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The art of the pull-up

By David Toussaint

Pull-ups are like penises. Gay men tend to brag about how gifted they are, but when challenged to prove it, rarely live up to their exaggerated boasts. Truth is, most guys aren't masters of this fitness favorite—and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

Much like their floor-bound cousin the push-up, pull-ups are an especially appealing exercise for those of you who don't want to spend much time working out, want a change in their routine, or like engaging in exercises that pit your body against gravity, not weights.

"It's important for people to lift their own body weight," says Shannan Friend, a former bodybuilder and NASM- and ACE-certified personal trainer at Manhattan's New York Sports Clubs. "It's a test of pure strength, and it's practical in that it makes you more adept at climbing and hoisting yourself over walls and ledges." While that might not sound like part of your daily routine, it's essential for police officers, firemen, and anyone in the armed forces.

In other words, it's butch.

The Classic Pull-up
The classic pull-up is a great exercise for your middle back, biceps, and forearms. To do a correct pull-up, you'll either need to use a chair or box to raise yourself to the bar, or, if it's close enough, jump up to reach it. Follow these steps to do a classic pull-up:

  1. Reach up or jump up and firmly grip the lateral bar with your palms facing toward you and your arms no more than shoulder-width apart—any farther out and you will strain your wrists.
  2. Allow your arms to straighten fully to get to the starting position.
  3. Keeping your back straight, lift yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Note you don't want to swing from your center while you lift, as the swinging motion will throw you off balance and make the exercise harder and less efficient. If you have trouble staying straight (no pun intended), start by crossing one calf over the other, then flick your heels up to your butt as you lift.
  4. Once you have lifted your chin above the pole, go down slowly and repeat.
Friend recommends doing two to three sets of eight to 12 reps, twice a week. You should rest for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

Easier Variation: Assisted Pull-ups
If you're not yet adept at pull-ups (Friend gauges your skill on whether you have trouble doing six reps), the best way to build your strength is to use the assisted pull-up machines, which can be found at most gyms. With assisted pull-up machines, you can stand on a platform, or lean down on your knees, and adjust the amount of weight to help pull you up past the bar (it's like having your own personal spotter supporting you on the way up). Start with three sets of 10 to 15 reps, twice a week, then slowly put on less weight as you improve. Continue this exercise for four to six weeks to build up your strength. After that, it's back to the big bar for more pull-ups.

Harder Variation: The Chin-up
If you're already an experienced strength trainer, you may want to try the chin-up variation of the pull-ups, with your palms facing away from you (toward the bar) and your hands slightly farther than shoulder-length apart. (For the record, most people confuse the names of these two pull-up exercises; you might want to refer to the pull-up and chin-up as closed grip and wide grip, respectively.) Chin-ups are more difficult than pull-ups because you don't have nearly as much bicep strength to help you up—biceps automatically flex when your wrists are turned toward you. Although you won't be able to do as many reps, chin-ups will do wonders for your back muscles.

The results of these exercises, according to Friend, are worth more than the strength gains. "It's exhilarating to see someone move their body three feet in the air," he says, "with nothing but space between person and ground."

It's also impressive to show your gym-mates that you can get it up with ease.

David Toussaint is the author of the book Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony. A professional playwright, short-story, and travel writer, he is currently at work on a novel. You can reach him at

Shannan Friend is a personal trainer certified with NASM and ACE. He can be reached for private-training sessions at 917-570-0595.