This past Saturday I took the #4 train into Brooklyn for the annual 5B’s Pull-up Jam at Lincoln Terrace Park.
Unlike last year’s contest, however, I didn’t enter the actual competition. This time I just went to hang out, be a part of the good vibes and of course, get my reps in.
As always, there was lots of good energy, good conversation and of course, “good money!”
While the contest was happening in one part of the park, a crowd gathered near another set of bars for an informal freestyle exhibition. A lot of big names from the extreme calisthenics community were on hand to represent. There was no shortage of pull-ups, muscle-ups, levers and many other advanced moves.
All in all, everyone had a good time and a great workout. Thanks to all who entered and attended, and especially to everyone behind the scenes who made this event so much fun!
I’ve met a lot of women who didn’t think it would ever be possible for them to do a single pull-up.
The good news is that I’ve gotten many of them to break through that barrier and achieve their first rep – and in most cases, many more!
If you can’t do a pull-up yet, don’t get discouraged – there are a few things you can do to work your way up to that first one.
Chin It To Win It
Pull-ups can be done with many different grips, though it’s usually best for beginners to start out with an underhand (chin-up) grip, as this will allow you to utilize your biceps more.
Though the muscles of the upper back have the potential to become incredibly powerful, your arms are more likely to be developed and will be able to compensate in the meantime. With enough practice, the disparity between grips can start to even out.
As I mentioned in my original guide to learning to do a pull-up, holding a flex hang (the top position of a pull-up) for time is a great way to start building toward your first full pull-up. Begin with an underhand grip and focus on keeping your whole body tight. Don’t just use your arms! Tense your abs, legs and everything else.
At first you may only be able to hold this position for a few seconds. This is fine. With practice, you can eventually work to a 30 second hold, at which point you will be close to your first pull-up.
The term “negative pull-up” refers to the lowering phase of the exercise and is a fantastic way to get a feel for the movement pattern of the full pull-up, without having to perform the entire range of motion.
Jump or use assistance to get your chin over the bar, then hold the top position for as long as you can. When your arms start to fatigue, lower yourself to a right angle at your elbow and hold there. From here, slowly lower yourself to a full hang.
Just like an assisted pull-up is easier than the free-hanging variety, the Australian pull-up will allow you to train a similar movement pattern without having to bear your full weight.
The Australian pull-up will also get you used to keeping your core engaged, which is a key aspect of performing pull-ups.
Start out hanging below a bar that’s about waist height with your legs extended so you form a straight line from your head to your heels. Grip tightly and brace your entire body as you pull your chest toward the bar, then lower yourself back to the bottom with control.
To make the Aussie pull-up more accessible to beginners, you can use a bar that is chest height instead of waist height, which will allow for more favorable leverage.
You don’t need to spend money on a gym membership or any fancy fitness gear to get in shape. You can actually get great workouts with no equipment at all. The only thing you need to get fit is the desire to better yourself and the ability to take action. If you are looking to get some equipment, however, the best thing you could buy (or build) is a standard pull-up bar.
Nothin’ but Bar
You could seriously train every muscle in your upper-body just by doing pull-ups, muscle-ups and dips on a straight bar – no other equipment is needed. As for your legs, you don’t even need a bar! Just doing lots of squats and lunges will make them strong and toned. If you decide to up the ante, pistol squats hit every part of your lower body as well as your core muscles. And if those get too easy for you, try doing pistol squats standing on a pull-up bar.
I don’t typically share specific workout routines here on the blog, but today is an exception! Here are three simple workouts that you can do with nothing but a pull-up bar:
This workout is based on a pyramid training scheme and it will work every single muscle in your body – including your heart! Start by performing one squat, then immediately grab an overhead bar and do one pull-up, then drop down and do a push-up. Next do two squats, two pull-ups and two push-ups. Continue to add one rep to each exercise until you fail to get through the circuit. Then start taking one rep away and work your way back down. Try to keep your rest time to a minimum. If you’re not strong enough to do push-ups or pull-ups, feel free to substitute knee push-ups and Australian pull-ups in their place.
Don’t be fooled by the name – though the emphasis of this workout is on the abs, obliques and lower back, it hits every muscle in your body!
