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Bar pull-ups: tips and perks

Increase your back strength with bar pull-ups. Here’s how to get it right.

A strong back is integral to a strong, high functioning, lean body, and pull-ups are like a laser pointer for your flip side. They’re also bloody tough.

“Pull-ups are one of the toughest bodyweight exercises you can do and they do take a long time to master,” says  PT and founder of business KE Fitness Kris Etheridge.

Yet beginners who withstand the burn will witness rapid gains. “You’re going to have to be patient, but you should be improving in strength each week when you first start out.” Etheridge advises strengthening your biceps and upper back using the assisted pull-up/chin-up machine, lat pull-down machine and seated row machine. “If you don’t have access to these machines, a great way to work on your chin-ups or pull-ups is to loop a large power band (a thick circular rubber band) over a chin-up bar and put one of your feet in it,” Etheridge says. “This will help lift some of your body weight. As you get better, you can change to lighter bands until you’re achieving this all on your own.” When performing pull-ups, remember to use your lats (the broadest muscle on your back) and not just your arms.

Perks: “Pull-ups target the upper back, particularly the lats, and also work the biceps and abdominals,” Etheridge says. Not only will pull-ups become easier the more you practise due to the increased muscle you’re producing in conjunction with a loss of body fat, but these will also help for advancing in other exercises. “Having a strong upper back will allow you to progress to more challenging exercises like Olympic lifting,” Etheridge says. 

Injury insurance:  If you’re overweight, be careful not to overdo this exercise at the start, as pull-ups are very demanding. Generally speaking, the bigger you are, the more difficult you will find pull-ups as you have more weight to lift. There’s a reason most rock climbers are lean after all! If you have shoulder, upper back or neck injuries, ask a professional if pull-ups are an appropriate exercise for your needs. 

Pull-up challenge

Instructions: Emphasising the correct technique, INCLUDE PULL-UPS IN YOUR WORKOUT TWO TO THREE TIMES PER WEEK.

Week one–two – Using the heavy power band, perform two sets of 15 reps.

Week three–four – Change to the moderate strength resistance band, and perform three sets of eight reps.

Week five – Reduce the resistance to the light band and perform four sets of three reps.

Week six – Perform three sets of three reps of negative pull-ups. Here you’re avoiding the pulling up phase and just doing the lowering movement without a band to help. It should take you three to five seconds to lower, and the slower, the better! 

Once you can perform the above comfortably, you’re ready to try the real thing!

Looking for more upper body workouts? Try this toning upper body workout.


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Bar pull-ups: tips and perks

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15 ways to upgrade your gym workout

1.Try outdoor bootcamps… inside!
Such is the success of outdoor bootcamp classes, they’re now coming to the gym floor. ‘We’re seeing a lot of “outdoor-style” activity in the gym,’ says Technogym master trainer Steve Harrison (technogym.com). ‘They involve plenty of space, lots of running drills, small group interactions and shorter, sharper classes.’ Bootcamp classes are varied, improving your cardio fitness and stamina as you’ll be running, doing intervals and encountering obstacles. You’ll also boost your  strength using dumbbells, resistance bands or your own bodyweight for resistance. Some classes even add in some yoga poses to help your flexibility. You may focus on upper body and abs one week, then lower body the next, giving good variety. Pumping music will get you motivated.

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TRY: David Lloyd’s Orangetheory class, for example, is a 60-minute session for up to 20 people. Like a Bootcamp class, it also consists of cardio and strength-training intervals, featuring treadmills, rowing machines and weight-training blocks. It’s claimed to burn at least 500 calories per class.

2. Form a group
Create a mini workout club at the gym. Devise your own group circuits, or train together on the cardio machines. You’ll burn more calories when training with friends. A study of 1,000 women carried by Virgin Active shows that women who exercise with friends burn up to 236 calories, compared to 195 for those who train alone. The study also showed that 64 per cent of women push themselves harder when training with friends. ‘I can see more and more people forming HIIT groups and working out together,’ says personal trainer Philip Kasumu, an ambassador for BioSynergy. ‘Training alone can be daunting and working out together is a great way to socialise.’

TRY: Forming a group with friends and working as hard as you can in HIIT sessions. Go to a HIIT-based class for inspiration, then do your own to suit your availability.

