Hold on: Why do we want to do pull-ups?
An interrogation of everyone's favorite fitness goal, plus a guide to cardio for people who hate cardio, Arnold Schwarzenegger massaging Lucille Ball, THAT teen girl Vanity Fair cover. Links 29!
Why do we want to do pull-ups? It’s the goal that people most often approach me with, when their minds have opened a crack to the idea of strength training. “I want to do a pull-up,” people will say to me, a person who is so desperate to talk about gym things that I will take anyone’s fleeting crumbs of interest. “How do I do that?”
This is more painful for me than you might think. Because as I just said, I cherish anyone’s passing acknowledgement that working out might be worth their time; I cherish it like gold sifted from the vast delta of party talk silt that is mostly “did anyone else watch Love is Blind?” or “how afraid are we of nuclear war?” (fair and good topics, yet neither are my one true passion). But that interest already only ever hangs by a thread—working out is pretty boring to most people, even me to an extent, as a conversational subject—and pull-ups weigh on it like, well, a whole body wanting to do a pull-up. Why did it have to be pull-ups? The world of strength is so big, with so many things to do. Why and how did the zeitgeist land on pull-ups as the number one glossy, sexy fitness goal?
Of all the “strong” things to do with one’s body, a pull-up is... about the hardest one. This makes them difficult as someone’s strength training entree. I don’t want to discourage, but I also want to appropriately couch. This ultimately does not really matter, because by the time I can get out “Wow, that’s cool, although pull-ups are harder than you might think—” people’s eyes are already understandably glazing over.
But the public perception of pull-ups is uniquely weird. It’s the first and nearest thing most people think of when they want to set a fitness goal. And yet, they know that doing a pull-up is specifically impressive and difficult; they may even believe pull-ups are something certain people cannot do (mostly untrue). And yet!: lots of very fit people actually can't even do one pull-up. And yet yet, it’s not the case that only the top 1% of genetically gifted people can do pullups; a pull-up is accessible to a lot more people than that and it comes a lot more easily than that.
Pull-ups are unique in that your are using essentially the smallest sets of muscles in your body to move all the rest of your pretty heavy body. If you think about it, no other upper-body movement reaches so hard (pun intended). When you bench press, you’re lying down. Overhead pressing, you’re just raising the roof. Rowing, you’re just yanking your arms toward you. Pull-ups just are, structurally, at the very top of the range of “ways your body can move” in terms of difficulty.
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In spite of that, or maybe because of it, pull-ups are a cornerstone of so many fitness tests. If I were hazarding a guess as to why they are a cornerstone of fitness tests, I’d say that specific type of strength (overhead vertical pulling) is the hardest type to have. You are profoundly unlikely to just have it, without dedicated training. We don't really kind of do that motion in every day life unless we are like, tomb raiders. You are more likely to be incidentally strong in every other plane and direction than in overhead vertical pulling. So a pull-up says, you train. You are committed enough to intentional training to be able to do a pull-up.
I long believed I was pre-ordained to never do a pull-up, because the New York Times said so. Once I learned that actually, I could train to do pull-ups, I decided to set that goal. It took me a whole year. And it may have only happened that fast—yes, that fast—because it fit into the bigger puzzle of my overall strength journey, like a mini-game within the big macro-game of getting stronger. If I were training to only do a pull-up, versus training to get strong in general, I can’t say if it would have happened, or how long it would have taken.
This is absolutely not to discourage anyone from trying to do a pull-up. Truly, most people could do a pull-up; I really believe that. But as someone who generally underestimates the amount of work anything takes and tends to get immediately discouraged by the idea of consistent effort, I believe in setting appropriate expectations. Most people can do a pull-up; it will just take probably a long-ish period of showing up, and showing up, and showing up, and crucially, not being able to do a pull-up that entire time. The nice thing about that is you will probably learn and achieve and make many friends, so to speak, along the way. But you have to be down for that journey.
Sometimes this discussion somehow reaches the point of someone asking me “Why should I do a pullup?”
