Now admittedly this is not the catchiest title I’m ever going to use but it hopefully conveys the purpose of today’s post. Back when I started training, assisted pull up machines were a thing of scorn. Who, we would wonder, would bother with such an oddity? Couldn’t individuals muster a solitary pull up by themselves? Well several humbling years later, during which time I realised my version of pull ups was generous to say the least, I discarded the arrogance of my teenage years and used the machine for the first time. It has since become a staple in my training, used at the end of workouts to ensure my back and ego is fried in equal measure.
While we’ve covered mainstream machines like the leg press, prowler or leg extension, I have to admit that I find niche and oftentimes strange devices like the bosu ball or foam roller to be far more interesting. You see for me, the more esoteric devices often represent an attempt to reach out to new trainees or those uncomfortable in the traditional gym setting. As becomes clear when studying the assisted pull up machine, the device was born from a increased societal interest during the late 1970s.
Born From Machine Age
As detailed in the following Washington Post article from 1977, the 1970s witnessed the birth of weight training machines for the general public. For readers of the blog, this was the period which saw Arthur Jones‘ Nautilus machines sweep across the fitness industry and engage in a head to head battle with Zinkin’s Universal machines. What is important about these machines is not their training philosophies, which is a blog post in and of itself, but rather their ubiquity. Echoing Jack Lalanne’s realisation in the 1950s that the general public was more likely to train with machines over dumbbells owing to the variety provided by machines, Jones and Zinkin recognised a growing need for machines fit for new and experienced trainees. At a time when keep fit culture was emerging within the United States, machines spoke towards individuals entering the gym for the first time. It is within this context that the first assisted pull up machine needs to be placed.
Designed by Edward A. Roberts and granted a patent in the late 1970s. Though the Lat Pulldown had long been in existence, Roberts’ creation appears to be the first of its kind. Available from the US patents office, Robert’s drawings reveal a basic but nevertheless important first step towards the assisted lat pulldown now commonplace in many gyms.
The harness/belt system is, I believe, rather cool. That it’s proving very difficult to find actual images of Roberts’ machine in action suggests that his idea, although novel, did not take off. Taking a moment for pure speculation, I would imagine that the difficulty in securing oneself into place before every set would discourage novices and experienced users. As a trainee with a great fondness for supersetting exercises, the additional time needed to use the machine would have discounted it very early in my own programmes.
Nevertheless we had a beginning and from a beginning we can build a base.
In line with a growing interest in the fitness industry as spurred on by the likes of Pumping Iron and the phenomenon that was Jane Fonda’s fitness tapes, more individuals began to enter gym life. Alongside a changing of perceptions regarding weightlifting, which even during the 1970s was viewed with suspicion, the growing number of lifters piqued the interest of manufacturers interested in appealing to a broader audience. Enter, Tri-Tech, an equipment company who proved particularly prolific during the 1980s owing to a vast array of weight lifting and cardio machines. Included in this was the following assisted pull-up machine, whose patent was granted in 1987.
The Tai-Tech machine effectively provided the template for subsequent machines to follow. What varied, and continues to vary, was the many in which the lifter’s weight was counter-balanced. Take for example, the following 1993 patent granted to John D. Ropp.
But When Did They Become Popular?
This is the somewhat frustrating part of the post, as I’m still figuring this part out. When I asked the incredibly knowledgeable and downright friendly folks at IronHistory.com (which I will always encourage readers to join), posters cited the mid-1980s as the first time they truly became aware of these sort of machines. Prior to this time, individuals who couldn’t do a pull-up were thrown to the lions or assisted with a slow negative through the use of a spotter (I cannot remember which). Incidentally I suspect that the arrival of resistance bands commonly used in powerlifting during the 1980s was hugely influential in the growing popularity of assisted pull up machines. With resistance bands, lifters didn’t have to rely upon others within the gym to practice their pull ups. In a sense they helped normalised the idea that one could perform pull ups in some way, shape or form by themselves.
Looking at one bodybuilding books, Cory Everson mentions the pull up machine in her 1991 exercise book, Cory Everson’s Workout. Looking at the dark and wonderful place which is the World Wide Web, assisted pull up machines really came into vogue in lifter’s online discussions around the mid-2000s. Today, I would tentatively argue that the assisted pull-up machine has become a relatively commonplace piece of equipment to the extent that I know regularly see people using it for purposes completely removed from its original design (See exercises 3 and 4 in the below video).
In any case, it is clear that the machine was born from an age in which manufacturers began to cater for those interested in more than dumbbells and barbells. It was born from a time when ordinary members of the public began to take an interest in their own health and it was born from an age when going to the gym ceased to become an activity of the odd and deranged. Is the assisted pull-up machine the ultimate sign of democracy?
No, not in the slightest but its history is nevertheless interesting.
As always…Happy Lifting!