3. Be the boss
Want some one-on-one advice but don’t like the idea of being bossed around by a PT? Good news. There’s a new, more empathetic breed of personal trainer, re-shaping themselves as lifestyle coaches and trying to find out what really makes you tick. The result? You get to take control of the sessions. ‘I tell trainers to let the client lead the workout,’ says Harrison. ‘There’s no point having a varied workout if the client doesn’t like it. I encourage personal trainers to ask the client: “Do you think you’d like to run?” “What sort of activities did you enjoy on holiday and how can you bring them back into daily life?” The aim is to get people relaxed and to have fun.’

TRY: Tell a prospective personal trainer what exercises you like and dislike. A good trainer should be willing to ditch those you don’t enjoy and offer alternatives.

4. Train for an event
Competing in an event such as a triathlon or a 10K run is one of the best ways to boost your motivation to train. Too daunted to sign up? Many gyms are now offering classes to help you get fit for triathlons and races, with classes ranging from triathlon training to express treadmill classes.

TRY: Some Nuffield Health clubs run Express treadmill classes lasting just 15 minutes and aimed at setting the right pace for you and improving confidence, which is ideal for new runners or those training for their first 5K.

5. Make it short
Gyms know your time is precious, so increasingly, they’re offering express classes to get you fit in half the time of regular ones.

Afterwards, your metabolic rate will be elevated, meaning calories burned at a faster rate post-exercise. Kettlebells are great for improving your strength and power, while also giving you a cardio workout, as your heart rate will soar, even while you’re doing the basic kettlebell swing. ‘During a shorter session, you tend to push yourself harder and the results are long lasting,’ says Harrison.

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TRY: Nuffield Health offers Express Kettlebells classes and Express Circuits that work your whole body in half an hour. Both are high intensity, so your heart rate will rise and you’ll burn optimum fat and calories.

6 Train in 3D
It’s all too easy to focus on exercises that involve moving in a straight line, such as squats or forward lunges. Yet in real life, we move in all sorts of directions. We rotate our bodies diagonally, twisting, turning and bending in many directions. Even when we run, we have to twist and turn to avoid pedestrians, other obstacles and potholes. So it makes sense that your training routine should reflect daily movements.

‘I like to incorporate functional training into my workouts,’ says personal trainer and fitness model Phoebe Robinson Galvin, an ambassador for Bio-Synergy. ‘We work on rotational lunges, rotational ball throws and standing ball cable woodchop, as I believe working in this range of motion helps to prevent injury.’

Multi-directional training will also help to improve sports performance, as many sports, including tennis, squash and football, involve multi-directional movement.

TRY: Nuffield Health and Virgin Active offer ViPR classes, where you move the cylinder in all directions, twisting and turning it across your body. You could also do moves such as hip crossovers on a Swiss ball.

7. Devise your own circuit session
If you want a flatter belly but don’t have time to join a circuit class, set up your own workstations – high-intensity circuit training is an effective way to reduce abdominal fat, reports the American College of Sports Medicine.

Circuit-style training is one of the fastest ways to improve your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, giving you a lean and toned body. And it’s easy to devise your own 20-minute circuit.

Make sure you have plenty of room and build in adequate rest breaks. Try setting up six workstations, then perform a minute on each workstation and move to the next one without resting, then rest at the end of one complete circuit. If this is too strenuous, reduce the work period on each station down to 40 or 30 seconds, then complete the circuit and have a minute’s rest, or rest for up to two minutes if you need more time to recover in between circuits. Depending on which body parts you want to work, you can set the circuit up in several ways: either to focus on a particular body part – such as doing three abdominal exercises back to back, (crunches, twists and reverse curls) or legs (deadlift, squats, step-ups) or you can alternate between upper and lower body exercises.

If space is limited, it may be safer to bring in more bodyweight exercises that require less equipment, such as squats, box press-ups and crunches.

If you’re new to circuits or new to exercise, it’s best to work on technique and perform each exercise at a slower pace to reduce injury risk. If you’re fitter or familiar with the exercises, you can perform each rep at a faster pace.

TRY: Squats, Push-ups, Kettlebell swings, Shoulder presses, Bench dips and Ab crunches. Rest for a minute at the end of the circuit, then repeat twice more. Make sure you stretch afterwards.

