It's hard to beat pull-ups as an exercise for overall strength.  They work your back, shoulders, arms, and core.  Even though pull-ups are usually done as a body-weight exercise, you simply can't replicate the movement without a pull-up bar.  That's why, for those of you working out at home, I highly recommend picking one up - either online or at your local mega-retailer.

Pull-ups are a very challenging exercise, especially for beginners.  Here are some additional thoughts:

  • If you can't do a single pull-up, start by having a stool, step, or chair underneath the bar.  You can stand your feet on the stool, and use your legs to "spot" yourself.  Beware, however - too much spotting and you're not getting stronger.  The goal should be to use your legs as little as possible, eventually working to the point where you don't need to use your legs at all.
  • Chin-ups (hands facing towards you) are a little bit easier than pull-ups.  As you build towards being able to do a full set of pull-ups, you can alternate chin-ups with pull-ups.
  • Beginners - OK to use a stool if you can't do the full set without one.  It's also OK to reduce the number of pull-ups called for in the Fit-20 workout. (as long as you're wiped out by the end of the workout!)
  • Advanced - OK to do more pull-ups than called for in the Fit-20 workout.  It's also OK to add weight.

Other variations:

  • Pull-up grip - standard grip with your hands facing in the same direction as your body, slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Chin-up grip - turn your hands around so your palms are facing your body. This makes your arms work a little more and your back work a little less.  Most people think this is easier.
  • Neutral grip - if your pull-up bar has handles that run perpendicular to the bar, hold these handles with your hands facing towards each other.
  • Staggered grip - have each of your hands using a different type of grip.  Switch grips and do the same number with the other hand facing the other way.
  • Knee lifts as part of pull-ups - pull your knees up into your chest as you pull yourself up.  This makes the pull-up a little easier since your knees add momentum to the movement and because you're using your ab muscles to help generate that momentum.  Although easier, this adds core work to the exercise.
  • Knee lifts after pull-up - do a pull-up and hold yourself at the top while slowly raising your knees to your chest.
  • All of these different grips work slight variations of the same muscle groups. It's a good idea to vary your grips over time to allow for strengthening of your full muscle sets. But at the same time, if one of these grips causes pain (shoulder, elbow, whatever) - you're probably better off switching to a different grip than trying to muscle through something that might be causing you big problems. (and it might be time to get checked out by a professional.)

For more information - stronglifts.com has a good write up on proper technique, along with photos and video.

Legal Disclaimer (don't blame me.)

Warning - I am NOT a licensed physical trainer, therapist, nutritionist, or a doctor.  I am a regular guy who just happens to love exercise and fitness.

Exercise can be dangerous if done incorrectly or in excess.  I can't see you, and you can't see me, to know if you're doing an exercise incorrectly, which could lead to injury.

Please Please Please seek help / advice / counsel from a local professional before starting a new program, or before doing an exercise you're unfamiliar with.  This information is intended as a guide to point you in the right direction.  If you aren't familiar with the exercises described herein, I highly recommend seeking professional advice before trying them.