Thanks to that son-of-a-gun Rona, a lot of gym rats have been forced to Frankenstine their yard work tools and pantry contents into workout gear.
But as crafty as we can get, it’s sometimes hard to feel like you’re adequately working all your desired muscles with what’s lying around the house.
The upper-body muscles consist of two main groups: your pushing muscles (pecs, triceps, and shoulders) and your pulling muscles (traps, lats, forearms, and back).
Much of our regular workouts, and day-to-day activity — hunching over the keyboard, getting ourselves out of the work chair, or off the couch — primarily works our pushing muscles far more than our pulling muscles.
So, how do you quit spoiling your push muscles and show a little more love to your pulling muscles? Well, we get creative with pulling exercises.
Introducing, the chair pull-up.
Also known as bench pull-ups or table pull-ups depending on what furniture they’re done with, these allow you to do “pull-ups” without a pull-up bar — or any other gym equipment for that matter.
How to do a chair pull-up
- Lay on your back underneath the chair so that the underside of the seat is about parallel with your chest.
- Extend your legs and “screw” your heels into the ground.
- Reach up and grab either side of the chair seat with a hook grip style (thumbs hooked under the seat, fingers hooked over the top).
- Maintaining a ~flat~ and stiff-as-a-board body, think about squeezing grapefruits under your armpits to activate your pulling muscles.
- Pull your body up as if you’re doing a ring row and touch your chest to the underbelly of the furniture.
- Keep your body rigid and elbows tucked in toward your ribcage. Then straighten your arms to lower yourself back down. That’s one rep.
According to strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl Alena Luciani, you want to aim for a chair or table that is about as wide as your shoulders are.
“If your hands are forced to be too wide or too narrow it’s going to work slightly different muscles, making it a less optimal substitution for the standard pull-up,” she says.
You’ll also want to avoid any chairs with wheels, as you’re going to need a stationary base and enough room to get underneath it.
Babes, you should know by now that we don’t cover movements in The Lift unless the benefits are plentiful.
Reduced risk of injury
One exercise no-no that you’ll often hear about from personal trainers is a tendency to favor one side while working out. Doing this not only makes our muscle tone game look a little off, but it also increases the risk of injury by putting too much strain onto one side.
“Generally speaking, you want to work both muscle groups equally to build balance across the muscle groups,” says Luciani. “Muscle imbalances put your joints at heightened risk for injury.”
By design, a good-form chair pull-up evens things out.
Again, the chair pull-up works your upper-body pulling muscles. Meaning, it works your:
“To remain [effectively] stiff as you pull you also need to engage your core, glutes, quads, and calves,” notes Luciani.
No equipment needed
Chair pull-ups require a sturdy chair (or table) and nothing else. So, they’re an A+ option for folks who don’t have a pull-up bar but still want to work their upper body for similar effects.
The chair pull-up itself is a scale (read: easier variation) of the standard pull-up. But chair pull-ups themselves can also be scaled easier or harder.
Luciani explains that the closer you are to lying flat on your back when you start, the harder the pull-ups will be. And the closer you are to lying or sitting at an angle, the easier they’ll be.
“You can also plant your feet under your bum in a glute bridge position to make them easier,” she says.
Though it seems pretty straightforward, it’s still possible to do a chair pull-up incorrectly (even if you have the strength to do a strict pull-up).
Going full speed demon
According to CJ Hammond, XPS Certified Personal Trainer with RSP Nutrition, one of the most common mistakes with any upper-body exercise is moving too fast.
“Many individuals wrongly believe that speedy reps are better than slower tempo reps,” he says.
While moving at pace has its time and place (for instance, during a CrossFit comp), moving slowly actually increases the amount of time your muscles are under tension. And the greater the time under tension? The greater the gains.
Experiment with pulling your chest toward the chair bottom at different tempos. How much harder is it to do 10 reps at 4 seconds up than 10 at a 1 second up? Can you take a full 10 seconds to complete a single rep? Find out!
Shortening the distance
“To maximize a movement’s effectiveness, you need to prioritize moving through a full range of motion,” says Hammond.
Full range of motion means pulling your chest all the way to the bottom of the chair/table/bench — not halting halfway up.
“Focusing on full range of motion also helps to improve blood flow to the joints, which will protect the joints throughout rigorous strength training,” Hammond continues. In other words, full range of motion or bust!
Going slack in the middle
“It is much easier to pick up a raw noodle than a piece of cooked spaghetti,” says Luciani.
The point: When your core is braced (raw noodle) moving your body is going to be so much easier than if your midline is asleep.
A noodle-middle also puts undue strain on your lower-back. Pass.
Not doing enough of them
“If you’re consistently doing chair pull-ups, you’ll begin reaping the benefits of them as early as 4 weeks,” says Luciani.
By “consistently,” she means 3 to 4 times a week.
Exactly how many reps and sets you should do will depend on your current pulling strength. But 4 sets of 10 reps with a minute rest in between is a decent place to start.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.