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Pull-Ups: The Upper Body Deadlift



If you've ever been in the gym while myself or my clients are training, or you've ever worked with me remotely, you will know that I treat the pull-up/chin-up (just pull-up from here on) as a top priority. For us, it is one of our "main lifts".


It is not uncommon for someone in the gym that is unfamiliar with my programming to comment, "you really like pull-ups don't you?".


Yes...yes I do.


And not the partial rep, chin never gets over the bar bro reps. I mean full range, controlled eccentric, total body control pull-ups.


Why do I love pull-ups?


1. You can't hide being weak


Maybe this first one is a bit harsh, but it is the cold hard truth. You will not see a weak person doing a full range, properly executed pull-up. You can hand a weak person an empty bar and do bench press, overhead press, squat, and deadlift, and teach them to do it with perfect form. Those tend to be the most popular "MAIN LIFTS", but there is no pre-requisite of being STRONG in order to do them.


I can hear the backlash already...


"What about the big, overweight strong guy that can squat 600+lb but can't do a pull-up!"


I"m sorry, but that guy is strong at that lift, and I'm sure many others, but in my personal opinion, he is weak overall. I realize that bodyweight is the limitation here, but that makes him relatively weak. You will not impress me as much with a 2-3x bodyweight squat and not be able to do a 1x bodyweight pull-up.


"What about the skinny guy that weighs 150lb!? Surely you don't consider him strong for doing a pull-up!"


Actually, yes I do. It is all relative. He still had to hoist his 1x bodyweight above a bar. People LOVE to set these bodyweight multipliers as standards for the barbell lifts (i.e., 2x bodyweight Bench, 2.5x bodyweight squat, 3x bodyweight deadlift, etc). So why not reward the smaller individual for a standard of strength that many people cannot achieve? And chances are, this individual will very soon, if not already, be performing respectable barbell weights for his bodyweight if he's already performing pull-ups well.


How do you win the best overall lifter in most competitions? They calculate weight lifted per pound of bodyweight. Also known as RELATIVE STRENGTH, not absolute strength. They don't give out the best award for being the absolute strongest.


2. It is a primitive movement


You might also call it a "natural", "functional", or "foundational" movement. All of these essentially meaning the same thing, and that is that they are often movements that humans explore during developmental years. You could also categorize them as exercises that require minimal to no equipment to perform.


Truthfully, I hate all of these terms. All exercise and movement has it's place and can be deemed functional, and will have some degree of carryover to other activities, but there's just something so natural about a pull-up.


From an early age, kids can be seen playing on monkey bars, trees, even their dad's arms, trying to climb and pull themselves up. It really doesn't require a great deal of mobility or coaching cues. Grab the bar and pull yourself up. Obviously, there are cues for fine-tuning things, and sometimes some mobility limitations, but ultimately, there's not that much to it.


This goes right along with the deadlift being quite natural. Bend over, pick it up. You do this from the day you begin walking. I can't say the same about the bench press or barbell squat. Is squatting natural? Yes. But squatting with a heavily loaded bar on your back, no. Is pressing natural? Yes. But pushing a weight vertically while lying on your back? Not so much.


I love all of these lifts, and my clients train them all, but if you are not competing in a sport that requires them, I would prioritize the more "natural" movements above others more often than not.


3. Pull-ups encourage better body compositions


Did you know that pull-ups cause fat loss? Ha. Would be cool, though, wouldn't it?


But if you wish to perform pull-ups, and perform them well, it is going to require having a favorable body composition. That doesn't mean being shredded or anything. But you are going to have an extremely difficult time performing them if you are carrying around much excess fat, no matter how strong you are. And what do we know about body composition and excess body fat? It's one of the absolute best predictors of disease.


So when someone decides that they want to be able to perform a pull-up, one of the first goals they set is to drop the excess body fat. And there's very few situations where I would deem this a bad idea.


4. More Muscle


The pull-up is a compound movement, meaning that it targets multiple muscles at one. In fact...it is quite a few, including the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, teres major, subscapularis, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus, external oblique, and erector spinae.


Woah.


I know that people primarily do pull ups as a lat exercise and sometimes even a biceps exercise, but most people had no clue that it still actually targets the pecs as well! This due to the action of pulling the upper arm towards the body (think of cable flies as an example).


Along with targeting all of these these muscles, EMG analysis has shown that the pull-up, and its various grips, activated the lats and biceps more than any other rowing/curling movement.


Though EMG is not a perfect predictor of muscle gain, it is strong indicator of the muscles working most during a movement.


5. Low risk of injury


While being an extremely challenging, best bang for your buck, lift, it is also rather low risk for injury. I really don't need to dive into this too much. I can't name a single person that was performing a proper (I'm talking to you kippers!) pull up that dropped from the bar after straining a muscle. And to further make this injury proof, you can reduce the risk of overuse injury by rotating your grip position (overhand, underhand, and neutral), as well as mixing up the grip width regularly.


Takeaways

- Pull-ups require a respectable amount of relative strength to perform.

- The learning curve is small for the pull up. Grab the bar, pull yourself up.

- Can't perform a pull-up? There are no secret coaching cues for hacking it. Get stronger, and improve your body composition.

- Pull-ups are the king of building an impressive back.

- You virtually have to try to get hurt in order to have an injury.

- If you don't compete in a sport that requires the common "Big 3" main lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), I highly recommend prioritizing the pull-up as a main lift more often.


Join Springfield Strength & Conditioning and discover how to achieve your first pull-up. HINT: you can't lift chin over the bar if you can't hang or properly lower yourself from it first.

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