An Ode to Pull-Ups

It’s you versus you.

Illustration of person doing pull-up on bar against blue-sky background with head floating with rays like the sun
Tim Lahan

Who do I think I am, dangling off this bar?

I think I’m an ape. I think I’m an aerialist. I think I’m Jason Momoa. I think I’m a 54-year-old man with a dodgy shoulder, experiencing—to the pound, to the ounce—the precise terms of my contract with gravity. That’s one thing you can always say for the pull-up: You’re lifting your own weight.

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Its first cousin is of course the push-up. But the push-up has no verticality. A blur of ground, or of floor, bounces madly back and forth in front of your face. And besides, your feet are taking some of the load—so as far as body weight goes, that means you’re bearing (just Googled this) only 64 percent. No, for the true self-haul, the full load of who you are, it has to be the pull-up.

You do pull-ups alone, very alone, but maybe a couple of your pull-up brothers are there too—grimly contemplative, walking in loose circles around the bar, shrugging and sighing. Pull-up talk is minimal and poetic. The other day I asked a big dude if I could jump in between his sets. He took out one earbud as I repeated the question. “Get at it,” he said. “Get some.”

Are you wondering how many I can do? I can do eight. I can do 60. I can do 102, in 13 sets, over a period of two and a half days: sets of nine, sets of four, sets of nought. As for technique, I’ve invented my own grip—I call it the French Press. The point is, I do them. I do pull-ups, and they never get any easier. Still the same flutter of dismay as I stare up at the metal bar. Still the same sensation of wrenched brain cells as I jump and grab and heave.

But the pull-up cures me like no other exercise. It lifts me clear of my stews and stagnancies. It dramatizes my rising-above. Need a mood shifter, a circuit breaker? Do pull-ups. And do them outside. Nothing against gyms, or the pull-up bar installed over a doorway at home, but for the real pull-up effect, you want to be hoisting yourself into the sky. At the moment of maximum effort, you want to be silhouetted against infinity.

Then you drop to the earth, the sturdy and ever-supportive earth. There it is, and there you are. Ready.

This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “Ode to Pull-Ups.”