Pull-Ups Part II: Behind Bars and Beyond

by Adam benshea on August 25, 2016

In a recent video from internet sensation Kali Muscle, the viewer receives insight on how cons in San Quentin, Pelican Bay, and similar institutions train back.  The preferred method?  Pull-ups.  Behind bars, prisoners use pull-ups to broaden their back and to build the slabs of functional muscle that will serve them in jailhouse riots.


In consideration of how pull-ups build lean muscle and operational power, pulls-ups bridge the gap often dividing fitness fashion from serviceable strength.  Incidentally, both can benefit the felon on the inside and the weekend warrior on the outside.

On one hand, in jail, signs of strength can keep predators at bay.  In the free world, t-shirt popping muscle mass can mean more attention at the local singles bar.

On the other hand, violence in prison can go off at any moment and a convict needs to know his strength routine will serve to keep him alive.  Similarly, a coquettish glance from the blonde at the night club can quickly shift into an ugly encounter with her surly ex-boyfriend.  In such a situation, you need to know that a physical regiment serves you in no rules fighting.

The seemingly endless amount of time in jail enables countless sets of pull-ups and the opportunity to experiment with a myriad of variations on this traditional exercise.  For example, the infamous prison yard combatant, Michael Thompson, does pull-ups from underneath his bunk.

It is not only those in the system who become creative with their bar work.  From cage fighters to the elite bodyweight athletes, the Bar-barians, a wide cast of characters use pull-ups for the utilitarian muscle that they develop.  With this in mind, here are a few to consider:

Tennis Ball Pull-Ups

A favorite of former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver, these can increase grip strength for tighter guillotine chokes and better hand control.  To execute, simply place a tennis ball in each hand, place them on top of the bar, and grasp the ball along with the bar as you perform the pull-up.


Triangle Pull-Ups

Common to the hardcore fitness enthusiasts in the parks of Brooklyn, pull your chin over the bar in close proximity to your left hand.  While keeping your chin over the bar, rotate your chin toward your right hand before descending to the hanging position.  On the next rep, you can reverse the motion.

triangle pullup

Inverted Pull-Ups        

When in the guard position of BJJ or submission grappling, you pull in a specific movement pattern.  To replicate this line of effort, grab the pull-up bar with palms facing out, bring your legs up on either side of the bar and lock your ankles together around the bar (like a guard).  With your feet above the bar and your head hanging, complete this inverted pull-up to train the guard’s muscle movements utilized for submission and sweep options.



Lest We Forget the Back Arms Guy

by Adam benshea on July 28, 2016

Lest we forget the Back Arms Guy…


You know this man by sight.  The bulk filling out his shirtsleeves are called “back arms,” not triceps.  He bases his workouts on intuitive intensity, not on a blind adherence to scientific solutions or a sardine like willingness to be stuffed inside the can of fitness BS being sold to the general public.

Lenny MacLean

During high school I worked out at a local gym that provided a great selection of training equipment and a rich cast of characters.  One of the lifters who frequented this gym was a bouncer at the local strip club.  Over time, our conversations ranged from the emotional unbalances plaguing some exotic dancers to unorthodox training techniques.  One example of the latter came from his time ‘inside.’  From this experience, he spoke of a dude named ‘Red’ who had a massive chest (or ‘hood’) and the biggest ‘back arms’ he had ever seen, both of which he developed by doing 500 push-ups every morning before ‘chow.’


Without the benefit of glossy magazine foldouts and strip mall supplements, these back arms were built with methods that run contrary to the newest advances in kinesiology, nutrition fads, and fitness trends.  While this does not make sense from a scientific perspective, it occurs in gyms, cells, and outdoor workout facilities every day.  That is, on a regular basis, focused strength and combat athletes are producing results without following the advice of the latest academic studies.


How can this happen?


It happens because real strength and conditioning gains are made by the broad-backed strength soldier in the trenches, not the pencil-necked doctor in the lab.  This dismissal of science for intentional intensity is best exhibited by that man we can call the ‘Back Arms Guy.’  He cares not for theory, but focuses on fury.  By believing in hard work over hard data, he works out harder and longer than he should.  In an age where crowds rush to broke financial ‘experts’ for retirement advice and late night infomercial salesmen spout the benefits of dance workouts to solve the obesity epidemic, there is comfort when a man stands alone with his strength.


As Rudyard Kipling warned (“lest we forget”) about the dangers of imperial hubris in his famous poem, ‘Recessional,’ the same caveat can be issued for the arrogant belief in scientific progress.  If the Back Arms Guy teaches us anything, it is that a lab coat is not the lone beacon of light for those wanting real gains.

Catch Wrestling

So, when you chalk up, gear up, and get up for you next workout, do not be afraid to place faith in your own intestinal fortitude because it should not be shackled by the latest systematic spreadsheet study.  With this, you will join the lost battalion of vaudevillian strongmen, gypsy bareknuckle boxers, British doormen, Hawaiian watermen, and old-time shootwrestlers whose training methods are short on theory, but high on results.

Waterman Dave Kalama

Perhaps, few workouts scream back arm style training like a burpee circuit.  The burpee, or squat thrust, may remind you of junior high gym class, but it is a favorite on the ‘yard’ and in any fight school.  Requiring no equipment and limited space, its functional benefits include mimicking the movement of sprawling to stop a takedown attempt and the way in which most fights fluctuate between standing and grappling.


Jump and Tuck

To complete the workout below, do each movement for as many reps as possible within one minute, take a thirty second break between movements, and work to complete three rounds of the circuit:


Burpee without the jump

Burpee with jump

Unilateral/One-Legged Burpee

Unilateral/One-Legged Burpee (opposite side)

Burpee with jump and tuck (bring the knees to chest during the jump)


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