Pullup Follow Up Answers

A high school senior does pullups. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Martin R. Harris
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Martin R. Harris

There was a large response to the following articles this week about pullups. We discussed the practical Tactical Fitness testing exercise the pullup can be, as well as ways to do your first pullup or maximize your ability to do them.

Pullups – A Tactical Strength Testing Exercise Pullups – Some Ideas to do More

The following was a common comment after these articles posted:

Stew, I am a 40 year old man who cannot do pullups. I used to be able to do pullups over a decade ago, but have lost the ability. Is it my age? Weight? (I could stand to lose 20 lbs). Or do I just need to get into the gym and practice more pullups or “pulling exercises” as you put it?

After a few emails back and forth, I found this man used to weigh 195 when he last did pullups. Now at 220, pullups are not happening.

This is why men cannot do pullups, typically. With just an average weight gain of a few pounds per year, after ten years you are 20-25 pounds overweight. Even for those who do pullups regularly a 25 pound weight vest makes doing pullups significantly harder and can easily drop performance by 50-75 percent. Couple that weight gain with not continuing to try pullups in a regular workout routine (three days a week), and you have the perfect storm and reason why these men cannot do pullups.

The same holds true for the novice exerciser in their early to mid-teens. If that teen is lean, he or she may likely have enough natural strength to do a few pullups. Put 15, 20, or 30-plus pounds of fat on that same teen, and a pullup is never going to happen until that extra weight it lost.

So, if you want a performance goal that will also help you with other aesthetic goals of weight loss, try the pullup as a way to achieve both performance strength and fat loss.

Here is how you do it:

Portion Control

Reduce the AMOUNT of food you eat! Period. I am making this simple. You do not have to start a crazy diet plan, eliminate carbs and fats, or eat grapefruits for a month. Just use smaller plates. It really comes down to how many calories of food you are putting into your body each day. If you have a perfectly clean diet and have a caloric surplus of 500 calories a day, regardless of activity, you will gain weight. Eat a balanced diet of good foods, including carbs.

Try to eliminate sugars and processed foods, but get good carbs and nutrients from fruits and vegetables, and good proteins from all sources from meats, eggs, plants, nuts, and supplements if you need to. You need fat too but obviously limited. You can make this as difficult as you want with percentages, counting calories, fasting, but if you reduce your current amount of food you eat, you will see a difference quickly. See this link for more nutrition guidance.

Hint Helper: Drink more water if you are feeling hungry. Most of the times we are just thirsty and think we are hungry.

Lift, PT, and add Cardio

Building muscle and burning calories are essential to both weight loss (fat) and muscle growth, so that you can add a pullup to your workout routine. Try lifting or doing upper body calisthenics three times a week, and spread them through the week so you have a recovery day in between workout days. You can and should do some form of cardio and / or leg workouts on the days in between, for additional activity and calorie burn. I personally like a three workout approach to maximizing pullups — if you cannot do pullups you can replace the exercise with pulldowns, TRX rows, Australian Pullups (low bar pullups with feet on the floor), Dumbbell or Barbell Rows, and Bicep curls. All of these exercises are replacements for pullups. HOWEVER, do not resort to them until you have tried a pullup, jumping pullup, or negative pullup — even if you fail.

Here is ONE way to train for pullups (as well as other exercises that will balance out your workout):

Pyramid Workout (Monday): This is the classic method to building pullups, pushups, sit-ups and any other exercise you like / need to master.

Super Set Workout (Wednesday): This is a sub-max effort foundation workout to increase volume of your PT exercises.

Max Rep Set Workout (Fri or Sat): If you cannot do pullups, you will have to resort to many of the pulling exercises to reach these kind of numbers

As you can see, it takes work. Good luck and enjoy the journey!

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