8. Be ahead of the rest
Keep your fitness ahead of the game and keep your motivation sky high by being the first to try new kit when it appears on the gym floor.

TRY: Some Fitness First and Virgin Active gyms now have Woodway Curve Treadmills in their gyms, which are self-powered. There’s no motor or button – the treadmill works by your own effort. Walking on a Woodway Curve could give you the same cardio workout as running on a motorised machine. Powering yourself means you burn 30 per cent more calories than on a normal treadmill. The harder you run, the more power you generate. The curve shape of the belt also means less impact on knees and joints, and it works your core, too.

9. Lift your own weight
Using your own body weight for resistance (with exercises such as press-ups and pull-ups) is a great way to get really strong and toned. Many gyms are now offering gymnastic rings, TRX machines or rigs consisting of ropes and pulleys to help you improve upper-body strength and build up to supporting your own bodyweight.

TRY: Use a TRX Suspension Trainer to do squats, reverse lunges, side lunges, chest press, rows for your upper back and many more moves. Change your body position to add or decrease resistance. For example, if you’re doing rows, the lower the angle of your body to the ground, the more of your own body weight you’re lifting. Remember to engage your core muscles while doing the exercises to support your body and strengthen your abs.

10 Beat the plateau
It’s easy to get stuck in a training rut or think you’re not improving. Checking your progress every four weeks will help you see how far you’ve come. For instance, if weight loss is your goal, you can check your body fat every four weeks (try the Omron BF306 Body Composition Monitor, £31.98 at www.amazon.co.uk). Having a varied training programme will also boost motivation and prevent boredom. ‘Continuous training with a clear goal in mind will get results. I keep measurements to track progress every few weeks,’ says personal trainer Carl Wallace from PureGym in Stoke says. ‘Change your workouts week-by-week, focusing on both cardio and resistance training. This will keep sessions fun and interesting.’ Another way to track progress is to set regular fitness tests.

TRY: Run 1K on the treadmill as fast as you can, record your time, and try to beat it four weeks later, after running regularly. Or complete 5K on the cross-trainer, again recording your time and try to complete it in less time in four weeks.

11. Find a swimming coach
If you did a lot of swimming on holiday, why not keep it up and improve? Hiring a swim coach can give you a better workout because if your swimming technique is stronger, you’ll be more efficient. This means you’ll have the energy to keep swimming for longer, burning more calories and making you fitter, plus improving your endurance.

TRY: Fitness First has a number of clubs offering Swimming Nature, a tailored instructional swimming programme, while Nuffield Health offers Swimfit classes. ‘Around 95 per cent of our centres have swimming pools and most of these offer swim schools,’ says Sarah Henderson, communications manager for Nuffield Health.

12. Count time, not reps
If you want to burn more calories, forget about counting the number of reps for each set of an exercise – try ‘time under tension’ instead. This simply means timing your exercises, rather than counting reps.

‘Remember, if you’re burning more calories, you’re burning more fat.’ It will also improve your strength too. A study published online in the Journal of Physiology showed that slower lifting movements create more strength.

TRY: ‘Do 30-45 seconds flat doing as many reps as you can, which will burn more calories than counting reps without worrying about a time limit,’ says Anthony Mendoza, David Lloyd platinum personal trainer.

13. Create an ‘afterburn’
Rather than just focusing on how many calories you’ve burned in your workout, create a fat-burning effect that lasts way beyond the session. ‘Triggering excess post-exercise consumption (EPOC) or ‘afterburn’ is crucial in prolonging the benefit of a session, as calories can continue to be burnt for up to 36-48 hours post workout,’ says personal trainer Alastair Crew. ‘I use a heart rate monitor to help gauge the correct intensity for myself and my clients – in a typical workout I’d like to achieve a minimum of 12-20 minutes at 84 per cent of maximum heart rate in order to trigger the EPOC effect.’

EPOC, also known as ‘oxygen debt’, is the amount of oxygen needed to return your body to normal after a workout. Exercise that places a greater demand on the body can increase the need for oxygen after a workout, creating the EPOC effect. High-intensity interval training is the most effective way to stimulate an EPOC effect.

TRY: To work out your maximum heart rate, deduct your age from 220.

