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The King of Upper Body Drills

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Photo: Flickr TheBuffaFamily

I think if I could do only one upper drill, this just might be it.

You get, from this one movement:

  • Strengthening of the –
    • shoulder extensors (latissimus dorsi, triceps)
    • elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, supinator, pronator teres)
    • back stabilizers (erector spinae, multifidus)
    • neck stabilizers (levator scapula, inferior and superior oblique, splenius capitus)
    • abdominals (internal, external obliques, transverse abdominus)
    • grip and hand
    • scapula muscles (lower trapezius, rhomboids)
    • shoulder rotators (posterior rotator cuff)

A lot of muscle –  let’s just say that.

And the drill….

The Pull Up

Someone will probably argue about the chin up. I never understood why it was so important to change the name of the drill based on hand position. Just so you know, a pull up is done with palms away from you and a chin up is palms facing toward you. But in Fusion, it’a all a pull up. No matter the hand position.

The ideal hand position is actually one that moves or rotates. The biceps muscle wants to not only bend your elbow but also to turn your hand up. So, to get the most out of that muscle and reduce risk of injury to your elbow, the hand should either be in a neutral position (like when you grab a hammer) or rotating. If neither of those options are available, then do a pull up with the hands facing away. If you do them with

Perfect Pull Up device

the hands facing you, you’ve really compromised the biceps and you’re much more likely to overload the elbow as well as the shoulder.

There was a product on the market called the Perfect Pull Up (image) which had rotating handles. Unfortunately, the manufacturer recalled it because the handles had a tendency to crack and people fell. Lawsuits galore.

How to Do a Pull Up

A lot of people can’t do pull ups. The drill is too hard.

I used to be one of those people.

When I first started Fusion, I couldn’t do one pull up. So if you can’t do one, what do you do?

Well, first you have to either check your ego or your fear.

For men, it’s usually ego. Women, fear.

Your ego will tell you to keep trying at the same load because someone you know or someone you see in a magazine or on TV, can do X number of pull ups and you convince your self you should too.

Or, you’re afraid you’ll get hurt which is of course much more reasonable than the first issue.

In any event, the key to making your body change, get stronger, more fit, is to match your tolerance for the task with the load of the task. Lower the load so you can do the drill.

So, in my case, I had to somehow, magically lose about 80 lbs of body weight (and the reason I know this is I went to a local gym where they had a pull-up assist machine and I figured out how much help I needed, in lbs, to do 10 pull ups and feel a high level of fatigue but not feel like my arms were going to fall off).

But most of you probably won’t have access to this kind of machine.

Here are some options:

  • If you have a pull up bar, buy some super bands
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    You can see me use one in the video below. This is how I started. I used the heaviest band they made. This made completing sets of pull ups possible with the right intensity.
  • If you can’t or won’t buy the super bands, use a sturdy chair to stand on and start with the lowering phase of the drill first. You can always lower more weight than you can lift. If needed, you can leave one leg on the chair to assist you.
  • If you don’t have a pull up bar, buy one. I like this one the most
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  • If you won’t or can’t buy a pull up bar, try placing a thick dowel (1-2″) about three feet long across two sturdy chairs. Lie underneath the dowel and then straighten your legs. Pull your self up close to the dowel. Now you’re pulling only a fraction of your weight.

We also use the Total Gym or a Total Trainer

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. Both of these tools offer a pull up bar attachment and permit below body weight loads.

Arm and Hand Position

Your grip should be, as I mentioned earlier, close to neutral (and rotating grip is ideal) and about shoulder width apart. The reason for this is to take advantage of the muscle mechanics of the shoulder. With a more neutral (palms almost facing each other), the larger muscles of the back and shoulder are in optimal position to spare the smaller, stabilizer muscles (rotator cuff). 

Avoid hanging or “bouncing” at the bottom point of the pull up motion. In this position, without the muscles contracted, you run a higher risk of injuring the shoulder ligaments.

Lean back a bit, arching the back some, and then pull up concentrating on pulling the bar to you (this helps your larger back muscles kick in). Lower yourself down slowly but again, don’t bounce or hand at the end.

The pull up is a great drill but you should match your load with your capacity and make sure you use optimal mechanics.

Doug Kelsey, PT, PhD

We all can learn from each other so don’t be shy about speaking up. If you have a different perspective, agree, disagree – weigh in.

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  • skipwalker

    Hey Doug, what’s the difference between doing an assisted pull up and using a lat pulldown machine, e.g. something like http://trainmuscles.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/pro-dual-lat-mid-row675l.jpg

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    Is it simply a matter that the pull up requires more use of the various stabilizer muscles versus a seated machine?


  • DK

    Hi Skip –

    Good question. A couple things. One is that the loads are generally higher in the assisted pull up (even though it’s assisted, for example in my case, I’m still pulling up with well over 150lbs of force) than in a pull down. And you’re right, with a pull up your body is essentially swinging in space and you have to control it. If someone can’t do a pull up and has access to a pull down machine, it’s a reasonable place to start. But, you can’t pull you full body weight on a pull down (unless you’re anchored to it) because you’ll lift off. And, there’s always the issue of carry over – meaning you might be able to pull, say, 80% body weight on a pull down yet when you match the load on a pull up (assisted), you might not be able to do it. Reason is the muscles used to help hold you in space aren’t trained in the same way on a machine.

  • http://fusionperformancetraining.com/deconstructing-single-leg-squat/ The Triple Play: Deconstructing the Single Leg Squat – FusionPerformanceTraining – Get Your Body Armor On.

    [...] written before about the King of the upper body drills. Now we’ll tackle the King of the lower [...]

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