A cheap and discreet piece of exercise equipment that I think everyone ought to have in their home is a pull-up bar and my reason for that may surprise you.
If you are like me, you probably use your hands for the same types of activities most days. Things like typing on the computer, writing notes in a notebook, and occasionally spreading some avocado on a piece of sourdough toast. Even in our exercise activities we generally are grabbing the same types of items. Like the handlebars on your bike, the bar on a dumbbell, the handle on a kettlebell, and so on. Not particularly diverse in their grabbing, are they?
One of the biggest challenges we face in our movement lives is avoiding too much repetition. A little repetition is OK (and helps us build resilience) but too much and we not only run the risk of injury but we also leave many body parts unmoved. And yes, breaking that repetition can be hard to do in our work lives—many of our jobs are quite repetitious by design—but at least we can try to avoid it in our workout lives.
One obvious way to do that is to increase the weight that we're lifting in a particular manner or particular direction so that we can get stronger. The problem with that is, you’re still only strengthening yourself in that one way; you’re not making more of your body strong. But another way is to completely adjust and perhaps even reverse the way that we are using parts of our body. For example, if you are more of a lifter, perhaps you should become a hanger!
The Pull-Up Bar
With a pull-up bar at home, I do pull-ups, chin-ups, and hand-over-hand dangling whenever I need a break.
That is exactly why I encourage you to consider getting a pull-up bar for a doorway in your home. With a bar at home (in the doorway to my office), I do pull-ups, chin-ups, and hand-over-hand dangling whenever I need a break, want to think, or my Apple Watch "overlord" tells me that it is time to move.
Don't worry if you haven't done a pull-up in years (or ever). I understand that starting this activity as an adult takes more than just simply buying a bar and doing it. After all, we have all spent years creating tension in our shoulder, neck, and arms that has likely led to patterns of wear on our ligaments and also some muscle atrophy (the old "use it or lose it" deal).
Now, none of this means that you should stop reading and go hit the couch. Heck no! I'm just saying that most people will need to give their body some love before they install the bar and start doing their best impression of a chimp.
How to Start Using Pull-Up Bars
Before you start dangling, swinging, and pulling up:
- Your hands are probably weak (sorry). If so, check out the article How to Increase Your Grip Strength.
- Don't jump right into swinging or pulling, first just hang. Even if that means you keep your feet (lightly) on the ground.
- It is important to learn how to hang with your shoulders down and your shoulder blades rotated back and down. This will help you activate the correct muscles and not hurt yourself.
Stuff to keep in mind if you are new or haven't done this in a while:
- Play with your grip to see which one is easier and which one is harder.
- Practice the harder one.
- After a while, you can start applying more of your weight to the exercise.
- When you feel confident, try taking your feet off the ground.
- Try changing the shape of the bar by wrapping a towel around it or removing any hand grips that came with the bar. See which width is harder.
- Practice the harder one.
- Once you are able to hang for longer (feet off the ground), you can start to swing.
- Be gentle at first and keep an eye on your shoulders. Keep them down and back, not up by your ears. This will help you keep the load off of your ligaments and put it on the muscles that we want to work instead.
I wouldn't be the Get-Fit Guy if I didn't give you some pointers on how to do a pull-up, would I?
Going back to where we started, as far as simply switching up the way we use our hands (and incidentally our arms, shoulders, back, and core) and also breaking the repetitive movement cycle we often get stuck in, you don't need to go any further. But I wouldn't be the Get-Fit Guy if I didn't give you some pointers on how to do a pull-up, would I?
Learn To Do a Pull-Up
- Keep the bar low (around shoulder height) so you can keep your feet on the ground throughout the entire pull-up. If that is not possible, put a chair under the bar that you can stand on.
- Do as many "self-assisted pull-ups" as you can, then rest for 60 to 90 seconds, and go again. Do three to five sets like this a few times a week.
- Make sure you are always challenging yourself by switching the load from your legs to your arms more and more. Remember that the best and fastest way to build a muscle is to use it to failure, let it recover, and take it to failure again.
- After a few weeks, move the bar up high (or move the chair out of the way) and attempt a full body weight pull-up. Don't be deterred if you can't do one, simply adjust the bar back down and return to the plan.
- Once you can do three full body weight pull-ups, move the bar up to proper height and banish the chair. You are on your own now.
- Stick to the same schedule as before but do five sets of as many pull-ups as you can. Even if the last set (or two) are a single pull-up. You will start to see gains faster and faster now.
- Keep at it—and remember that your chin must clear the bar for it to be a real pull-up.
Keep Challenging Yourself
Now that you have a pull-up bar in your house and you know how to use it, make sure that you keep it interesting. Vary your hand positions and vary the surfaces you hang from (I look for any chance I can to dangle from a tree). Holding a thicker bar changes the load and also requires a different strength profile than holding a thin one. Every thickness, angle, or texture that you are hanging from uses different motor units and puts a unique (and useful) load on your body. And after all, varying the way we use our body is the reason we started this whole journey.
The most important thing of all, if you are strong in one way, change what you are doing to make it harder—and I don't just mean adding more weight or more reps. Think of it this way: if you were a chimpanzee, moving through nature, it's unlikely that you would find the same size branch or vine twice. So, be like George and stay curious in your dangling, swinging, and pull-up-ing adventures.