Useful Gym Machines – part 2

The evidence is accumulating that keeping strong is a vital part of a successful ageing strategy. The press-up or push-up is one way to achieve this, and it fits into the concept of ‘primal’ exercise.

Primal exercises are activities or tasks that allow us to replicate what other primates find easy to do. Some examples; pushing themselves up from the floor, coming to their feet after lying on their back, pulling themselves up a tree, picking up their young, and so on.

All of these tasks they find easy, perhaps even to an old and infirm primate. Yet most humans (at least in the affluent world) have lost the ability to do any of them by their early 40’s, a time when they should still be in their prime.

Pull-ups are also an excellent example of primal exercise. Our human forefathers, at least before they left the forests to becomes plains hunters, would be able to shimmy up a tree no problem. But even among regular gym goers, how many can do even one? The benefits, if they can re-acquire that ability, are profound;

  • an increase in the middle and upper thoracic (shoulder blade area) spinal extensor power
  • better integration with the TPC (thoraco-pelvic-cylinder) and the various hip flexors below
  • more powerful shoulders and an increase in shoulder stability and mobility
Tree climbing – might be risky, but what a good exercise!

Indeed, pull-ups are probably the best way to develop improvements in erector spinae power in the mid and upper thoracic spine. More traditional exercises find this tricky to do. It’s true that good dead-lifts can develop increases in the bulk and power of the lumbar erector spinae, but they don’t target the mid and upper back. Pulling the arms towards you in the horizontal plane (for example, a seated row) often targets muscles like the latissimus dorsi rather than the erector spinae. And the overhead pull-down is just not the same as a pull-up, in the same way that a bench press is not the same as a press-up.

There’s just something special about combating the force of gravity using our whole body in an integrated way.

The thoracic spine extensors are all about providing extensor and rotator power to the spinal segments and giving a stable platform for the shoulder system and low back. The arching and twisting nature of pull-ups, especially if the pull-ups can be biased to one side, increase this power.

But how to achieve this if we can’t even do one? The answer lies in one of the few gym machines that adds real value – the assisted pull-up.

Assisted Pull-up Machine
Assisted Pull-up Machine – a fantastic way to develop spinal and shoulder power.

The approach using this machine would be to use a lot of assistance from the weights stack and get your body used to the exercise. Immobile shoulders, a weak core and a stiff mid back need plenty of time to adapt.

Now you can see why

  • varying your hand grip (facing forward, back, cross grip etc.)
  • using different hand positions on the apparatus (wide, narrow, staggered height each side)
  • lifting one of your legs as you do the exercise
  • standing on the platform and not kneeling on it

is all so useful – because it helps recreate the real word effort of climbing up a tree. Don’t be static and treat your body beneath the arms as a dead weight. This would severely reduce the benefit of the exercise.

Aim to make gradual slow progress over many months. Don’t focus on reducing the assistance as a sign of progress – instead, mark your progress on the number of reps you can perform without any fatigue. Aim for 20 per workout. Each group of 20 should be split into 4’s based on the alternating hand/grip positions noted above. Only when 20 in total is too easy should you take off a little weight from the stack.

Note that the ability of your low thoracic and upper lumbar spine to extend (bend backwards) has a big effect on the ‘ease’ of doing the pull-up. Enough extension in this part of the spine as you do the pull-up allows a more optimal distribution of mass for the arm muscles to lift against. Conversely, a stiff spine in this area (like mine) – and stiff spines do not extend well – makes it all a bit harder.

You can see good extension of this part of the spine in this video.

What you might notice as a spin-off benefit from this approach is a surprising improvement in your ability to do press-ups.

What are the risks? Little from the exercise itself, unless you over-challenge yourself by not using enough assistance. It’s clambering on and off the machine that is the riskiest part of the program – careful!