Pull Ups

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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!


Machines Or Free Weights?


By Raymond Onyango.

My own strength-training program consists of just 6 main exercises, Squats, Pull-ups, Dead lifts, Dips, Lunges and Push-ups.  I have stuck with these exercises for years because they share certain common characteristics  which make them time efficient and devastatingly effective all at once.

The 3 common denominators that underlie each one of these exercises start with the fact that, they fall into a category of exercises known as Functional movements. Functional movements are so-called because they are designed to mimic natural real life activities, which make use of our bodies in patterns that are consistent with our natural design and evolution. By their very nature functional movements are multi dimensional, demanding the cooperation of several muscle groups across our bodies, which in turn burns lots of calories and gets us lean quick. Besides helping us to get lean and stay lean, functional movements help us to maintain our quality of life, by preserving strength and range of motion around our joints. These are the two things we lose steadily and progressively with age, beginning in our thirties and beyond.  Lastly functional movements train several aspects of our physical and metal fitness beyond sheer muscle tone; balance, agility, flexibility, coordination, proprioception, muscular endurance and even cardiovascular endurance are all challenges that must be overcome in order to gain mastery of functional training.

This is important because the human body is an architectural masterpiece of astounding complexity. You hardly ever give it a thought, but you will be amazed to learn that it takes the coordinated action of over 200 muscles just to take a single step forward. Against this backdrop it is rather obvious that isolation type training, of the kind that is offered by gym machines has no place in the evolutionary narrative of the human body. According to Livestrong.com a registered trademark of the Lance Armstrong foundation, and I quote, “ sometime in the 1950’s body builder Harold Zinkin created the multi station, cable based Universal gym. Within that same time frame, Jack La Lanne invented the Smith Machine, the Lat pull down machine and the Leg extension machine. Fitness equipment gained sophistication in the 1970’s when Arthur Jones created his Nautilus line of equipment. His machine featured a cam, which adjusted the resistance of the machine according to the natural curve within an exercise”.

It is notable that all of the men who inspired modern-day gym machines were body builders themselves. According to the Wikipedia, “Body building is a form of body modification involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, body builders display their physiques to a panel of judges who assign points based on their appearance. Body builders prepare for competition through a combination of fat loss, and the application of oils, which combined with lighting make the definition of a muscle group more distinct.” Bodybuilding is actually a sport, which has no direct bearing on health and fitness. In fact one can argue that in the professional ranks body builders do not aspire to be healthy individuals. Extreme dieting, unhealthy weight loss methods and widespread anabolic steroid use are an all to common part of the sport.

On a purely functional level most of our modern-day gym machines were designed for body builders, and because of this they have several inherent and potentially dangerous weaknesses.  For starters, they tend to isolate single muscle groups, which in turn can create serious muscle imbalances that lead to long-term injury. A functional exercise such as the Walking lunge will tone virtually every muscle in your lower body, but your core will also be recruited to maintain your balance, not to mention the coordination it takes to move seamlessly into the next lunge. These are the exact same movement patterns you engage when running, walking, climbing up a flight of stairs and all other such like activities of daily living. The Leg extension, which is the machine equivalent of lunges, has you sitting in a chair (after sitting all day in the office, no less!) lifting a load with your feet. Your hips and the rest of your body are completely divorced from the movement and stand aside as passive observers while the quadriceps alone bear the burden. I cannot think of a single situation in my life where I have had to do this kind of movement except within the gym and so for the majority of us (unless we are in rehab or are engaged in body building) really have absolutely no need for this kind of exercise. It is also instructive to note that gym related injuries have escalated in recent years as many of us pursue well-intentioned but ill-advised fitness regimens.

A further incentive to opt for functional free weight exercises over and above their machine counterparts has much to do with weight loss. Weight loss is the single most frequently stated objective among gym users anywhere in the world.  Indeed many of us only show up at the gym, when we start to have real trouble fitting into our clothes. Free weight functional exercises help you burn fat by encouraging three key things – they elevate your heart rate, increase your rate of breathing and work up a sweat. Your heart rate is a direct indicator of your body’s energy demands, that is why your heart rate soars when you have to run after the bus. Your rate of breathing also increases in order to meet oxygen demand and is a direct indicator of the speed of your body’s metabolic processes. Heat is the by-product of all these metabolic processes and the body gets rid of the excess by inducing sweat from the sweat glands which cools down the body. If you build your self a circuit of functional exercises such as I have done for myself, you will be so out of breath and sweating buckets by the end of just a single circuit, it is no wonder these exercises zap the fat from your waistline faster than you can spell G.O.N.E.  The secret lies in the level of muscular integration; these exercises challenge a wide cross-section of muscles and so demand a lot of energy to execute. The more energy you expend, the more weight you lose, so in just a single workout session you can lose weight, tone up and get a kick-ass cardiovascular workout all at the same time – and that is all you really need!