First warm up by holding a plank for one minute. The rest of the workout consists of ten hanging leg raises (or hanging knee raises), ten back bridges (perform the back bridges with a two second hold at the top), then a 30 second side plank hold on each side. Try to get through this workout without any breaks (though you may stop to rest as needed). Feel free to repeat the sequence two or three times.
This is an advanced workout that’s not for the faint of heart! It doesn’t take very long, but you’ll need to be strong to even try this one. Area 51 starts with one muscle-up on a straight bar. Once you’re over the bar, stay up top and do 30 dips. The next objective is to perform 20 pull-ups – all without coming off the bar. If you can get through the whole set, you will have performed 51 total reps. If you can’t do it all in one set, you may take a break in between the dips and the pull-ups and/or spread out the pull-ups into multiple sets. For the advanced trainee, area 51 can be used as a warm-up.
Watch the video below to see me performing the “Area 51” workout:
A long time ago, a client of mine asked me if I’d ever seen anyone do a one arm pull-up. I stood for a moment in silent contemplation, then lifted one hand, wrapped it around my opposite wrist and said, “ya mean like this?”
“No,” he said, “without the other hand assisting at all.”
I told him I hadn’t, adding that I didn’t think such a thing was even possible – boy was I wrong!
I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone do a one arm pull-up. It was a game-changer and now I’m a believer!
Pull-up or Chin-up
If you want to get technical about it, a pull-up is done with a pronated (overhand) grip, while a chin-up implies a supinated (underhand) grip. A lot of people find that the pull-up is a more difficult exercise – this tends to be especially true for beginners.
When you do a one arm pull-up, however, there’s a certain amount of unavoidable rotation. This is why many of the people who can perform this feat on a bar will wind up pulling towards their opposite shoulder. When a one arm pull-up is performed on gymnastic rings, the ring will simply rotate to account for this.
For me, the disparity between overhand and underhand grips seems negligible, though I’ve done so many reps of different kinds of pull-ups over years that I may have just evened it out. Besides, when someone is strong enough to pull their chin over the bar with just one arm, they’ve earned my respect; belly-aching over their hand position seems pointless.
Training for a One Arm Pull-up
Only once you can perform at least 15 consecutive dead hang pull-ups should you even consider training for this feat. Tendinitis is a bitch, so back off if you start to get pain in or around your elbows.
The following methods have helped me on my quest for the one arm pull-up, but keep in mind that these are not the only ways to train towards this feat. There are many paths that lead to the same destination–feel free to be creative!
One Arm Flex Hangs
Just like learning to do a standard pull-up, performing a flex hang (holding your body at the top of a pull-up position) with one arm is the first step towards doing a one arm pull-up. Pull yourself up using both arms, then try to stay up while you take one hand away. Squeeze your whole body tight while keeping your legs tucked in close when you’re starting out. With practice, eventually you be able to try it with your legs extended.
One Arm Negatives
The idea here is to keep your body tight and controlled while slowly lowering yourself down from a one arm flex hang. Be prepared that the first time you try to do a one arm negative you will drop very quickly. When starting out, don’t even think of it as a negative, think of it as just trying to keep yourself up. Gravity takes care of the rest. Eventually, try working up to the point where you can make a one arm negative last for ten seconds or longer.
Archer Pull-ups Archer pull-ups are a great exercise regardless of if you want to work towards a one arm pull-up or not. When performing the archer pull-up as practice for the one arm pull-up, try to do as much of the work as possible with the arm closer to you. Think of your extended arm simply as a means of giving your pulling arm assistance, so use it as little as possible – eventually you won’t need it at all. (You can also spot yourself with your secondary arm by draping a towel over the bar and holding it or grabbing the pull-up bar frame.)
The One Arm Australian Pull-up
This is a nice precursor to the OAP for the same reason that Australian pull-ups can be a gateway to pull-ups – your feet are on the ground! When attempting a one arm Australian pull-up, concentrate on engaging your abs and your back muscles–don’t just focus on using your bicep strength. Remember that when you do a one arm Australian, it’s natural for your body to roll a little bit in the direction of your pulling arm.
