The latest issue of Swimmer magazine, from US Master Swimming, has an article on dry-land training and how to make friends with pull-ups, which made me wonder if anyone was actually doing them, I mean besides me.
A friend of mine, Kyle, who’s then future wife Shannon had just become a personal trainer, had finished his first year of Ironman racing, with great success, and I asked him if Shannon had helped him with his strength training program, and he said yes. I asked if she would be willing to help me work on mine as I had been doing pretty much the same thing for years, adding different exercises here and there to mimic the physical therapy exercises to help with my back and glutes. We met, she did a physical assessment, walked me through a series of exercises she had in mind and then sent me a couple of options for workouts. I morphed hers with mine and have been using them as the basis of my strength training ever since. One of the exercises she had on the list was the dreaded pull-ups.
I say dreaded because as I kid growing up I never had the upper body strength to do any great number of them, if any, so now as an adult I would have to see if I actually had developed enough strength to do them. I had been training and racing triathlons for years, doing weights for years, but never any pull-ups. The next time I went to “the gym” (what do we call them today, fitness centers?), I went over to the pull-up bar, jumped up and gave it the old college try. Well not shortly thereafter, like maybe after one and a half pull-ups later, and I’m being generous, I came back to earth. Wow, was that all I had?
I mean I could do a half Ironman swim in 31-32 minutes and regularly swim 2-3 nights a week in a Master’s program, but 1.5 pull-ups, that was it? I even remember looking around to see if anyone else had witnessed this amazing feat of athleticism, but luckily it seemed everyone else was preoccupied, not caring what some 50+ year old guy was doing, so that was good.
I told this story to a friend of mine, another personal trainer, and he suggested I try the hanging on thing, and then after a while he thought I could eventually be able to do 2-3 of them, and after multiple sets (and I was thinking multiple years!), maybe sets of 10-12 someday. Hardly motivational, know what I mean? But then I got lucky and somehow found the machine of my dreams, the assisted pull-up machine, and things were looking up.
On the assisted machine you kneel on a shelf that’s attached to a weight stack that allows you to add weight to offset your body weight. At 160 pounds wet I started out with 100 pounds of offset and could do sets of 12-15 reps. Over time I was able to add less and less weight, so eventually I could be actually lifting over 100 pounds of my own weight, or about what I would do on a pull-down machine, the alternative option. I never went back to just the plain old pull-up bar to see what I could do, happy in my own world of assisted pull-ups, at least looking like I was doing something.
But then as life around me changed I eventually stopped going to the gym and lost access to the assisted pull-up machine. I could go to the pool where they have a pull-up bar in the little weight room, and use swimming bands as an assist, but it wasn’t the same and it wasn’t very comfortable. For whatever reason, I just recently added a bar to my garage, not knowing how many pull-ups I could do, but willing to give them a try to help with my swimming. I can happily report that I can actually do more than 1.5 pull-ups un-assisted (so all that time in the gym wasn’t wasted!), but that I use a swim-cord to assist me so I can do sets of 8-10 reps. And then I saw the article in Swimmer magazine, explaining how to build strength so that you could work your way up to doing sets of un-assisted pull-ups, so maybe there’s hope after all!
The author suggested, for those that can’t do any pull-ups, to start by using a step to just hang with your chin above the bar for up to 30 seconds, called a “flexed hang.” Once you’ve mastered this you can move on to doing dropdown pull-ups, taking 10 seconds to descend each one, using the step to return to the starting position. Once you can do five of these babies then you move on to assisted pull-ups, using a “super band” to assist you, like I’ve been doing. After that you should be ready to move up to the big show, un-assisted pull-ups, yippee! If you can get up to three sets of 10 reps then you’re really ready to move above and beyond just pure body weight pull-ups, you can add a weight vest or backpack with weights in it.
I doubt I’ll ever get to that last phase, but I’m hoping with time to be able to get somewhere near 8-10 un-assisted pull-ups. If/when I get there; I’ll consider it a minor victory over the pull-ups, just hoping that in some way it will help me with my swimming. Well that and swimming 2-3 days a week, doing the other exercises in my program, some stretching, yoga, etc.
I’m hoping that after reading this and realizing that you’re not the only one that couldn’t do pull-ups, some of you will give them a try too. I’m curious to hear just how many people out there actually do them, or if you had the same not so pleasant memories from gym class in grade school. Old memories like that can come back to haunt us at any age, so maybe this is just my way to exorcise one more demon from the past and it really has nothing to do with becoming a faster swimmer at all. Either way, here’s hoping my lats are up to the task.