Pull-ups are easier for some people than others.
I personally belong in the “others” category.
Now, I can grab the bar and hang on for a fair bit without difficulty.
I can even do some intermediate tricks on the flying trapeze (the swinging momentum helps), yet I cannot lift my body up.
Apparently, my tall stature puts me at a disadvantage, as with long arms, I have more distance (and for some people, more mass) to pull than a shorter person, even if we are similarly built.
If you’re at a playground, watch how children, both girls and boys, effortlessly swing on the monkey bars.
When adults try, they usually give up before the midway point, saying it’s too difficult.
Don’t believe me? Go try it yourself.
These days, however, the kids are doing all the playing, while the adults are sitting, texting, taking pictures or proudly sharing video footage of their offspring.
As we grow older, we lose this shoulder mobility, along with our grip strength, such that even doing a simple dead hang where you’re just gripping onto a bar and allowing your body to hang with feet off the ground, can leave you with sore muscles.
A strong grip is necessary for a number of things, including opening a bottle or jar, or rock-climbing.
I sometimes struggle to open a mineral water bottle with my left hand (like most people, I am right-handed)!
According to a 2018 study published in The BMJ, researchers found that grip strength can predict your overall mobility, strength and health, as well as your risk of heart disease.
As you age, the stronger your grip, the more likely you are to survive certain diseases, including cancer.
Studies have also discovered that grip strength can be a good overall marker for ageing.
In Norway, for instance, researchers found that the grip strength of those in their 80s and 90s could predict the likelihood of each person making it into their 100s – although in these turbulent times, I’m not sure who wants to live until 100.
Arms over head
On average, we hardly lift our arms over our heads during the day unless we’re reaching up for something on the shelf.
Most likely, we’re slouched over the computer at work or for leisure.
We might put on a shirt or blouse over the head and remove it at night, but this hardly puts the shoulder joints through their full range of movement.
With inadequate movement, the muscles around the shoulders and upper back will start tightening, and eventually, lose their mobility.
Doing a dead hang is a cheap, easy way to stretch these muscles out.
So, never mind if you cannot do the pull-up, work on the dead hang instead as it strengthens many muscles – i.e. the upper back, shoulders, core, forearms, hands and wrists – and offers plenty of other benefits too.
American orthopaedic surgeon Dr John Kirsch identified through his own observations that shoulder injuries are commonly misdiagnosed, and putting together 25 years of research, authored Shoulder Pain? The Solution & Prevention.
The self-help book, which is now in its 5th edition, provides simple shoulder exercises to treat and prevent rotator cuff tears, impingement syndrome and frozen shoulder.
One of his recommended exercises is the dead hang.
Dr Kirsch himself suffered from shoulder impingement syndrome and saw that surgery didn’t provide effective results.
He experimented with hanging from a bar for a few minutes every day, and voila, in a few months his pain had disappeared.
He asked patients with the same problem to try the dead hang instead of going under the knife, and they all reported positive results.
The dead hang is also excellent for stretching the upper body and releasing tension in the hips.
I use it as a post-workout stretch, but you can also do it before exercise, especially if you’ve been sitting the whole day.
Believe it or not, you’ll find it easier to breathe when this area is opened up.
Additionally, the dead hang decompresses and stretches the spine, i.e. spinal traction – similar to what is done on the inversion table in the chiropractor’s office when you have lower back pain.
How to hang
Here’s how to do it:
- Start by finding a bar that will be able to support your weight.
Unless you’re a gym member, your neighbourhood playground or park is the best option.
- Your grip should be shoulder-width or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing away from you – this is the standard grip.
If you’re unable to reach the pull-up bar, stand on a box or a secure flat bench.
- Keep your legs and arms straight, core engaged and buttocks tightened.
Allow your body to sink while your shoulders come up to the ears.
If the bar is too low, bend your knees and slowly let your arms take the weight of your body so that your feet are still on the floor.
- When you’re confident, lift your feet off the floor or step off the box.
- Maintain a strong grip on the bar.
- Hold on for as long as you can and enjoy the sensation before releasing your grip.
In the beginning, you may not be able to make it past five or 10 seconds, and that’s all right.
The above instructions are for the passive dead hang where you don’t have to think too much about what you are doing.
Once you’ve mastered this, you can move on to the active dead hang.
The difference is that you retract your shoulder blades, bringing the shoulders down and away from the ears.
As the active dead hang works the muscles harder, you won’t be able to stay in the position for too long.
Caution: Start slowly if you have a pre-existing shoulder or wrist injury, or seek clearance from your medical practitioner beforehand.
Pay close attention to your body and stop immediately if you feel pain or discomfort.
Grip types and bar circumference
When you get the hang of the standard grip, you can try different hand grips, such as the supine grip where the palms face in towards your face (like in chin-ups).
This grip provides a good stretch for your triceps.
A wider-than-shoulder grip gives you a bigger stretch in the latissimus dorsi muscle – this is the large, flat muscle covering the width of the middle and lower back, or the “V” shape you see in well-built males.
A narrow grip focuses more on the arms and shoulders.
More importantly, the circumference of the bar has to be right for a good grip, i.e. your fingers must be able to completely wrap around the bar.
The standard pull-up bar measurement is about 1.25-1.75 inches (3.18-4.45cm), which fits most adult hands.
Depending on the size of your hands, you might need a bigger or smaller circumference to grip.
Generally, a bigger circumference and smoother surface make it harder to grip.
So go on, scout for a bar and hang onto it for 10 seconds, progressing up slowly to a minute.
Do this a few times a week and you’ll start to notice a difference.
You might even feel taller.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email email@example.com. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.