If you've ever tried a pullup, you know it's not an easy thing.
And when you see guys doing it at the gym, one after the other, it's even more discouraging -- who wants to try (and struggle) to do just one in front of a bunch of ripped people who regularly pull out sets of 20?
It's understandable to be intimidated, but that would be a bad call, according to BJ Gaddour, the fitness director at Men's Health and a certified strength and conditioning specialist who created its 21-Day MetaShred program.
"It works all of your back and gripping muscles, plus your abs and glutes," Gaddour told HuffPost. "To do them correctly, you need to create total body tension and make your body one integrated unit. Pullups work a lot of muscles -- a great core workout -- which increases your metabolic rate, as well."
We interviewed Gaddour about why pullups are so hard, how to start doing them if you can't do one, and why they might be harder for women than men (it's about weight distribution).
Why are pullups and chinups SO HARD?
Not only are you pulling up your entire bodyweight, but you are doing so in free space from a dead hang, which requires a lot of muscle activation and core stability. This is not the case with seated machine exercises for the back like lat pull downs, where your body is in a much more stable environment (that said, lat pull downs are a great way to build up your pulling muscles so that your body is structurally prepared to take on the rigors of pullups).
Why are they usually referred as one of the best upper body workouts?
Unlike pushups, where you are only using 60 to 70 percent of your bodyweight, pullups require you to lift every pound you’ve got. This provides a greater strength and muscle building stimulus. Plus, pullups work the chest, too. The best results will come from pairing pushups and pullups for a balance of pushing and pulling movements.
How can someone start to master them, if they want to get from zero to 10?
In the beginning, if you can’t do any, start by just getting comfortable with being able to hang from the bar with straight arms. Sixty seconds is a good goal. You can also start building strength with assisted pullups using a band or your legs for assistance on the way up and down. There are assisted pullup machines in most gyms. Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups, also serve as a great gateway move. You’re pulling less of your overall body weight and the stability demands aren’t as high.
From there, adding in isometric holds at the top of the pullup in addition to eccentric reps (where you cheat up and slowly lower for at least 3 to 5 seconds) are exactly what the doctor ordered. Together, these moves will build the strength and stability you need to be able to pull your whole bodyweight up without assistance.
And why are pullups harder for women to do than men?
Women tend to thrive and put more focus on lower body exercises -- squats, lunges and hip thrusts -- to develop their thighs and glutes; more of their weight is distributed. And men tend to thrive and focus on upper body exercises. For anyone, the key to pullups is practice and consistent, progressive training.
Still want to give it a try?
Here's how to do a pullup in three steps:
1. Grab a pullup bar with an overhand grip a little wider than your shoulders. Your arms should be completely straight, so that you're totally hanging by your arms.
2. Without moving your lower body, slowly pull yourself up until the top of your chest reaches the bar and your chin is above it.
3. Pause, then lower yourself down until your arms are straight again.
Repeat as many times as you can.