Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan

Test Gym

Your Inability to Do Pullups Is All in Your Head

Anyone can do pullups — and here’s why you should

Elemental
Published in
7 min readJan 22, 2020

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Test Gym is a new Elemental column about the science of exercise.

I’I’ve always loved pullups. They require nothing more than an overhead bar and some dig-deep grit. They’re a primal yet elegant way to test your might and strength-to-weight ratio while building core and upper-body strength.

Pullups are also a show of power. Mark Wahlberg did 22 pullups in 30 seconds as a charity fundraiser on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Former FBI boss James Comey told the New York Times he was spending the “unemployed celebrity” chapter of his life working toward a goal of doing 10 consecutive pullups.

There’s a popular notion that certain bodies just aren’t capable of executing a proper pullup —the New York Times once tried to explain why women can’t do them — but there’s ample evidence to the contrary. Megan Rapinoe does pullups, because of course she does. And Eva Clarke, an Australian mother of three, set a world record in 2016 by pumping out 725 in one hour.

Still, it’s true that pullups are naturally easier for some people than others. Pullups use your core, forearms, biceps, upper back, deltoids, and lats, so strength in those muscles is important, according to Stew Smith, a certified strength coach and former Navy SEAL. And it helps to be light — every extra pound is just extra weight you have to lift.

The pullup is an attainable feat even if you aren’t one of those muscle heads shaped like a slice of pizza.

Athletes who have strong upper bodies but are generally lean (think Nordic skiers and gymnasts) will usually have an easier time with pullups than cyclists or speedskaters, who carry their weight in their legs. Ideally, you want your weight concentrated in the body parts that are contributing to the work of a pullup, not the ones that are dead…

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Christie Aschwanden
Elemental

Author of GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery (Norton, 2019). Twitter: @CragCrest christieaschwanden.com