My Favorite Exercises, Part 2

By Michael Krueger 

My favorite vertical pulling exercise is the pull-up. It is one of the few vertical pulls available, the lat pull being the other big one. The pull-up is also known as the chin-up. I use the terms interchangeably. In fact, I generally just refer to them as “chins.” Some people say that they each one refers to a specific variation. If your palms are facing away (pronated), it is generally referred to as a pull-up; if your palms are facing you (supinated), it is called a chin-up. You may also do them with your palms facing (neutral); I call that a chin as well.

Chins are HARD

Everyone agrees that chin-ups are extremely taxing. Most people find that chin-ups are easier than pull-ups; neutral grip fall in between. I think it is pretty much a moot point. Chin-ups involve your biceps more, and pull-ups are focused more on back muscles. The muscles in your back are bigger muscles so, in actuality, pull-ups should be easier, but most people have more problems activating their back muscles than simply relying on their biceps.

Most people can’t do even one good chin of either variety. This is generally thought to be a bodyweight issue when it is really a strength issue. I guess, more accurately, it is a bodyweight-to-strength ratio issue. I’ve seen some rather big men do quite a few chins, while I know many small people who can’t do one.

Training Chins

If you want to be able to do chin-ups, then you must specifically train on them. Lat pull downs are a fine exercise, but they aren’t chins. If you can’t do a chin, then assisted chins of some sort are the way to go. The counterbalanced machine assisted chins don’t seem to work as well as other forms of assistance. I think it may be because you don’t need to balance yourself on the machine so you never quite get the “feel” of doing a full chin-up. Fortunately, there are many other ways to get an assist, and they are a lot cheaper than a machine.

There are assistance bands that loop over the bar and around your knees that give you a springy boost to make them easier. You can recruit someone to hold your feet while your hang with your knees bent, or someone can grab you around the hips and help by pressing you up. You can do negative only chins, which means that you climb up to the top position and then lower yourself as slowly as you can. When you reach the bottom, climb back up and do it again.

The biggest barrier for most people is mental. Nearly everyone I have ever trained has suffered the humiliation of not being able to do a chin-up when they were in elementary school. This kind of thing can really stay with you and negatively color your perception of this fine exercise for life.

Chin-up technique

Perfect chin-up form generally starts from a dead hang with straight elbows and ends when the collarbones come even with the bar. Now I’ll tell you why I somewhat disagree with that assessment.

First, a dead hang from a bar can wreak havoc on your shoulders. I prefer to either maintain a slight bend in the elbows or be able to touch down with the toes at the bottom. If you unload all your weight to the floor, then you are doing multiple singles, which are also very difficult because you negate the stretch reflex and do away with all of your momentum.

Second, depending on the length of your arms, you may find it very tough to get your collarbones up to the bar. It is a good benchmark to shoot for, but it may not be doable for everyone. Getting your chin above the bar is certainly good enough.

Grab the bar more with your fingers than with the palm of your hand; it is more comfortable that way. Take a breath at the bottom, push your chest out, and begin the pull. Keep your shoulders back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Keep your chin pointed up, since it helps keeps your spine in a neutral position. Besides, your body tends to go where you are looking and you want to go up. Also if you aren’t looking up, you are liable to whack you head or nose on the bar, and this would definitely have a negative effect on your enthusiasm. Pull your elbows back and down to involve your back more. Your back is where the real strength comes from in a chin-up.

Leg position is a point of contention among many trainers. Most suggest that you bend your knees and cross your feet. I think that got to be the most popular position because most chinning bars aren’t far enough off the floor to allow for your legs to hang straight. I think the different positions simply come under the heading of variation, not right way vs. wrong way.


There are many ways to make a chin easier, as noted above, but there are ways to make them harder as well.

If you can do more than 15 good solid chins, you may be inclined to change them so that they are more challenging.  The simplest way is to add weight. This can be done by using a belt with a chain attached and just hanging plates from it. This method has the chain and plates hanging between your legs. If this doesn’t stop you from swinging your body and using momentum, nothing will.

Another way is to use a weighted vest or a backpack with plates in it. Still another is to hold a dumb bell between your knees, a technique I have never been able to master.

Kipping chins is a technique popular among “CrossFit” devotees. This involves swinging your legs and hips in a fashion similar to the way a trapeze artist gets up on his bar. Using this variation, a person can do a great many chin-ups.

You may also increase the abdominal work by flexing at the hips so your legs are straight out in front of you in a “pike” position, keeping your body bent at a 90-degree angle.

A favorite super set of mine is to alternate one pull-up with two push-ups. This works best with your palms facing away, because it facilitates grabbing and releasing the bar more so than palms facing. It is best to be able to touch the floor in the hanging position as well rather than needing to jump up to the bar each time. A solid goal is 100 chins and 200 push-ups.

One of the hardest exercises is to do a pull-up by going up as fast as possible and then lowering as slowly as possible. Do this 10 times. It is ugly, hard, and beautiful at the same time.

It’s so good

Once you are able to do chin-ups, you will never stop. Every playground is an opportunity for an impromptu workout. Chin-ups are a superb total body exercise that is a great compliment to any exercise program. As for firefighting crossover, they will build back and shoulder strength that will make the handling of ladders and pike poles a breeze.

Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at 



My Favorite Exercises


By Michael Krueger

My wife can’t believe that I actually have favorite exercises. Most of my clients feel the same way, but I have converted a few of them. My preferred exercises are the ones that I have found to be the most effective in terms of time and results. To meet that requirement, I feel that you shouldn’t have to spend a great deal of time learning the exercise or have any difficulty modifying it to better meet your needs.
I’ll begin with a body weight exercise, since these are by far the simplest exercises available. If your body weight is out of proportion to your strength, however, then these may be difficult for you. But take heart: There is always a way to do them no matter what your fitness level.


Pushups can be modified to fit into your workout no matter where you are in your quest for fitness. You can make them easier simply by doing them upright and leaning against a wall rather than lying on the floor. Once you get stronger, you may move to doing them against a low chair, then on the floor on your knees, and finally up on your toes. It is important to do them in a position that enables you to perform at least 20 repetitions in good form.

For many people, the complaint about pushups is that their arms give out too quickly. In reality, it is usually their core that gives out first, followed soon after by their arms. It is true that your shoulders and chest muscles get a terrific workout while performing pushups, but without a solid core to stabilize your body, you will not be able to accomplish much.

How to do a Pushup

There are as many ways to teach a pushup as there are people teaching pushups. The range of motion, starting position, hand position, head angle, and foot position all vary somewhat. What this means is that there is not an absolute perfect pushup. There are a lot of good variations, and they are all effective. That being said, if you are training pushups for a particular test or event, then you will need to adhere to their rules insofar as to what form and range of motion constitutes a good pushup. I use a dozen different types of pushups in my program designs, depending on the client’s fitness level, experience, and needs.

The most important thing in the execution of all pushups regardless of the variety is to maintain a solid core. This ensures that your whole body is engaged throughout the entire range of motion. If you find that you are arcing or sagging while trying to maintain a flat back position, it may indicate that you are in need of some serious core strengthening.

If a weak core is your problem, you’ve come to the right exercise; just stay where you are, because the “up” pushup position is the standard plank, one of the best core exercises you can do. Of course, the plank also has variations; you may do them on your forearms rather than with straight arms or do them in the “down” push up position. Once you get stronger and they get easier, you may put your feet up on a bench or an exercise ball. You may also add in doing the side plank for some extra abdominal oblique work. If you add leg lifts to any type of plank, you incorporate a whole new stability dimension. There are almost an infinite number of variations available for each exercise.

Advanced Pushups

As a trainee improves in strength and competency, I implement a large number of pushup variations in my workout programs. Most use only body weight, while others use simple equipment.
The weighted vest is a valuable tool in pushup progression, particularly if you are using it as a muscular strength exercise rather than a high-volume muscular endurance move. It can be substituted for the bench press if for some reason you don’t like to bench press or you don’t have access to a bench, bar, safety rack, or good spotters.

Progression in weighted pushups is the same as in any strength move. Find the amount of weight that allows you to get the number of reps and sets you desire to start with; when you can accomplish that in good form, add weight. If you are going for volume, it’s even easier. Just keep plugging away until you can do more and more and more. The ultimate goal in pushup volume is 120 reps or more in three minutes.

Once you can do a good number of quality full-range pushups, the easiest way to change the move is to adjust your hand position. By moving your hands wider or narrower, you can easily train your muscles in new ways. By moving your hands forward or backward, you change the move again. How easy is that?

Foot position makes a difference as well. Normally your feet might be shoulder width apart. Widen your stance, and you become more stable and may be able to do more. Stack your feet one on top of the other, and it becomes more of a stability move. You may not be able to do as many, but your core is more involved. Put your feet up on a bench, and it becomes a bigger strength move. Put them on an exercise ball instead, and now it adds massive instability as well. Do them in a handstand position, and everyone will be impressed.

Explosive Variations

The next level of progression is the explosive pushup. This entails propelling yourself forcefully into the air as you come up and then, under control, lowering down to the mat. From there add a clap, or slap your thighs, or for an added challenge do both. The explosive pushup and its variations improve power and hand speed and coordination.

The medicine ball is a great tool to use with pushups. You may put one hand up on a medicine ball or roll the ball alternately between your hands. You may put one directly under your chest between your shoulders and lower yourself down until you touch it. Then explosively push up and catch yourself by putting both hands on the ball, then lower yourself until your chest touches your hands. Push up again and remove your hands from the ball back to the starting position and begin again.

You may do “Spiderman Pushups,” “Spread-Eagle Pushups,” “Diamond Pushups,” “Asymmetric Pushups,” “Walking Pushups,” and the list goes on and on. The one thing that connects each variation is that they are crazy hard and extremely effective.

The Efficacy Question

Pushup tests have gone out of favor in recent years in part because of a lack of a demonstrable link between the ability to do 20, 50, or whatever number of reps and a person’s ability to perform well in a particular job. As a firefighter, you can be certain that no one will ever ask you how many pushups you can do before you rescue them. Pushups still have their place in testing though, because what a pushup test does is provide a window to your general level of fitness. 

You should be able to do many good pushups as it demonstrates good muscular endurance and basic chest, shoulder, and core strength. Perhaps by training with pushups you will not tire as quickly while handling hoses, or raising ladders, or any of the myriad tasks you are required to do in the course of your day.

The lowly pushup is a cheap and simple exercise that will assist you in your quest toward exemplary fitness. Use it as the tool it is, and it will serve you well.

Now, get down and give me 50!


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at