Imagine this scenario: you are out with friends on a blissfully sunny day, cruising on the Willamette in a little skiff that gets you out on the water but won’t win any awards for its safety features. Somehow, without explanation, you fall overboard. Within the few seconds it takes for you to gain some sense of the predicament you are in, a plan of action solidifies in your head – get yourself back in the boat.
Now it’s time to talk about strength. Considering the boating scenario, be honest with yourself about how likely it is that you could perform a pull-up to get yourself back into that boat to save your life. There’s a good chance that someone in that boat could assist you, but what if you were by yourself or everyone else fell overboard, too? You alone are responsible for carrying your own weight, and adrenaline will only take you so far when you’re juggling the elements of water current, temperature, and the pure shock of ending up in a life-threatening situation. Again, at this very moment, can you say with 100% accuracy that you possess the physical and mental strength to pull yourself out of the water and into the safety of the boat? If you answered ‘yes,’ keep believing it and go forth and prosper; however, if you are like the majority of both men and women in the United States who are unable to perform one proper, unassisted pull-up, recognize that the uncomfortable sensation you feel when you think about your inability to pull up your own body weight is called shame, and there is a solution to it.
Change your body composition
You need to both lose body fat and gain muscle mass to arrive at your appropriate body weight and thus pull your own weight. While there is no magic formula for every person, generally speaking you need to clean up your diet, stay active, get more sleep, and cope with stress better. Start by picking your most challenging habit, for example your tendency to search the web until 2am, and decide to get to bed an hour earlier. Go to the next variable and make a reasonable change. Build on these changes, continuing to edify and rework as needed. You can complain all you want that this seems like too much work but it won’t get you into that boat any faster.
Proper form and breathing
Good posture and breathing go hand-in-hand to support a clear mindset and a strong body. To attain good posture, stand against a wall with heels touching the wall and feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your chin back so that the back of your head touches the wall, pull your shoulder blades back and down, tuck your navel into your spine, and soften your knee joints. Look straight ahead and rotate your thumbs out with your palms facing forward to activate your rotator cuff muscles. Inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth. Practice standing in this position and breathing consistently in your nose and out your mouth until it becomes comfortable.
Pulling up your entire body requires the strength and coordination of, well, your entire body, so plan your work outs to engage as many muscle groups as possible. The general rule to follow when designing a strength training routine is to first perform exercises that allow the most movement possible using the largest muscle groups. Start with multi-joint exercises, such as variations of the squat and lunge, which require muscles of the upper and lower body to work together to coordinate movement across multiple joints and also require the most energy. Back and chest exercises come next, followed by shoulder, bicep, and tricep exercises. Exercises to specifically target the back muscles used in a pull-up include the assisted pull-up machine, lat pulldown, cable straight-arm pulldowns, seated row, and dumbbell standing or seated posterior deltoid flys.
Get out and do it
The weather is getting warmer and Portland has so many parks and playgrounds to play on – what are you waiting for? Go now to the Portland Parks and Recreation website, find a park near you, and go use the monkey bars. If you can only hang for one second and complain about how much it hurts your hands/arms/pride, then so be it. Monkey bars were invented to keep kids active and while it may be proposed that they also serve to remind adults of their advanced age, using them keeps you young if you can get over the feeling that your arms are going to fall off. Practice your hanging and pulling-up skills in the real world as much as humanly possible.
Imagine the scenario
The purpose of weight training is to prepare you for real-life scenarios but it is easy to forget the reasons why you are lifting and pushing and squatting when the gym provides no visual stimuli for the practical nature of your activities. Mentally, you need to create the situation whereby the exercises you perform make sense so that your brain provides the communication to your muscles to function appropriately. While it is nice to switch to autopilot every once in a while, this can lead to a literal breakdown in communication between your brain and your muscles which may ultimately result in the end of your workout, either because you become so bored or you injure yourself. To bring your workout to life, imagine yourself performing each exercise in a real-life situation to stimulate the limbic part of your brain, which controls instinct and emotion and is the anatomical site of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Performing a pull-up on the assisted pull-up machine is just another exercise until you imagine that you’ve fallen into a cold river and must pull yourself up and into the boat. This mental image may allow you to push beyond a plateau as you stimulate your limbic brain to call upon the appropriate muscles to function to save yourself from immediate danger.
This is it
No matter how you cushion yourself against the dangers and threats of life, accidents happen, and it is your responsibility to be ready and able to save yourself and others when the situation calls for it. Performing a pull-up may seem like an arbitrary test of health and fitness, but it is a solid indicator of your health and fitness ability. Before you add ‘pull-up’ to your list of ‘to dos,’ however, remember that you only get the credit if you actually do the work, so get the job done and keep it up for as long as you want to live well and prosper.