Just like a one arm push-up or a pistol squat, core strength plays a huge role in one arm pull-ups and chin-ups. Think about keeping your entire body tight and controlled during your one arm pull-up training. If your core is weak, you may need to do some remedial ab exercises.
Pull-up or Shut up
Talk is cheap. The one arm pull-up is an elusive move that demands patience, consistency, and dedication. You’re never gonna get one without lots of practice. The question you need to ask yourself is this: How bad do you want it?
I get lots of emails from people who’ve gone stagnant on their pull-ups asking for my advice on how to improve.
The only way to progress at pull-ups (or anything for that matter) is consistent practice. There has never been another way and there never will be.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are specific methods that can be more effective than others.
Here are a few techniques that may help you bust through a plateau:
Greasing the Groove
This technique was made famous by Pavel Tsatsouline and it is especially helpful for beginners who may still be learning to do a pull-up.
Greasing the groove simply involves doing multiple sets of an exercise throughout the day, rather than doing all your sets in succession. If you have a pull-up bar at home, you can take a workout like my 50 pull-up challenge and spread it out over the course of an entire day. A beginner, on the other hand, might grease the groove by doing a couple of flex hangs and negatives in the morning, a few more throughout the afternoon and then hit it one more time in the evening. Greasing the groove is as much about training your central nervous system to learn a movement pattern as it is about building muscle. While consistent practice is key, don’t try to do too much too soon. If you start getting pain in your joints, back off and give yourself time to recover.
A superset involves taking two exercises and performing them back-to-back with no rest. Typically the harder exercise goes first and when fatigue is reached, you switch to the easier exercise and continue repping out. By sequencing it this way, you’re essentially pushing your body beyond failure.
Try supersetting Australian pull-ups after going to failure on standard pull-ups, or do pull-ups while wearing a weight vest, then remove the vest when you reach failure and continue with just your body weight.
Pyramid Sets and The Rest/Pause Method
These old school techniques will test your body, as well as your mental fortitude. See my full articles on pyramid sets and the rest/pause method for more.
Zef’s Warm-up This is a routine that I got from Zef of the Bar-Barians. I’ve been using it recently in an attempt to increase my numbers on muscle-ups, but it’s been helping my pull-ups, too.
The routine consists of 5 muscle-ups, followed by 5 straight bar dips, then without coming down from the bar, you proceed to do 4 more muscle-ups and 4 more dips, then 3 of each, all the way down to 1 rep of each. If you can make it to the end, you’ll have done 15 muscle-ups and 15 dips, all without coming off the bar. I’ve been adding a set of pull-ups to failure at the end as well before finally dropping down to rest.
You must be willing to push your body’s limits in order to effect change and experience growth. Get creative with different patterns of super-sets, pyramid sets and anything else that you can come up with to challenge yourself. Just don’t get too hung up on chasing progress, instead try to enjoy the process.
Check out the video below for my version of Zef’s warm-up:
Last month, my brother Danny and I finally finished building his backyard pull-up bar. It wound up being a bigger project than we originally envisioned, but in the end, Danny was left with an amazing home gym.
I recently got to work out on the backyard bar during a visit to Danny’s house in Brooklyn. I’ve been trying out some advanced muscle-up techniques like plyometric clapping muscle-ups and slow, no-hands muscle-ups (technically the hands are used, but they aren’t gripping the bar), while Danny’s been continuing to practice the human flag and human flag pull-ups.
The bars in Danny’s set-up have a 2″ diameter, which is even thicker than the bars at Tompkins Square Park. The thickness of the bars adds an extra challenge to exercises like pull-ups, muscle-ups and levers, so practicing on Danny’s set-up is helping my grip strength. Training on the fat bars makes going back to standard ones feel easy.
It was a bit cold out but we still managed to heat up those bars!
There are many paths you can take when putting together a home gym. Throughout my life, I’ve owned free weights, benches, push-up bars, and a pull-up bar mounted in a doorframe. However, as we progress in fitness and life, our goals change and so do our needs. Like our bodies, our minds and creative forces need to be challenged (it just feels good to make something). So when the itch to create a home gym struck again, it was a no-brainer: a backyard pull-up bar was the only way to go.