14. Make cycling harder
Ditch the stationary bike and check out the Wattbike. It’s a serious way to burn more calories. The Wattbike can measure your power, your pedalling technique and heart rate, giving you instant feedback on your progress. It has a dual braking system, offering gears and a braking system on the flywheel to create the feeling of climbing hills. As it’s like a normal bike, it’s easy to vary the intensity and choose between sprints and climbs.

Try: The Watt Bike is available in David Lloyd health, Nuffield Health clubs, 29 Fitness First clubs and many Virgin Active gyms, while PureGyms have similar bikes called Matrix.

15. Beat the Plateau

It’s easy to get stuck in a training rut or think you’re not improving. ‘Change your workouts week-by-week, focusing on both cardio and resistance training. This will keep sessions fun and interesting,’ says personal trainer Carl Wallace from PureGym in Stoke. Another way to track your progress is to set regular fitness tests.

TRY: Run 1K on the treadmill as fast as you can, record your time, and try to beat it four weeks later, after running regularly in the intervening period. Or complete 5K on the cross-trainer, again recording your time and then try to do it in less time four weeks later.

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15 ways to upgrade your gym workout

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Train your brain!

The era when sports stars concentrated solely on physical prep is long gone. 

Today, they are just as likely to use psychological techniques to improve their game. As cognitive hypnotherapist Hazel Gale (hazelgale.co.uk) says, ‘People are realising it’s scientific, not woo-woo.’ Hazel is the current UK women’s welterweight boxing champion and former double world women’s kickboxing champion. Not a lady to argue with then. 

Performance consultant Andy Barton (thesportingmind.com) is a sports psychologist who also uses Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Neuro Feedback to help people. He says, ‘65% of my clients are sports people, but the others are actors, musicians and just people who need to perform better.’ Indeed, brain training is not only useful in the gym – it could also increase your self-confidence, lift your mood and stop you procrastinating.

Research into the benefits of brain training is building. US research into basketball players, for example, has shown that those who visualise getting the ball in the hoop before they shoot are more likely to score. Another US study from 2013 showed participants who visualised exercising their biceps displayed a 13% increase in muscle strength. The reason is that visualisation activates electromyographical (EMG) activity in muscles similar to that which occurs in actual movement.

Mental Rehearsal

What is it? This is a visualisation technique in which you assume the identity of someone famous or successful in order to copy them and improve your own ‘game’.

How to do it: Think of a sports person who is able to do what you want to do. Maybe it’s Paula Radcliffe if you are a runner or Rebecca Adlington if you’re a swimmer. Now, close your eyes and imagine you’ve got a TV and remote control. Press play and watch a film of your hero practising the skill you want to perfect. Press pause and rewind. Play the film again. This time keep your mentor’s head, but visualise your body performing the same task faultlessly. Press pause, rewind and play again, this time with your head and your body, again doing everything well. Repeat this process once more, but this time step inside the film so that you’re actually feeling what it is like to perform so well. Press pause, step out of the film, look at yourself excelling, breathe in and relax.

What it’s best for: Perfecting tricky techniques that you don’t think you can do, such as a slam dunk in basketball or a serve in tennis.

Outside the gym: The Mental Rehearsal is really helpful if you want to perfect any skill, whether it’s cracking an egg with one hand or playing the violin. 

2 Process Thinking

What is it? When you want to achieve something, it is normal to set a goal and then try to reach it. However, this creates performance pressure that may prevent you reaching your goal. Process Thinking is a way of focusing on the present
to reduce this pressure.

How to do it: Set your goal then mentally set this aside. Maybe write it on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer. Then focus on the process of training without thinking ahead. If you do your best each time you work out, you will get to your goal and eliminate anxiety along the way.

What it’s best for: It works well for sports such as triathlon, which require a long training period.

Outside the gym: Any task where the goal is a long way off, e.g. if you have a lot of weight to lose.

3 Resource Anchor

What is it?This is based on the idea that we associate different states (happy, sad, excited, etc.) with ‘anchors’ i.e. sights, sounds, smells or tastes. The key is to anchor one of these senses to a frame of mind (a ‘resource state’) that helps you in your sport.

