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.
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.
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.