There are some exercises so basic, so ubiquitous and so difficult that their origins are often taken for granted. Previously when detailing the history of the squat, we encountered the difficultly of tracing a movement found in every culture and arguably every human movement. The Chin Up and the Pull Up exercises offer a similar problem.
The purpose of today’s post is not to discover the inventor of the pull up, if such a thing is possible, but rather to discuss its evolution over the past two centuries from gymnastic exercise to Crossfit controversies. As will become clear, even a simple movement carries a lot of history.
Early Early Origins
In detailing the history of the Chin Up or Pull Up, it would be remiss to avoid the training of Ancient Times. In the past scholars and popular writers have pointed towards the training of Greco-Roman soldiers as one early instance of bodyweight exercises being used. Aside from calisthenics, light weight dumbbells known as Halteres and their own weapons, such soldiers were said to have used pull up movements as part of their conditioning programmes.
Inverted rows may have been used in Ancient Egypt, while the Mallakhamba practice found in India hints at a rudimentary form of pull ups. So while I would prefer to start our history in the late eighteenth-century, we do have precedents from antiquity. Also for anyone wondering, I’m using examples of chin ups or pull ups as an exercise and conditioning practice as opposed to the art of climbing which has of course existed throughout our species’ timeline.
More Codified Efforts
The problem with discussing the chin up or pull up in antiquity is of course the scarcity of remaining materials. Galen’s work on health preservation remains the most popular material but for those interested in a detailed insight, there simply isn’t enough to work with.
Contrast this with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century which saw a rise in the popularity of physical training and gymnastics. Said to have originated in Prussia in the 1770s under the watchful eye of Johann Bernhard Basedow, gymnastics or callisthenics (the names were interchangeable at times) helped to popularise the chin up and pull up for varied sections of the populace. Within a half century such exercise programmes could be found across mainland Europe, Britain and Ireland. Using parallel and horizontal bars, these systems regarded the chin up and pull up as a core exercise for both sexes.
In a remarkable article on exercise systems during this period, Todd detailed the inclusion of the pull up exercise for women in the training systems of Voarino and Beaujeu amongst others. In these systems the arms were straightened between each rep, legs appear to have been kept straight and the chin was brought over the bar. Such was the popularity of this exercise that some believe the term pull up to have originated in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
Beaujeu’s Gymnastics. Image Source.
Now the first instance I can find of a ‘physical culturist’/’early bodybuilder’ etc. (whatever you want to call him) using the pull up comes in the 1850s when the previously discussed Dr. George Barker Windship became infatuated with the exercise. Windship in many ways is a pivotal figure in this story as he marks a demarcation between gymnastics and the form of body cultivation known as physical culture. Though these systems have great similarities, their marketing and trajectories differed greatly.
Pull Ups and Physical Culturists
From the late nineteenth century, men, women and children were introduced to a new and exciting term; physical culture. A very special sounding name, physical culture marked the development of the body for its own sake. Think ‘Keep Fit’ exercise and bodybuilding as opposed to training for sport.
Led by individuals like Eugen Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden, physical culture as a business venture saw consumers in the 1890s and early 1900s inundated with materials about nutrition, exercise and workout systems. These materials shaped individual workouts for decades to come. It is interesting then to note that although someone like Sandow had a noted strength in the pull up exercise, he did not recommend it in any of his workout materials for others. While gymnastic exercises continued to use the chinning exercise, early physical culturists appeared reluctant to advertise it for others.
One suspects this had to do with the availability of pull up bars at that time. You see the selling point for physical culture at this period was often that it could be done easily at home. This was a time for light dumbbells and callisthenics, not niche equipment. Perhaps this stymied the exercise’s popularity? Substantiating this claim are the Dynamic Tension courses from Charles Atlas, which originated in the 1920s and 30s. Done specifically for home use, Atlas included a modified pull up using a broom across two chairs. Atlas was complimented by Jowett who included this exercise in his own ‘Moulding a Mighty Arms Course‘. These are the earliest physical culture/bodybuilding use I’ve found to date.
By the 1940s, the two arm chin as it was often termed had become increasingly popular amongst weight trainees. Take for example Peary Rader’s influential Master Bodybuilding and Weight Gaining System, published in 1946, which advocated a programme centred on military pressing, chin ups and squats. As the editor of Ironman magazine, Rader’s work carried with it a significant following. His endorsement of the chin likely represented the most common forms of training at that time.
As a side note, I have tried to track down old US military standards from the twentieth-century to examine when the pull up became part of the fitness requirements for all troops. So far I have it to WW2, but if anyone has any additional information do get in touch.
Returning back to bodybuilding and gym culture, Rader was clearly not the only one promoting the two arm chin. Bob Hoffman of York Barbell included the two arm chin as part of his Big Arms course. The exercise was a favourite of John Grimek, whose influence on the Iron Game cannot be underestimated. Special mention also has to go to the ‘Biceps from the Bronx’ Marvin Eder, who could perform at least ten single arm chins by the 1950s.
It is no surprise then that by the supposed ‘Golden Age‘ of bodybuilding the likes of Olivia, Zane, Arnold, Columbo and countless others had incorporated the pull up into their programmes.
Room for Improvement?
Despite the relative simplicity of the pull up exercise, some within the Iron Game did seek to make improvements. One such individual was the Iron Guru, Vince Gironda, whose sternum chin up was introduced during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unlike the traditional pull up, sternum chins required trainees to bring the upper chest to the bar, as opposed to simply pulling the chin over the bar.
The beauty of this exercise is that it targets the lats in a much greater way than the traditional chin up. T-Nation have a useful video on a strict sternum pull up.
In detailing the history of the pull up, it would be remiss not to mention the ‘Kipping Pull Ups’ found in Crossfit. Originating in the early naughties, at least in a commercial sense, Crossfit has, despite what others may think, had quite an impact on the weightlifting community. Aside from introducing greater numbers to weightlifting practices more generally, Crossfit’s emphasis on large numbers of pull ups has spawned the so-called Kipping Pull Up.
Christian Thibaudeau described the Kipping as follows
A kipping pull-up is to the strict pull-up what the push press is to the strict overhead press.
So in its strictest sense, ‘Kipping’ allows individuals to increase their reps through the use of a more relaxed form. Whether or not one agrees with the method is a matter of opinion. What is undeniable is that ‘Kipping’ has grown in popularity over the decade at least.
Anyone interested can find dozens of shoulder wrenching kipping videos online, we’ll content ourselves with a decent demonstration video instead
Before we Go
We have said nothing in this post about the arrival of lat pulldown machines, assisted pull up machines and resistance bands, all of which are regularly used as a substitute or in conjunction with the pull up. Watch this space, as a future post on the lat pulldown is in the pipeline.
In the meantime get to the gym try out as many pull up variations as you can. Gironda’s will test you and if you’re not careful, the kipping will hurt you.
As always…Happy Lifting!
I’ve always assumed the below to be the standard ways of performing the pull up until a friend of mine bragged about hitting 25 pull ups with a hybrid kipping form (no lockout, lots of momentum). How do others perform this exercise?