How to do it: The easiest and most effective Resource Anchor to create is a sound. An experiment conducted at Brunel University in 2001 found that music combined with imagery was more effective than imagery alone at helping athletes complete an isometric endurance task. Choose a song or songs that give you a feeling of energy and power. Now, sit quietly, close your eyes and remember a time when you trained well or competed successfully. As you see yourself excelling, switch on the music
and allow the sound to become associated with the feeling of success. Repeat this three or four times and then play the song whenever you train.

What it’s best for: Endurance exercise like running or cycling where the music helps you to dissociate you from the effort, aching limbs or sore feet.  

Outside the gym: If something makes you nervous (e.g. public speaking), you can create a relaxation anchor using a song that helps you to keep calm. Hum your chosen song quietly just before you have to speak to instantly calm yourself down.

Flick It Out, Lock It In

What is it? A favourite of Hazel’s, this duo of cognitive techniques helps you to ‘own’ your positive experiences and ‘throw away’ your negative experiences. 

How to do it: If you have a really good training session, win a race or set a personal best in anything, lift one arm, bend it as if you are doing a classic bicep curl, then as you clench your fist, pull it in to your chest. This ‘locks in’ the success. If you don’t do so well, ‘flick it out’ by taking the flat of one hand and brushing yourself down.

What it’s best for: Competitive sports with matches that you win or lose, or sports such as weight training or gymnastics that require you to perform difficult manoeuvres you can succeed or fail at.

Outside the gym: In competitive work environments such as sales where missing targets can affect your confidence.

Power Pose

What is it? A technique favoured by Andy, Power Pose is based on the idea that body language is infectious. ‘If you are fearful, you adopt fearful body language (you make yourself small by slumping down) and this body language increases your feeling of fearfulness,’ he explains. Power Pose completely reverses this process.

How to do it: Stand with your feet slightly apart, your head up and your shoulders back. Lift your arms up and out as if you are running through a tape at the end of a race. Breathe deeply and hold that position for one to two minutes.

What it’s best for: Increasing your energy and focus for short, explosive exercise such as sprinting or diving. This makes it particularly good just before the start of a race.

Outside the gym: Fantastic just before a difficult meeting or tricky phone call. It can give you the confidence to deliver bad news or ask for a pay rise.

Change Internal Dialogue

What is it? ‘A lot of us do ourselves down with self talk,’ says Hazel. This is the critical voice in our heads that many of us have. Change Internal Dialogue is a technique that takes the sting out of that inner voice.

How to do it: Close your eyes and think about some of the negative things you think about yourself, e.g. ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m not fast enough’, ‘I’ll never win’, etc. While listening to this litany of internal criticism, alter the voice into that of Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson. Immediately, whatever they are saying sounds ridiculously silly rather than powerful or strong.

What it’s best for: Events where you might hit a mental wall, e.g. mile 20 of a marathon or any exercise where self-doubt is holding you back, e.g. ‘I’ll never be able
to do 10 press-ups!’.

Outside the gym: A great all-round self-esteem lifter, Change Internal Dialogue can be used whenever you start to doubt your abilities, whatever the context.  


Mantras are one of the most abused areas of psychology, but framed correctly they can be very effective. Here are the rules to remember:

• Use positive language If you say ‘I’m not nervous’, the brain doesn’t hear the ‘not’. It hears ‘nervous’ and your anxiety builds. Better to say ‘I am confident’. 

• Be realistic There’s no point saying ‘I’m going to be a world-class gymnast’ if you can barely get through a Zumba class. Better to say ‘I will get fitter’.

• Mean what you say ‘Mantras won’t work unless the body language and tone of voice is right,’ says Andy. Stand tall with your shoulders back and your head up – and speak confidently.

• Keep it broad A Greek study from 2006 found that motivational self talk, such as ‘I can do it!’, worked better than instructional self talk  such as ‘hit the ball!’.


‘I can, I will, I am’ (as in I can do it, I will do it, I am doing it). This creates belief and builds determination to do anything.

‘I will treat my body with love and respect. My body deserves this and I deserve this.’ Helps build resolve to be healthy and boosts self-esteem.

‘Just do it.’ The famous Nike slogan helps combat procrastination and silences a critical internal voice. 

Lowri Turner is a nutritionist/hypnotherapist


Train your brain!

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