Before we evolved to human beings, we were apes. It therefore follows that many of the physical traits that make us human have been shaped through this evolutionary journey. We still share many anatomical features with most of the other ape species — a pivoting shoulder joint being 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?
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 keyboard.
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 programme. My reasons are as simple as they are compelling.
For starters, pull-ups have a direct impact on a 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 compounded than this.
It is such a comprehensive exercise. If you manage just a single upper body exercise in an entire workout, that 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 and more calories burnt, which in turn translates into faster and more effective fat loss.
It doesn’t end there. Pull-ups are a great panacea for back pain (in both the lower and upper back), respiratory limitations such as asthma as well as the prevention of common shoulder joint injuries.
Let’s begin with the back pain, the term ‘Kyphosis’ refers to a postural imbalance characterised 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 hunched over a key board and paper work.
Pull-ups are great way to counter postural Kyphosis by strengthening key muscles of the upper back, which are instrumental in helping to keep the upper back strong enough to support the weight of the rib cage.
Talking of the rib cage, 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.
Pull-ups help to condition a specialised set of muscle groups known as intercostals, whose central function is to hold your rib cage open, so that your diaphragm (which is your main breathing muscle) can move freely.
One more reason to include pull-ups into your training regimen is the prevention of 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.
Pulls will help strengthen your rotator cuff muscles as well as help to stabilise the shoulder blades (scapula), which serve 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.
— Coming up next week: How to do a proper pull-up.
The writer is a fitness consultant, to join the conversation on facebook, search raymondonyango.com