Very few men in their 40’s can manage a pull-up without substantial training and the realisation they can’t do it always comes as a shock.
There are two main reasons why Pull-ups are so hard for the over 40’s, The stiction effect and muscle atrophy.
First the stiction effect is where a minimal amount of extra weight causes you to fail an exercise, its like the weight training equivalent of the straw that broke the camels back. When carrying out machine or free weight exercise you can carefully adjust the weight to get to that point of failure. However when doing body weight exercises the weight is fixed and can’t simply be changed. For pull-ups one way around the problems is to use resistance bands. You need to work out what band you need by finding out your own stiction point for this exercise and you do this by carrying out lat pull-down exercises. You need to slowly increase the weight – start with about 25% of your body weight. You need to cleanly and smoothly be able to pull down the weight at least 5 times. Rest 5 minutes in-between weight increases. When you fail the exercise note down the weight and subtract this from your body weight. This will then give you the required resistance of the exercise band that will just about allow you to overcome your stiction point for pull-ups. Don’t be tempted to get higher resistance band to make pull-ups easier, you will just end up using the band to bounce up and down and you will do very little to increase your strength or pull-up ability.
Second there is muscle atrophy. There’s an old saying “Use it or lose it”. If you don’t use a muscle for any length of time it begins to weaken and lose mass. So give it 20 years and the effect is pretty devastating. You suddenly decide to do a pull up mid forties and either nothing happens or you strain so much your incur a nasty injury and give up. I cannot stress this enough – any new exercise you do, you must first be aware of what muscles you are going to be calling upon and then you need to test through progressive, targeted exercise if those muscles still exist and if they do what they are reasonably capable of.
A lot of people think pull-ups are essentially arm exercises. No. The key muscles are the big back muscles the Trapezius, Teres Major and the Latissimus Dorsi. Another important muscle is the Brachiordalis in the forearms. Now here is the real problem. For the average man it is highly likely that all these muscles have atrophied due to under use. Combined with a more than likely weight gain since your teens/early twenties and you are heading for trouble right there.
Now for the back muscles you can exercise these using lat pull-downs. Your aim is to build muscle so you need to do something in the ball park of 5 sets of 5 repetitions each with a one minute break between each set. On the 5th set you should find it challenging keeping correct form – which is the smooth and controlled execution of the lat-pull-down movement. Your eventual aim is to pull down a weight approaching or exceeding your own body weight. Please do not try and “see if I can do it”. Never do this. Always train by small increments and be very aware of any injury the following day. If the injury does not clear up within 3-5 days then take at least 2 weeks off and when you return to training do so with a much reduced weight.
For your Brachiordalis in the forearms you need to do reverse curls. You need to be super careful with this exercise. I would recommend a 4 foot barbell, straight or Ez-Bar with no weights to start with. You need to focus on the Brachiordalis particularly where it anchors into your arm just above the elbow. The reverse curl exercise will put a heavy strain on that part of the arm. Overdo the exercise, too many reps or too much weight and you will pull or tear the muscle and your looking potentially at months before you will be able to do the exercise again. Be very careful and progressive, very small weight increments.
All the above lays the foundation for smooth, controlled, competent, injury free pull up and other bar exercises. I know there are some who may say its all to much faff, just get on with it. This advice is fine for someone in their twenties, someone who has maintained a high level of fitness through out there life or someone who has a manual job that involves highly active muscle use like climbing or wood chopping. If your not one of these then take heed of the above advice and you will be on your way to a great level of fitness and physique instead of being off to the pharmacist for another dose of painkillers.