A lot of things are wasted on us young folks: naïve idealism, an inordinate amount of unearned confidence in our opinions, and, of course, the ability to rock and roll all night and party every day.
But one thing that’s not wasted only on us: the ability to get strong.
The only expiration date on your ability to get stronger day in and day out is your own expiration date. So even if that fateful day were tomorrow, you’ve still got the rest of today to build up enough strength to kick your way through the pearly gates (or at least put up a good fight before you get dragged through the gates somewhere south of Heaven).
And not only does your age not stop you from getting strong, neither does your gender. I know, I know, countless women’s magazines and legions of weak, fearful men have long told you strength training will make you bulky and overly muscular, and thus unattractive. Neither is qualified to tell you how to live your life. Ignore them both.
So if we put these two things together, it should go without saying: if you’re an older woman, you can still get strong. Very strong. And in my humble opinion, one of the best ways to both demonstrate and build your strength is by learning to do a pull-up—especially if you’ve never tried it before.
Why a Senior Woman Should Aim for Her First Pull-Up
If you’ll forgive my appeal to a common format found in the same women’s mags I just railed against here are: The Top 5 Reasons Why Pull-ups Should Be Your Top Strength Goal.
- Shoulder Health: Your shoulders are made to help you brachiate—that is, hang from stuff. The ability to hang from objects overhead is, in many cases, enough for many people to start to alleviate aches, stiffness, and discomfort in shoulders that haven’t been used the way they were made in quite some time. Don’t jump into hanging if you’re de-conditioned, but know this is one of the benefits waiting during your pull-up journey.
- Improved Grip: Grip strength is a common indicator of overall longevity (even better than your blood pressure, according to a study of over 140,000 people published out of McMaster University in Ontario), and is remarkably easy to train if you have someplace safe to hang and do pull-ups.
- Strong Back: As we age, certain muscle groups shorten and tighten and others weaken and lengthen, including the rhomboid muscles in between your shoulder blades. Weak rhomboids give you a slouched over, hunchback look. Pull-ups will go a long way in helping to strengthen many of the muscles of the back and to straighten posture.
- Strong Midsection: A stronger midsection can work wonders when it comes to taking the load off your poor, overworked lower back. Nearly one in ten people worldwide suffer from low back issues on a regular basis, and it is the cause of more disability than any other malady. Moreover, I guarantee you that anyone who can bang out strict, dead-hang pull-ups with confidence and control also sports a strong, crafted-from-granite stomach that 10,000 crunches and side planks couldn’t even begin to hope to sculpt. A lofty promise, but one I have yet to see proven wrong.
- Strong Arms: If you say you don’t want stronger, more muscular arms, you’re lying—plain and simple.
BONUS: Pull-ups add shape in all the right places.
Let’s see: strong, shapely upper back; rock-hard abs; firm, confident grip; toned, muscular arms—all by learning to perform one of the most useful, basic, and functional movements the human body is not only capable of, but literally made to do. The fact you don’t need any special rubber-and-plastic equipment from an infomercial for six easy payments of $99.95 is yet another added bonus.
Sara’s Story of Her First Pull-Up — at Age 56
I could go on and on about this, but it would be better to hand it over to briefly to someone who has lived it. Enter my colleague, Sensei Sara-Rivka Yekutiel, a woman I helped to develop the correct technique and set her on the path to performing her first honest-to-goodness pull-up at the age of 56, with less than a month’s worth of practice.
“In 1993, at age 36, I tore a tendon in my right shoulder. An MRI revealed a congenital defect in my right shoulder. A combination of bad medical advice and my own stupidity led to a frozen shoulder. I lost nearly all the muscle in my right arm and for almost a year couldn’t lift my arm more than a few inches. Physical therapy, shiatsu, and extremely painful deep tissue massage helped somewhat, but for nearly a decade I was unable to put pressure on my arm. I couldn’t fight, hit a heavy bag, or carry groceries.
In 2003, I began training with Sensei Yehuda Pantanoviz and started doing pushing hands and lifting light weights (one kilo, 100 punches). I pushed through the pain because I was excited about training. Within three years, my right arm was strong and the tendon no longer hurt. I could fight again.
But I really wanted to do a pull-up. Like the Marines! Like when I was a little kid and swung from the monkey bars. I started going to a gym and working on the lat pull-down. I did a lot of reps (up to 20) and worked up to lifting 45 pounds and then 55. My coach told me I was working on muscle endurance, and that I should move up to 65lbs but do fewer reps. I tried, but I could barely move the bar. Did I mention I’m 4’11” and weigh 99 pounds? I did this for years and got no closer to my goal.
In 2012, I met StrongFirst instructor Ronen Katz (now SFG Team Leader). After my first class, I fell in love with kettlebells and I fell hard. Later that year, I participated in the first StrongFirst Certification here in Israel. The 15 seconds on the pull-up bar was easy, but I felt like a sissy. I really wanted to do a real pull-up!
I was now training with kettlebells two to three times a week and doing two to three reverse pull-ups only on the days that I did grinds. An average of four to six reverse pull-ups per week.
In 2014, I had a private lesson with StrongFirst instructor Aleks Salkin. I told him about my pull-up goal and he gave me a series of tips. I was so inspired by our lesson I began training four days a week, no exceptions. On my “off” days I did reverse pull-ups three to five times a day. On my training days, I did them three or four times each session regardless of whether I was doing grinds or explosive power drills. We’re talking about four to five times the volume I had been doing.
