Experienced trainers and observant readers may have noticed by this point in the exercise series that each movement we’ve covered so far is one of the “big 6” exercises that target major muscle groups over the entire body.
Each of these exercises in turn can be classified as a “push” or “pull” in their simplest forms. In the bench press, for example, you “push” the bar upward and away from your chest. With the barbell row, you bend over and “pull” the bar toward your chest. So, you can imagine by the names “pull-up” and “pull-down,” we will be dealing with a “pull” movement for this week’s post.
Once you’ve mastered this sixth movement, you will understand the basics of the major functional movements your patrons will be performing in your gym! You’ll know how to do each exercise safely, how to advise each member to optimize their form, and how to recognize unsafe conditions and prevent injuries before they happen.
Pull-ups, and to a lesser extent their easier version, pull-downs, are almost unmatched when it comes to developing the large muscles of the upper back, the shoulders, and the arms all at once. The large muscle recruitment means this move burns tons of calories, dramatically improves strength, and goes a long way toward building a “fit” aesthetic.
When you do pull-ups regularly, you will also notice your forearms and grip strength are much improved. This is because, with each rep, you are lifting your whole body weight (or more, if you use added resistance).
Pull-downs performed on a machine are usually done as an easier alternative to traditional pull-ups for people who can’t complete a full bodyweight pull-up. For the most part, they still work the same muscle groups and build strength, so they are a solid stepping stone for beginners or anyone who needs to improve upper body strength.
Step up to the pull-up bar and place your hands shoulder-width apart, with the palms facing away from you.
Note that the position of your palms facing outward is what distinguishes the pull-up exercise from the chin-up exercise, in which your palms would face you as you grip the bar. Chin-ups are also great, so if you enjoy this variation, go for it! Just keep in mind that, while the pull-up is sculpting your back, your shoulders, and your entire upper body, chin-ups primarily work your arms.
To do your first pull-up, just lift your feet off of the floor, hang for a second with straight arms, and then lift your body up to the bar by bending your elbows and squeezing your back muscles. A full rep is complete when your chin passes the level of the bar.
A pull-down is usually done seated on a bench, at a lat pull-down machine. The movement should be as similar to a pull-up as you can manage.
Grip the bar with your palms facing away from you and your hands shoulder-width apart. Pull the bar down to your chest, in front of your neck (not behind), until your chin clears the bar.
Pull-ups Versus Pull-Downs: Which Should I Do?
It is worth noting that pull-ups are difficult for some people who do not yet have the upper body strength to lift their body weight.For anyone who struggles with performing a complete pull-up, pull-downs are a valid option, as they replicate the approximate motion of a real pull-up, but don’t require the exerciser to lift his or her entire body weight. Instead, the person can start with lighter weights on the machine and slowly work up to a higher weight, as they would with most other weightlifting exercises.
In general, however, if you can do a pull-up instead of a machine pull-down, you should focus on pull-ups for their greater benefits.
In fact, some trainers recommend skipping the pull-down machine entirely and focusing on an exercise called negative pull-ups instead, as a way of gradually building up to regular pull-ups. To do a negative pull-up, you would grip the bar the same way, except the movement starts with your chin over the bar instead of with your arms straight. Then, you would slowly lower your body while using your back and arms to resist your weight dropping.
Some people do excel with negative pull-ups, but others find pull-downs more appealing. At the end of the day, your mileage may vary from the next person’s. The best version is whichever one you prefer, because keeping your workout pleasant is what keeps you motivated to keep doing it and making progress.
Pull-ups require a stable bar suspended high enough for exercisers to be able to hang freely, with knees bent. Commercial gyms typically go with cage-style pull-up bars, because they are safe, stable, and allow more than one person to use them at one time.
If you choose to offer more options for beginners or people who can’t perform traditional pull-ups, you may want to provide a few of the following equipment choices:• Lat pull-down machines • Crossfit-style resistance pull-up bands that exercisers can loop over the bar and place one foot in to offset some of their body weight and make pull-ups a bit easier• A row machine that allows the angle to be adjusted for a vertical pull rather than the horizontal row pull
Safety & Liability
Considering neither pull-ups or pull-downs require the use of heavy barbells, both are less-threatening to most gym owners in terms of liability for accidents. While there is a risk of falling for anyone who accidentally lets go of the pull-up bar mid-rep, falls like this are unlikely to be serious unless the person’s chin clips the bar on the way down. You might want to think about providing rubber grips or hand chalk near pull-up stations to prevent mishaps like this.
Otherwise, keeping your gym safe for patrons to do pull-ups or pull-downs is a matter of making sure your equipment is safe, stable, and in good repair. Wobbly pull-up cages or rusted cables on lat pull-down machines could spell trouble, so it’s a good idea to keep your equipment in a frequent rotation for inspection.
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