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Master a Pull-Up in 3 Easy Steps

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You’ve been challenged to do pull-ups since P.E. in elementary school, but chances are—especially if you’re a woman—that you can’t do any. “Pull-ups are so tough because it truly is a 100 percent bodyweight exercise; you are literally pulling up the weight of your entire body from a dead hang,” says Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer based in Los Angeles and creator of the Extreme Burn workout series. “Exercises like squats and push-ups are easier because you get the benefit of having weight on the ground and pushing off it.” 

And women have it worse. Ladies have a lower center of gravity than men and have more of their weight (and strength!) distributed in their lower body. They also have a higher percent of body fat—a fit man can drop his down into the single digits while a very fit woman needs 10 to 15 percent to be healthy—which makes pull-ups harder.

There’s also the mistaken belief that pull-ups are all about your arms. In reality, your entire top half needs to be strong in order to get your chin over that bar. “Every muscle in your upper body is working when doing pull-ups—the muscles of your forearms, biceps, shoulders, chest, core, and back are all working together,” says Donavanik. “But what really needs to be strong are your back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi, along with forearms. And a good strong grip is crucial to performing pull-ups.”

But pull-ups are challenging even if you do strengthen your back: Researchers at the University of Dayton had a group of women do just that, and after training, only a quarter of them could perform pull-ups. But, considering the study only had the women train for three months, it could be that they just needed more time. Use these exercises from Donavanik, which mimic the movement of the full-fledged pull-up, to practice, and you'll be able to achieve what three-quarters of the study participants could not. Do the exercises three to five days a week; when one step feels fairly easy, move up to the next. 

1. START WITH JUMPING PULL-UPS

Find a pull-up bar, or any bar that is easily reachable. You should be able to grasp it with your feet on the floor; if the bar’s too high, stand on a plyo box or bench to start.

Bend your knees slightly and jump up to launch yourself off the ground, then use your upper body to pull your chin over the bar. Use only as much leg strength as is needed to launch off the ground—really try to complete the movement with the upper body. Do three sets of 15-20 reps.

2. PROGRESS TO ISOMETRIC HOLDS

If your gym has an assisted pull-up machine, that’s a great tool to help get you to the real deal; just make sure you’re using only the minimum weight you need to help you get your chin over the bar, says Donavanik. No machine? Do these isometric holds instead:

Jump up, using as little force as needed to launch yourself up, and hold your chin above the bar for two to five seconds. Slowly lower to stand on floor. As you get stronger, “try to let the upper body take over more and more,” advises Donavanik. Do three to four sets of six to eight reps.

3. TRY A PULL-UP!

Once you’ve mastered isometric holds using very little force to jump up, a regular pull-up should be a natural progression. To get even stronger, Donavanik recommends doing drop sets. Do one full pull-up, then a few jumping pull-ups. ("By this time you should need minimal leg assistance, so don’t rely too heavily on the launch phase,” he says.) Work your way up to doing more pull-ups and fewer jumping pull-ups. To start, do four sets of one pull-up and five jumping pull-ups. Rest for three minutes between sets.

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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