Shannon Sorrels, Personal Trainer

There’s one universally loathed exercise: the pull-up. We helplessly dangle, barely able to grip the bar, begging our muscles to move something, and all we usually manage are wild feet kicks, if we can hang at all. We avoid the whole nonsense — how often do I “ever” need to pull myself up. Who am I? Rambo?

Allow me to convince you otherwise. Along with the push-up, and the pull-up is the upper body exercise. There’s a reason the military requires them — they are stupid hard and a quick indication of your upper body fitness. And don’t despair; you too can do them.

First off, and be honest, are you overweight? Plain physics is my reason for asking. The more you weigh, the more you gotta “pull up.” And ladies, genes are not our friends. Our upper-body-muscle-mass to lower-body-dead-weight ratio is opposite that of most men. But it is what it is. Drop some weight, it will make pull-ups and everything else easier.

Second item to consider — can you hang by your hands? If you can’t, then you’ll need to start working on your grip strength. The easiest way to do this is to start carrying heavy things — anything you must struggle to “grip” and walk around with — milk jugs full of sand, dumbbells, 5-gallon buckets of rocks — get creative. Let the weight hang from your arms; make your hands work.

If you have access to a gym, you can also start working on a “pull-up assist” machine. Using a weight stack, you can offset your body weight and start working on your pull-ups — just keep moving that weight pin to progress yourself. You can also consider Super Bands — giant rubber bands you secure around the pull-up bar and put your knee (or foot) through. They also offset some of your body weight making the pull-up motion possible for beginners.

Now you are losing weight and can hang by your hands. Time to start on the pull-up bar (make sure the bar can support you). The easiest way to start is the “jump-n-hang.” Using a sturdy step, reach up and grab the bar tight, then “jump” so your chin is above it.

Stay there, arms bent, as long as you possibly can and when you feel your muscles starting to give out (which might be less than a second), ease yourself back down to the step as slowly as you can manage.

Take a short break, and do it again. Aim for just three to five times in the first round. Rest a couple of minutes then do another round (set). Do two sets two to three times a week on non-consecutive days. Each time, stay in the “hang” as long as you can. It will get longer as you get stronger.

Eventually, you will feel ready to try a real pull-up — and the first one might still involve a little “toe jump” off the step. But hey, it’s more than you did when you started. Just keep progressing yourself. Be patient and persistent.

Pair your new pull-ups with push-ups to create a great upper body workout. It is simple and extremely effective. Oh, and listen for the phone. Rambo will be calling you for a mission any day.

NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her Ahwatukee-based company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals and groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit

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