Chin-ups and pull-ups had always eluded me. I could never do many or, in the case of the latter, any, I think—simply because I didn’t do or attempt them more than a dozen or so times in my life.
Then, about the first day of spring, I started doing chin-ups every day. Just one—OK, one and a half, I’ll say—in a row my first day. Only two weeks later, though, I was doing as many as 26 in a row and about 100 a day broken into ever-increasing reps in a single set. Three. Five. Seven. Ten. Twelve. Fifteen. I interspersed pull-ups, too, throughout each day. My energy levels have ramped up, and I feel and look stronger than I ever have.
I’m astounded at my progress simply by doing a set of chin-ups or pull-ups just about every time I walked by the bar above the bathroom door in the foyer. It was as if chin-ups and pull-ups, which work several muscle groups, were missing links for me.
Over the past four years, I have gotten myself into shape by practicing the Egoscue Method just about every day. These stretches and exercises enabled me to eradicate the chronic pain I experienced in my back and neck and reversed symptoms of carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes. Once I sufficiently carbed up on a low-fat raw food diet, I added the use of Bodylastics resistance bands to my exercise routine along with rebounding using a Needak rebounder, or mini-trampoline. I also began practicing yoga and, later, got back to riding a bicycle.
In all this time of feeling lighter, stronger, quicker and faster, though, I marveled when I caught Arnold Kauffman knocking out 20 or even 30 chin-ups outside the awning of his raw vegan café Arnold’s Way in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “I can hoist a 40-pound case of bananas with ease, and I’m adding more and more resistance bands,” I thought to myself. “Why can’t I do several chin-ups?”
Korey Constable comes around Arnold’s Way just about every week, volunteering to help stock bananas after the produce shipment arrives. He’s built as can be and told me last winter about how he realized massive fitness gains simply by focusing on bodyweight exercises such as chin-ups, pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups along with running. His words resonated with me, and Korey reminded me about the legendary workout of ultrafit, forever-young-looking Herschel Walker, a former college and pro running back and, in his late 40s, a mixed martial artist.
I gave it a go, and just as green smoothies transformed my life, so, too, have chin-ups and pull-ups. What’s also transformed my life is the idea of doing even a minute or two of exercise just about every hour I’m awake—especially before eating—in addition to my morning workouts. Push-ups and squats, too. These exercises keep me loose, strong and feeling on fire all day long!
How beneficial are chin-ups and pull-ups for us? I asked Charlie Abel, the chiseled mid-50s author of The Raw Food Bodybuilding Training Manual, and Don Bennett, author of Avoiding Degenerative Disease and The Raw Food Diet and Other Healthy Habits: Your Questions Answered and known for engaging in practical physical activity as we’d do in nature. I also asked Kauffman, author of The Way of Arnold and several other books, who works out about 90 to 120 minutes most mornings and recently got back into the swing of things with chin-ups and pull-ups.
Abel wrote in an e-mail to me that he considers chin-ups and pull-ups to be one exercise, with the difference being hand placement. He almost always implements a shoulder-width grip with palms facing toward him. “This is supposed to put the biceps in their strongest position so that the back muscles can be worked deeper,” he said.
Abel said that body weight is suitable for this exercise but that additional weight may be added around the waist. He’s tacked on as much as 50 pounds and completed eight repetitions. Many people, however, aren’t ready for this kind of workout and can do only one or two chin-ups or even none at all. Abel recommends negative-only chins, or what he calls “chin-downs.” Use a secure step ladder, for example, and start at the top position, lowering yourself slowly to the count of four, and then hurry and walk back up to the top again, he said. He advises someone doing chin-downs to do six reps in this fashion and then to add weight.
Another option is to use less weight on a pulldown machine, Abel said. The best one, he said, is one containing a pulley that is located a foot or two forward rather than straight overhead. “This way, at the finish of the movement, you can curl your torso and hug the bar into your chest, which fully contracts the lats and also uses the abdominals,” he said.
“Chin-ups are perhaps the finest abdominal exercise there is, making sit-ups crunches and other abdominal exercise unnecessary,” Abel said. “In fact, chins are all I’ve ever done for my abs, and they’ve always been pretty good.”
Bennett approaches physical activity from a unique perspective. “… When thinking about how I should be getting my physical activity, I think back to how I would have gotten it a very long time ago, when I lived in my biological ‘eco-niche,'” he wrote in an e-mail to me. “What would I have done (and not done) back then?”
Bennett sees a clear difference between chin-ups and pull-ups and finds value in the latter. “Chin-ups have your palms facing towards you, and with pull-ups your palms are facing away from you,” he said. “Which would you be doing if you were climbing a tree? Right! Pull-ups. The point: Exercise like you were designed to. It’s logical, it makes sense and it’s what your body wants.”
Bennett, whose physical activity spans walking, sprinting and climbing, achieving the latter by using machines at a gym to mimic the action of climbing trees, also offers an alternative for those who cannot do a single pull-up. “… You can get a stool to stand on so that the pull-up bar is at neck level, then grab on with hands a little more than shoulder’s width apart, hold tight, bend your knees so you’re no longer standing on the stool and lower yourself down as slowly as you can,” he said. Bennett, a regular Fruit-Powered Digest guest writer who offers his complete perspective on physical activity in an article on his website, Health101.org, calls this motion the “negative part of the pull-up.”
“Repeat as many times as you can until you can no longer lower yourself slowly,” he said, adding that he advises you rest for seven days after this workout. “Keep doing this ‘High Intensity Training’ protocol, and you’ll soon be able to do a complete pull-up without the need of a stool, and then multiple pull-ups,” he said. He also said that you can make use of a pull-up band instead of a stool to do “assisted” pull-ups.
Abel said chin-ups are a “total upper-body exercise,” working mainly the biceps and lats, abdominals (including the serratus and intercostals), smaller upper-back muscles and, to a lesser degree, the chest and triceps. He recommends doing a set of them “until you can’t do anymore, that is, to exhaustion three alternate days per week for beginners and, for stronger people, twice a week may be enough.”
Kauffman, also a regular Fruit-Powered Digest guest writer, performs a variation of a chin-up and pull-up called a hammer pull-up, in which his palms face each other. He achieves this by using handles attached to a bar. Once Kauffman did a personal best 33 consecutive chin-ups in the fall, he cut back on doing the exercise. “I thought to myself, do I have to do another?” he said.
Kauffman added it back to his routine last week after I told him about the progress I made doing chin-ups. Ours is a friendly Chin-up Challenge in which we tell each other how many we did at most in a row and overall each day.
Right out of the gate, Kauffman got back up to 27. The soon-to-be 67-year-old is up to 31 now, and on the night of April 9, he reeled off 18 while wearing a 40-pound vest. He has success with this exercise, but it’s still not a favorite for him.
“To me, rebounding is my rock,” he said. “I have to psych myself up to do chin-ups, whereas with rebounding, it’s just a part of who I am.”