The Best Upper Body Exercise Of All Time.

By Raymond Onyango

In our continuing series focusing on ‘Functional Exercises’ we have sought to underscore the importance of working out in a manner that stays true to our evolutionary history as primates.  Before we were human, we were apes and many of the physical traits, which make us human, have been shaped through this evolutionary journey. To this day there are still many anatomical features that we share in common with most of the other ape species – a pivoting shoulder joint – is one of them. Human beings, like all other great apes have an incredible range of motion around the shoulder joints. Way back in time, this range of motion allowed us to do a lot of arboreal branchiation (swinging through the trees with our arms) which was important to facilitate easy movement high up in the forest canopy away from all the predators on the ground.  Together with this ‘pivoting shoulder joint’ human beings like other apes also developed inward closing hook like fingers and a broader palm for better grip, opposable thumbs, longer arms and freely rotating wrists.

These evolutionary traits have stuck with us, even as our lifestyles have changed dramatically. Can you remember the last time you climbed up a tree? I didn’t think so, neither can I. Here we are living in a body that was essentially designed to swing through the trees, but occupying  a world where the most adventurous  thing we get to do on most days is to sit behind a desk somewhere and shuffle our fingers along a key board. Outside of our natural habitat , the only substitute is to find a readily accessible, simple and effective  exercise that can play the same integral physical conditioning role that, swinging though the trees did for our early ancestors.

Enter the Pull Up.  When it comes down to program design, Pull ups are like bread and butter to me. I consider them one of those MUST-DO exercises, which should form the cornerstone of any serious upper body physical conditioning program. My reasons are as simple as they are compelling. For starters pull ups have a direct
impact on a staggeringly huge cross-section of upper body muscle groups. From your forearms, to your biceps, through to your shoulders, chest, upper back and reaching down to your abs and entire core region – it doesn’t get more compound than this. it is such a comprehensive exercise, I dare say, if you could get away with doing just a single upper body exercise in an entire workout, this would be it. As you well know by now, the larger the cross-section of muscles involved in a given exercise, the greater the calorie cost of that exercise. With an exercise that involves as huge a cross-section of muscle groups, more energy is utilised, more calories ‘burned’ which in turn translates into faster and more effective fat loss. Such a huge coordinated effort also ensures that your body developes in perfect proportion and you can avoid many of the muscle the imbalances that result  from isolating individual muscle groups on the isotonic machines at the gym.

It doesn’t end there either! Pull Ups are a great panacea for back pain (both in the lower and upper back), respiratory limitations such as asthma as well as the prevention of common shoulder joint injuries. Lets begin with the back pain, the term Kyphosis refers to a postural imbalance characterized by a rounding of the upper back as is commonly seen in old folk and office workers who spend the better part of the day, head down, shoulders rounded, hunched over computer key board and paper work. Pull Ups are
great way to counter postural Kyphosis by strengthening key muscles of the upper back including the rhomboids, trapezius , and latisumus muscle groups, all of which are instrumental in helping to keep the upper back strong enough to support the weight of the ribcage. Talking of the ribcage, you might not have known this, but poor posture actually has a direct effect on the depth of your breath and ultimately your energy levels. Pulls Ups help to condition a specialized set of muscle groups known as your intercostals, whose central function is to hold your ribcage open, so that your diaphragm ( which is your main breathing muscle) can move freely. When these muscles get weak and deconditioned, you wind up literally suffocating slowly under the weight of your own ribcage and your aerobic capacity can be so diminished as to have a marked effect on your day-to-day energy levels. You can take a basic lung capacity test at your local gym or doctor’s office, using a simple machine known as a spirometer, which has a tube though which your blow strongly and a little ball that measures your total volume.

One more compelling reason to include Pull Ups into your training regimen, to prevent shoulder injuries. The shoulder is one of the most injury prone joints in the human body, chiefly because it has such a huge range of motion. Unlike the hip-joint which is also a ball and socket joint built for mobility, it does not have the benefit of a deep socket to support it and protect it from injury. Insted it relies almost entirely on the muscles surrounding it  for its stability and integrity. Pulls will help to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles (one of the most frequently injured muscle groups in the shoulder) as well as helping to stabilize the shoulder blades (scapula) which basically serves as the foundation for your entire shoulder complex.
Last but not least, pull ups are a great way to strengthen your grip. Grip is one of the first things you lose as you begin to age, which is why older folk have such a hard time getting the lids off of glass jars. But grip is also a true measure of strength because ultimately you can only lift that which you can grip, and therefore you cannot talk of building strength without reference to grip.

How To Do A Proper Pull Up

Like any other exercise, pull ups are all about technique, and good technique involves mastering the three key parts of the pull up – Initiation, Follow through and repositioning.


Pull ups belong to a group of exercises called closed chain kinetic exercises in which the arm or foot does not move and the body has to re arrange itself around  fixed point. Bearing this in mind, it makes sense that the correct way to initiate a pull up is to begin by drawing the shoulder blades together and pushing your chest through as though someone had grabbed you by the cuff of your shirt and yanked you up towards the ceiling. This stabilizes your shoulder complex and  ensures that the workload is not directed into your biceps which would be inadequate to lift your entire body weight. Quite often the reason why most of us cannot do a single pull up is not because we don’t have the physical strength for it, but simply  because we don’t know how to use it effectively!

Follow Through

Once you have initiated the movement, the follow through is where a group of muscles  known as the prime movers kick in. The prime movers are the guys who do the heavy lifting. As far as Pull Ups go, the latisimus  dorsi whose central function is to draw the upper arm back towards the body, bear most of the brunt.  To activate them you need to  pull down through your elbows and use that leverage to get your chip up and over the bar. You are looking for a slow controlled movement that should take at least 4 seconds to complete. This is where technique wins over strength, By working from your lats, you are engaging a much larger and more powerful muscle group than the biceps. Keep the lower body relaxed and quiet so that it is not swinging all over the place. This is one of the things you will have to practice in order to have a real mastery of the pull up.


This simply means getting back to your starting point, in readiness for the next repetition. Now i watch a lot of guys at the gym do pulls ups and the great majority simply throw themselves up at the bar and then fall back in an untidy, jerky movement that not only places the shoulders at risk but also negates much of the benefit of the exercise itself.  It is now widely accepted within the fitness industry that the eccentric or negative (lowering) phase of a movement, is where you develop the greatest strength. Eccentric training is doubly effective because the muscle has to keep contracting even as it is lengthening. The produces greater adaptations in terms of strength as well as enhanced metabolic ( calorie burning) activity…music to the ears of anyone looking to get lean and toned. Also working to your advantage is the fact that you can lower more weight in an eccentric contraction than you can lift in a concentric contraction. The short of this is that even if you don’t have the strength to lift yourself up into the pull up, you can still climb up on a chair and focus only on lowering yourself. Soon enough you will build the strength to do a full pull up with ease.

Variations of the Pull Up

(From the most simple to the most advanced)

Leaning Pull Ups On Smith Machine

Chair Assisted Pull Up

Under Hand Grip Pull Up

Overhand Grip Pull Up

Weighted Pull Up

Muscle Up – The Ultimate Pull Up

So there you have it, a variation to suit each and every one of us. Simply pick your level and pull up!  Have an inspired week will you!