Have a functional week will you!

Ps. Next week we will examine the mechanics of each of these exercises individually starting with the Squat – stay tuned!

Absolutely Flat Abs!


3 Things You Can Do To Get There!

By Raymond Onyango.

Flat Abs

A flat, toned abdomen probably ranks first, as one of the most desirable outcomes of engaging in a regular exercise regimen, and one of the most elusive, to say the least!  And yet whenever I go down to the coast, or my hometown of Kisumu, every single fisherman on the lake, has a perfect set of six – pack abdominal muscles worthy of a fitness magazine cover!  They are the living proof that you don’t need to pop pills, or accumulate silly gadgets in the pursuit of a flat abdomen, you just need to modify your approach to abdominal exercise. Here is how.

Improve Your Posture

The Major Abdominal Muscle Groups

Your body has three main weights – the head, the chest and the hips. Keeping these weights in alignment, is a function that is mostly executed by four main abdominal muscle groups namely:

Transversus abdominus: The deepest muscle layer. Its main roles are to stabilize the trunk and maintain internal abdominal pressure.

Rectus abdominus: Slung between the ribs and the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis. This muscle has the characteristic bumps or bulges, when contracting, that are commonly called ‘the six pack’. The main function of the rectus abdominus is to move the body between the ribcage and the pelvis.

Six Pack Abs

External oblique muscles: These are on each side of the rectus abdominus. The external oblique muscles allow the trunk to twist, but to the opposite side of whichever external oblique is contracting. For example, the right external oblique contracts to turn the body to the left.

Internal oblique muscles:These flank the rectus abdominus and are located just inside the hipbones. They operate in the opposite way to the external oblique muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together.

Sit Tall

Sitting for too much of the day, often with poor posture as is the case with the great majority of us, has everything to do with weak abdominal muscles and strained lower backs. Most of the work our abdominal muscles do on a day to day basis is low in intensity, but long in duration, such as simply holding the upper body upright for hours every day. If you can consciously begin to improve your workout by sitting and standing tall, you will have laid a firm foundation upon which to build that flat abdomen you desire.

Think Whole Body

Think whole body

A common misconception is perpetuated by several health and fitness magazines is that getting flat abs is all about, doing tons and tons of crunches, sit ups and other abdominal exercises. Not only does this approach not work, even worse it encourages muscle imbalances in the body that can lead to host of expensive and draining medical conditions. The Human Body is a study in balance, and the abdomen is no different.

Remember our fishermen in Kisumu and Mombasa. I can bet you my last shilling that they have never done a sit up or an abdominal crunch in their lives and they certainly don’t posses gym memberships. On the other hand, they spend all day Rowing boats, Hauling In laden nets and hauling heavy baskets of fish ashore. In a nutshell, they use their bodies, and that in turn is what gives them such incredible muscle tone.

To get a flat abdomen, you have to train, you legs, arms and all other parts of the body in equal measure, The more muscle groups you call upon, the more you rev your metabolism and the more the pounds will drop off…even around the waistline! Huge compound exercises such as Squats, Lunges, Pull Ups, Push Ups, The Plank And the Bridge should form the core of your strength-training program. Your abdomen will benefit from it!

Eat Better

Fresh Produce

As you well know by now, all your efforts in the gym will come to naught if you don’t follow though with some sensible eating habits. Counting calories is a grand waste of time and you don’t have to subscribe to any complicated sounding diet plan either. Generations upon generation of our ancestors were able to feed themselves competently without professional help. They did it by eating wholesome, fresh, unprocessed food, devoid of any preservatives of flavor enhancing additives. They did it by approaching food as a source of nutrition and sustenance, rather than today where we are guided by taste and convenience as opposed to nutritional value.

Unprocessed food is the way to go

Most importantly however, they did it by being simple. The most successful approach to healthy eating, is that which is simple and easy to maintain for life. If you go in for an expensive diet plan, or one that is overly restrictive in its scope, you will fail primarily because you will not be able to maintain it for a meaningful period of time. Simply cut out as much of the processed stuff as you can, and go back to eating the way our grand parents and their parents before them did. It might take you a little longer to prepare a meal from scratch with fresh ingredients, but it will also help you live longer!

Have a great week will you!