Why Build A Backyard Pull-Up Bar?
The way I train, a door-frame or stand up (power-tower) design would not meet my needs, which include plyometrics and aggressive kipping. I needed something that could withstand hundreds of pounds of explosive force.
The basic design is a bar supported by two posts dug deep in the ground; it needs to be SOLID. The plan was to leave 8’ of pole above ground and 4’ below. I wound up going about 6” deeper for extra stability. But even within that simple layout, there are a lot of choices to make.
Wood Posts Vs. Metal Posts If you are working with wood posts, I’d recommend going no smaller than 6×6. A 2×4 is not going to cut it. Be sure to use “treated” wood (it’s the one at Home Depot with the green tint.) It’s worth the extra money to have something that will stand the test of time. Be aware that you’ll have to purchase circular metal flanges to affix the bar to the wood. These flanges range from $8-$20 depending on the style.
Wood is cost efficient, solid and looks great, but I looked forward to practicing the human flag on my bar, so my posts had to be metal. Generally plumbers’ galvanized 2” pipe is about $7 per foot. However, you can’t get anything larger than 8’ at a hardware store (even giants like Home Depot or Lowes). To make a 12’ post, you’d have to buy 20’ directly from a supplier, pay for each cut and buy 90 degree fittings (also about $8-$20) to attach each post to the bar itself. Instead, I contacted a local gate manufacturer to build the initial design (two 12’ iron posts welded to a 4’ bar up top, plus another 4’ bar 3 ½’ from the bottom—this lower bar gets buried for stability) for $180.
Another factor influencing stability is the amount of concrete used in the foundations. Most websites I consulted expressed remorse about not using enough cement. I decided to avoid that problem by using 600 lbs. per post. Remember, I said AGGRESSIVE KIPPING!
A standard pull-up bar is 1”-1 ½” in diameter and 2-3’ in length. To get the most out of mine, I did 2” diameters and 4’ across. The 2” grip makes for a harder workout and is excellent for building grip strength.
Be aware that raw metal bars are open on the ends so you’ll need to seal them. I filled mine with cement and painted over them, but you can use nylon or rubber stoppers.
Aside from the posts and bars, if you’re making a backyard pull-up bar you’ll need the following:
– Post Hole Diggers – Shovel – Cement (I used twenty-five 80 lb. bags) – Something to mix it in (You don’t need a wheel barrow. I got a huge planter for $18. Next year I’ll grow fresh herbs in it.) – Leveler – Six 2×4’s and some screws (for building a frame) – Oil-based enamel paint (or lacquer for wood posts)
Building Your Bar Make sure you have plenty of space. My posts were affixed 4’ apart so I set the holes 4’ apart. If you are using wood posts, I recommend building the 1st post completely and then measuring the 2nd one from it to ensure accuracy.
My holes were about 12” diameter at the bottom and about 18” on top. I also dug a trough about 18” deep from one post to the other, which when filled with cement, surrounded the bar at the bottom of the frame. Even with post-hole diggers, digging 4 ½’ holes is extremely challenging, which made for a great workout!
Each post has to go in perfectly straight. The bar connecting them must be level, and needs to remain so until the concrete sets. The best way to ensure this is to build a wooden frame out of 2×4’s around the structure before you put the concrete in. Take your time! This step is important and will require a lot of trial-and-error.
Once the structure is level, straight and properly framed in wood, fill the holes with concrete. When the concrete dries, remove the frame and you’ve got your pull-up bar!
A New Life
Even with four and a half feet in the ground and a ton of cement, explosive muscle-ups caused my backyard pull-up bar to vibrate. It was just a tiny bit, but that wasn’t part of the dream. Changes had to be made. The bars needed diagonal support against one another. Vertical and horizontal were not enough.
I decided that in making it more stable, I’d change the whole shape and make it better! I had a smaller post/bar combo fabricated and set it up 4’ behind my initial bar (This one was 10’ high; I buried just shy of 4’ of it). It had to be parallel to the first structure, as well as level with the ground. Once it was in, I used four 7’ diagonal cross beams to mount the two structures together and two 4’ horizontal crossbeams for extra support. I purchased used scaffold clamps (“cheezeboros” in the production world) for $10 each to secure them. Finally, when the concrete dried and the smoke cleared…THIS BABY WASN’T GOING ANYWHERE!