I discovered volume counts. If I want to improve a kata, I have to do it many times. If I want to be stronger, I need to lift more frequently with higher weights. And it worked! I began to feel stronger and stopped using the 8kg and 10kg for get-ups. The 12kg came to feel normal. I started to snatch with it. I began doing more swings with the 16kg, more suitcase-carrying drills and did rows – although not as religiously as the pull-ups. I had been pushing off with both feet on a ladder rung. Now, I rested one foot on the ladder but left the other off, and tried not to push off with my leg.
A month after I started this program, I awoke one morning and went to the bar with a positive attitude. I gripped it hard, feet not touching, tensed my entire body, and then said to the bar, “It’s either me or you, mother****er!” I crushed that bar into my chest and like a bubble in a soda can I rose to the top. (Okay, I was breathing kind of hard.)
Now I have a new goal: two in a row!”
Convinced? Great! Now, Where to Start
First and foremost, hire a quality SFB instructor. Contrary to popular belief, reading one article will not prepare you for the depth and attention-to-detail necessary in your training to take you from point A to point B. Investing your money in a good instructor will pay out dividends in your strength, health, and all-around awesomeness.
Second, realize that consistency over time (no matter how much time) will take you the distance, not an unbridled iron will for physical punishment in the name of gains. Take your time, do things right, and listen to your teacher.
Finally, follow this set of progressions. Accompanying them are a series of benchmarks that would be helpful to achieve before charging forward full bore into the next progression.
1. The hollow position. This posture is key for a strong pull-up as it teaches you how to turn it into a full-body movement, connecting your glutes, legs, abs, back, and arms to the effort so you can attack the pull-up with everything you’ve got.
5. Flexed arm hangs. This will build strength in the back, grip, arms, and midsection, as well as some true grit to back it all up. You’re now at the cusp of something great and there’s no turning back.
6. Active negatives. Done right, these will do wonders for your strength. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates is fond of pointing out that skipping the negative portion of an exercise is the same as skipping half the rep. Do not overlook these. They will build up an incredible amount of strength. If you can’t do a good negative, you will not be able to do a pull-up either.
7. Assisted reps. In these, your trainer will give you some light assistance (just enough to allow you to work hard and complete the rep) by pushing into your low back to reduce some of your weight and allow you to build some familiarity and confidence with the act of pulling yourself back up.
Pull-Up Training Benchmarks
Below are a few benchmarks to aim for before working on your pull-up training from the bar. Work your way through them, and don’t try to skip ahead—you can’t outperform a lack of preparation.
- 5 sets of 30 seconds hollow position holds. If you think this is a lot, gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer makes his athletes work up to 5 sets of 1-minute holds while rocking back and forth and maintaining the hollow position, with just enough rest in between sets to do some mobility work. You’ll live.
- 5×5 bodyweight row at a moderately steep (for you) elevation.
- 1-minute active hang from a bar. This means keeping your shoulders pulled into their sockets. This is important because it’s going to prepare all the muscles of your shoulder girdle that will later help you pull yourself up while strengthening your grip.
- 20 second flexed-arm hang.
For the holds, sets of between 5-30 seconds will get you to your goal. Stick to sets of 3-5 for the rows and lower the elevation over time.
Sample Program for Building to Your First Pull-Up
Once you have met these standards, it’s time to set your eyes on the home stretch. Below is a sample program of how I recommend building up to your first pull-up. Keep in mind your current ability level will determine how quickly you proceed, so the below should be taken as a template, not a set-in-stone guide.
All the reps are to be performed as follows:
Brief dead hang -> assisted rep -> brief flexed arm hang -> negative.
Rest plenty between sets.
Day 1 – 7 sets of one rep
Day 2 – 5 sets of one rep
Day 3 – 10 sets of one rep
Day 1 – 1, 2, 1, 2, 1
Day 2 – 1, 2, 1, 1
Day 3 – 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1
Day 1 – 2, 2, 2, 1
Day 2 – 2, 2, 1
Day 3 – 2, 2, 2, 2, 2
Week 4: Back off week. Repeat week 2
Day 1 – 2, 3, 2
Day 2 – 2, 3
Day 3 – 2, 3, 2, 3
Day 1 – 3, 3, 3
Day 2 – 3, 3
Day 3 – 3, 3, 3, 3
Day 1 – 3, 3, 3, 3
Day 2 – 3, 3, 3
Day 3 – 3, 3, 3, 3, 3
Week 8: Back off week. Repeat week 5.
Week 9: Warm up and test pull-up!
This is only a sample program. The above set and rep schemes can be seen as benchmarks within themselves, and you may need to work at a slower pace to work up to achieving them. It may take you a month or less like it did Sara-Rivka, or it might take you three, six, nine months, or maybe longer, depending on where you are in your physical journey. But you’re planning on getting a few months older anyway, right? So what’s the rush?
The lessons to take from this are to gradually increase the volume over time (and according to your ability to recover), to take a few steps forward and one step back, and to be patient.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor will your strength be. But your patience and diligence will be rewarded with more than just a chiseled, resilient back, rock-hard abs, and a grip that never quits. You will also be rewarded with greater confidence, day-to-day usable strength to keep up with your kids and grandkids, and bragging rights among your friends still spinning their wheels with “7 New Ways To Tighten Your Tummy” (not to mention all of their unbridled jealousy).
Leave the youthful shenanigans for the kids. Train like an adult. And give those young, opinionated whippersnappers a thing or two to think about if they cross the line and talk back to their elders.
Sara-Rivka Yekutiel is a fifth degree black belt who has been studying Goju-Ryu karate since 1974. She is a mother of five and grandmother of six who lives and teaches karate in Tekoa and Jerusalem, Israel.