Pull-ups and primal exercise

A monkey climbing a tree in a forest

Staying strong is a vital part of a successful ageing strategy

One definition of a primal exercise might be this: any activity that replicates what other primates find easy to do.

For example, pushing themselves up from the floor, or coming to their feet after lying on their back, shimmying up a tree, or picking up their young, and so on.

All of these tasks primates find easy even when old and infirm.

But most humans have, by their early forties – a time when they should still be in their prime – lost the ability to do most of these.

Pull-ups are an excellent example of a primal exercise

The benefits are profound;

a man doing a pull-up in a gym

An increase in the middle and upper thoracic (shoulder blade area) spinal muscle power

Better integration with the core and hip flexors

More powerful shoulders and an increase in shoulder stability and mobility

When working well, the thoracic spine extensor muscles give a stable platform for the shoulder system and low back.

Traditional exercises find this harder to achieve.

  • Dead-lifts can develop bulk and power in the lumbar erector spinae, but they don’t target so much the mid and upper back.
  • Pulling the arms towards you in the horizontal plane, like a seated row, targets the latissimus dorsi more than the true spinal muscles.
  • 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 body in an integrated way.

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

You can use assistance from the weight stack to get your body used to the exercise. Immobile shoulders, a weak core and a stiff mid-back all need 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 heights)
  • lifting one of your legs as you do the exercise
  • standing on the platform and not kneeling on it

all help, because this recreates the real-world effort of climbing a tree.

Try not to be static by letting your body beneath the arms become a dead weight. This reduces the benefits.

Aim to make gradual progress over many months

A sign saying 'Small Steps Are Still Progress'

Split each group into four sub-groups based on the alternating grip positions noted above. Only when 20 is too easy should you take off a little weight from the stack.

Don’t focus on reducing assistance as a sign of progress. Instead, mark your improvement on the number of reps you can perform without undue fatigue. Aim for 20 per workout.

Note that the ability of your low thoracic and upper lumbar spine to extend (to bend backwards) has a significant effect on the ease of doing the pull-up.

Decent extension in this part of the spine allows the arm muscles to lift an optimally distributed mass. Conversely, a stiffness in this area makes it harder.

You might notice a surprising improvement in your ability to do press-ups as you get better at pull-ups.

What are the risks?

Little from the exercise itself, unless you over-challenge yourself.

It’s clambering on and off the machine that’s the riskiest part of the activity!