Whoa! Uhh, hold on! No one is required to do pull-ups! I think part of the issue here is that we lack the texture in thinking about fitness and training necessary to hold all these possible expressions in our heads at once. You CAN probably do a pull-up, ultimately and statistically speaking. But also, lots of very fit people, even very accomplished athletes, can’t do a pull-up (think: superheavyweight Olympic weightlifters). We have a square-rectangle relationship here: If you go through the process of learning to do a pull-up, you almost certainly will become pretty fit. But not all fit people can, or even should be able to, do pull-ups.
I would say if you don't want to work a year to do a pull-up, don't do it. Do something you care about. Having been down that road, I can say they don't feel that empowering to me to actually do, and I hate doing them now that they are just part of a workout. They remain hard to “increment,” or do movements that are sub-pull-up that help me do more pull-ups. However, people remain impressed by them, so I continue to grudgingly tinker around with them. I am, in many ways, as trapped in the pull-up vortex as everyone who ever came up to me blithely expressing interest in doing a pull-up.
What subscribers will be getting this week: Well damn, let’s talk about pull-ups! I will talk about pull-up training that has and hasn’t worked for me, as well as what alternative and/or more incremental goals might make sense for someone who ultimately aspires to do a pull-up.
“You know what the most annoying thing is about having to take a stupid walk every day for my stupid mental health? It’s that it fucking works... ugh these stupid walks work so I have to keep TAKING THEM.”
We’ve had lots of great throwback reads lately, and here’s another one from a reader: “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body,” From 1992. It opens, “I have now been bodybuilding for ten years, seriously for almost five years.” 👀
For folks struggling to start a workout routine, try the two-week rule. You could even do LIFTOFF for two weeks!
Honestly, contra “being a runner,” there’s nothing wrong with just jogging. (And as I would say, it’s all still cardio).
To that end, a guide to cardio for people who hate cardio, including a super-basic cardio program that can be layered in with minimal cost to a lifting routine. Smart!
Arnold Schwarzenegger giving Lucille Ball a massage.
As March Madness spins up, TBT to the time that basketball player Sedona Prince shared photos of the men’s weight room vs. the women’s weight room.
TW for women of late 90s/early 2000s teen experience here I suppose. But Vanity Fair recently ran it back with Hilary Duff on this one Vanity Fair cover featuring her, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, the Olsen twins (!), Mandy Moore, Evan Rachel Wood, and Raven Symone, and man, d o I h a v e VISCERAL sensory memories of the body comparisons it invited. It’s actually wild the degree to which the cover was doing what it was doing, but not at all in any overt way, such that anyone who wasn’t roughly a teen like myself who spent way too long studying and internalizing this image would think I was heavily projecting.
Rachel Evan Wood is quoted in that short BuzzFeed piece as having felt “like a piece of meat” after the shoot. Good for Hilary Duff for being honest with the very publication that produced it. Feels like not a coincidence that almost immediately following this incident, Hilary Duff went through a really awful period of disordered eating. Love her, glad she survived, she is the blueprint and so incredibly good in Younger.
I wonder how sports and athletes would be different with 20% less of the “push-through” mentality that soccer player Christen Press describes.
I have been remiss the last few weeks in not mentioning how much I love Severance. The credits alone are brilliant. Emmy for the credits. I have no inside knowledge of the show or Apple TV production in particular, but can say from a general content perspective that, in the last decade or so, the people who hold purse strings in media have developed a pathological obsession about how shows, books, articles, podcasts “shelve” or “categorize”—is it comedy? Is it drama? Is it about a workplace? Is it about family? So when something like Severance ekes through that straddles so many lines and does so brilliantly, it’s a really special and rare thing. Ya gotta cherish it.
I was chatting with a friend recently about my fixation on Lake Powell and Glen Canyon, about which the New Yorker ran a feature last summer, just before this newsletter got going. I’m obsessed with Glen Canyon’s story, elated the water is going down and the canyon is getting re-exposed. Go nature give us nothing!! This documentary clip is a must-watch just for the photos of Katie Lee, and this one too.
Also, read about Tootsie the pitmaster.
Thank you for reading, best of luck as your pull-up journey continues apace; let’s go—