The best part of this new design was that it wasn’t limited to pull-ups, muscle-ups, and flags. It could accommodate Australian pull-ups, dips and an unlimited variety of grips. My backyard pull-up bar had exceeded my expectations!
In this world, things don’t always go as planned. But when we move forward and roll with the changes, we may find ourselves grateful for the unexpected. That’s part of what makes life beautiful. I’m proud to say I have Brooklyn’s finest home gym – and proud to have made it with my own two hands!
The pull-up is my all-time favorite exercise, so naturally I write about it a lot.
Unfortunately, not all of my readers can do a pull-up…yet.
Many of you have told me you feel like you’ll never be able to do a pull-up.
Well that’s crap!
If I can do it, so can you.
Pull Yourself Together (And UP!)
As is the case with all bodyweight exercises, the heavier you are, the harder it is to do a pull-up, so the first area to assess is your weight. Hopefully, you’ve already started cleaning up your diet. Once you drop the fat, doing a pull-up gets way more realistic.
Another reason you may be having a hard time doing pull-ups is lack of upper-body strength. This is more often an issue for women. It’s just biology ladies – you don’t have as much natural upper-body strength as men. This does not mean you are incapable of pull-ups, it just means that you have to work a little harder for it. (Check out my pull-up tutorial for women for more info).
You Don’t Need Machines
When I was a rookie trainer, I used to put clients on the assisted pull-up (Gravitron) machine. In theory, every few weeks I’d be able to lower the amount of assistance until they didn’t need it at all anymore. In theory.
In reality, none of my clients ever made the leap from not being able to do a pull-up to being able to do one using the Gravitron. The problem is that it takes most of the stability away from the exercise, making it closer to a lat pull-down than an actual pull-up.
How to Work Towards Pull-ups
The best ways to work towards pull-ups are manually assisted pull-ups, flex hangs, slow negatives and Australian pull-ups.
Manually assisted pull-ups are when you have your trainer spot you on the way up by pressing on your mid-back with their hand(s). I prefer this method over the “hold the feet” method for the same reasons I dislike the Gravitron.
The term “flex hang” refers to holding the top position of a pull-up, and is performed for time.
Negative pull-ups are when you lower yourself down from the top position of the pull-up. Performing slow negatives is a fantastic way to get a feel for the movement pattern of the full pull-up, without having to perform the entire range of motion.
Start by holding a flex hang for as long as you can. When your arms start to fatigue, lower yourself to a right angle at your elbow and hold there. Continue to fight gravity the rest of the way down, carefully lowering to a full hang.
Things like lat pull-down machines and Gravitrons aren’t totally useless, but they should not be used as your sole means of working this movement pattern. Moving your own body weight is a unique skill that requires practice and patience.
There were six events: muscle-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats, and sit-ups. I only participated in the first two events as it had been a long day and with so many participants, the contest was going to go into the night.
The muscle-up contest was first, and it was the only event that wasn’t divided into weight classes. I got to compete with the big boys (literally!). For this event, competitors were given 2 minutes to do as many reps as possible without coming off the bar. I managed to get 18 reps, which was enough to finish it the upper 50% of the competition but not enough to take home a trophy.
The pull-up contest had a lot more competitors and, as a lightweight (I’m barely 160 lbs. these days), my division went last. For this event, we were again given 2 minutes, but we were allowed to come down from the bar in order to rest. The judges were being lenient with form, allowing kipping and not enforcing a dead hang. They were, however, very strict about the chin clearing the bar for a rep to count. I managed 43 official reps in the two minute time allowance, as a few of my reps were not credited.
All in all it was a great day and I hope to participate next year. Watch the video below for more:
Al Kavadlo is not liable for any injuries or damages that individuals might incur by attempting to perform any of the exercises or feats of strength depicted or discussed on this website.
Any individual attempting to does so at their own risk. Consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.