When I was undergoing basic military training, the pull up test was my most dreaded test of all. I sucked at pull ups, and because of this, I would routinely perform as little training as possible to ensure that I could meet, but not exceed the minimum requirement. That’s also how I passed my university double major in Information Systems and Management: with a mindset of using minimal effort to achieve the results I needed.
As in this example, exercise and your body is a great metaphor for how you live your life. I didn’t care about pull ups then, because they didn’t help me pack-march with a heavy load, leopard crawl with a rifle, drink more alcohol or harass girls on a dance floor at 2am.
Now that I am surfing again, pull ups are a big part of my training routine. Which poses this question: Other than surfing, is the pull up the ultimate body weight exercise for surfing?
Well, it certainly has its place in the top five. As an exercise in general, pull ups are amazing. There are hardcore advocates for any type of training, whether it be cross fit, pilates, running or yoga. In reality, all have their time and place.
So should every surf school have a pull up bar?
Here is my case for learning to master pull ups:
1. It is the ultimate expression of power to weight ratio.
If you are too fat, then your pull ups are going to be much tougher. Much like in surfing, if you are carrying too much body fat, flexibility, paddling and getting to your feet are that much tougher. So pull ups are a great litmus test. If you are too heavy, sort out your diet!
2. Closed-chain pulling exercises enhance your paddling speed.
For more info on why this is the case, check out my blog here. This means that if you can’t paddle fast enough to get into a wave, because of a poor foundation in upper body strength, then focusing on pull-up training will help you close that gap.
3. They are difficult.
Learning to do a pull up is often an investment in loss (1). When you learn to surf, you might not get very good at it in your first year (pull ups wont take you nearly that long!). Pull ups and surfing take effort, commitment, and a willingness to learn from successive and often repeated failure. But because of the effort it takes to get you there, both surfing green waves and getting your chest to the bar can be highly rewarding.
Getting from Zero to Hero:
For ease of explanation, a pull up is performed with your palms facing forward, and a chin up with your palms facing towards you. Though they look similar, they are a very different exercise in how they relate to joint mechanics and motor sequencing.
Chin ups can be an easier place to start, with a view to progressing to pull ups. The reality is, if you are reading this post, you probably can’t do either just yet. If you can, then great. Find the step in the sequence that you are at and go from there.
Step 1. Sort out your shoulder and middle back flexibility.
If you are stuck in your middle back or have a rotator cuff issue, you really should sort this first before attempting pull ups, or you could hurt yourself. When you are ready, you will then want to start with chin ups instead of pull ups, as these place less of a strain on the anterior capsule of the shoulder. Pull ups require significant abduction and external rotation of your shoulder in a loaded position. This is a recipe for a shoulder injury with repeated exposure if your shoulder mechanics are poor.
Work on your fixing your rotator cuff ASAP. This will only help your paddling endurance and prevent injury. If you don’t know how, check out my shoulder rehab and rotator cuff program here.
Step 2. The hang.
I found a really useful article by Charles Poliquin (2), which helped me personally get my pull ups in order and worked a treat for my clients. Poliquin suggests that mastering one eccentric hang (from the point of having your chin over the bar and slowly extending to full lock out over a period of 30 seconds) should give you the strength you to perform at least one going the other way.
Step 3. Assisted pull ups.
This could be either assisted, with one foot on a box, or on a training partner using your lower body to assist you to the bar, or jumping from the floor enough to get you to the top of the pull. When you are there, the aim is to control the motion back to full lock out using only the upper body. Build to sets of 6-10 reps. The assisting partner should only use as much help as necessary to get their chin above the bar.
The first two steps would commonly be followed with other pulling exercises such as curls, rowing and TRX work, to help build your total training volume, and to strengthen the dead spots in your pulling movement.
Step 4. Go for it!
You might not get very many done, so a useful training tool I learned from the Australian SAS Selection Training program was to perform one set to your max, then three sets to half of whatever your max effort was. This way you should see improvement each session, and moderate your training volume to suit your level of progression until you are doing sets of 8-12 reps, or whatever your target is.
If you have a question that you would like to see answered here, JUST LIKE THIS ONE, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Ash, The Weekend Surf Warrior
1. Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning; Copyright © Josh Waitzkin – The concept of “investment in loss” mimics the Growth Mindset studied in depth by Carol Dweck, but I love how Josh Waitzkin present his information.
2. Charles Poliquin, Chin-ups vs Pull-Ups; http://www.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/856/Chin-ups_vs_Pull-ups.aspx