip pull-ups during my college years, I had let them go by the wayside.  To help encourage my son, I decided to follow the Armstrong plan myself.  I had no idea how it would go, but I promised my son that as long as he kept at it, I would stay on the program.


I began on a Monday, doing three, maximum-effort sets of push-ups in the morning and attempting the prescribed five maximum-rep sets that evening.  Unfortunately for me, the pull-up bar fell out of the doorway during my first set.  I fell — thought I had broken my elbow. Annoyed, I walked it off and started again.  My first official five sets on the program yielded the following repetitions: 3-2-2-1-1 for an impressive (I’m being facetious) total of 9 pull-ups.

I kept my word to my son, and over time reached the point where I could complete 20+ pull-ups in a single set.  Not bad for a man in his late 40’s.  And in the ensuing years, I have maintained a consistent commitment to pull-ups, making sure I complete 50 or more per workout two or three times a week.

Are You Bragging, Viejo?

Not at all.  I’m telling you this so that you, in your youth, will abandon your excuses and get moving.  If I was able to start with a one-set maximum of three and work to the point where I could do 20 (and sometimes more) pull-ups in a single set, you can, too.

Tips Welcome

Here’s a quick list of things I learned on the way to achieving my goal:

  • A permanently installed bar is less likely to fall with you on it.  Ask me how I know.
  • Let your thumbs rest on top of the bar, rather than wrapping around.  Grip with your fingers. See the photo.
  • Keep your shoulders in their sockets — i.e., Shoulders Back and Down (SBD)  — especially at the bottom of every rep.
  • Exhale on the exertion – that is, on the way up.
  • Let your back, rather than your arms, do the work.  This is important — physically and mentally.
  • Look where you want to go (up and over the bar)
  • Clench your glutes.
  • Don’t allow your body to swing or bounce
  • Unless you’re into CrossFit, don’t lurch or kip up.  These are dead hang pull-ups.
  • Use varied grip widths and types (narrow, wide, overhand, underhand) from workout to workout.
  • Keep written records to gauge your progress.

Bonus tip: Enlist a buddy to keep you on track.

So how about you? What are you doing to improve your fitness and your confidence?  What help do you need to get started?  Add your comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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