I don’t like to exercise. I mostly think of it as a distraction, but what bothers me the most is the amount of time spent for exercise could have been dedicated to other, you know, more fun activities.

We all need to exercise regularly to stay in shape and be healthy. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but if exercise takes too much time, I know I wouldn’t do it. So, I needed a compromise. I needed to find an exercise that would take minimal time, and yet still be as effective as others that would take a long time to complete. Here is my list of criteria for an ideal exercise:

  • Should take minimal time.
  • Should work as many muscles as possible at the same time.
  • Can be done anywhere with minimal or no equipment (I’m certainly not going to a gym and spend even more time on the way to and from there. I also find it strange to pay for doing physical exercise. Not long ago, if you wanted to exercise, you just chopped wood for your fireplace or worked at a construction site and got paid for it, but I digress.

These criteria can be fortunately met with just one exercise, and that’s pull-ups. Yes, pull-ups. I know they are hard. Many people can’t even do one pull-up. I couldn’t do one when I first started either. But, as soon as you can do one pull-up (or its slightly easier variation: chin-up), the rest should become easier.

What is great about pull-ups is that since they are so hard to do (think of pulling 100% of your body weight), it often takes less than a minute to complete one set, and they work your arms and almost your entire upper body too. Doing pull-ups is probably the easiest way to achieve the coveted V body shape.

Now, I must say that pull-ups are significantly harder for women than men. Women tend to have less muscle mass on their upper bodies. But, they can still do pull-ups. My wife, after seeing me doing pull-ups, tried them herself. She can barely do one pull-up, and yet after about a month of casual daily pull-up sessions, her posture is noticeably more erect now. That’s because not only do pull-ups build muscle, but they are great for stretching too. You literally stretch your entire body while doing pull-ups. In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger aka the Terminator used to do pull-ups for warming up before doing his regular routine of body building. We are lucky that we could just stop after doing pull-ups and call it a day while he had to go through hours and hours of exercise every day. Well, he clearly enjoyed doing body building unlike many of us. Each to his own, as they say.

To improve quickly in pull ups, there is a trick, and it’s a simple trick too: don’t push yourself to failure. That is, don’t just follow the common advice of trying to do as many repetitions as you can. If you do that, you can brag to your friends that you can do, say, 10 pull-ups, but you can do that many only once or maybe twice a day, and you will always feel exhausted after each session. In other words, it will start to feel like a chore, rather than something you look forward to doing.

I read about that trick in one of Pavel Tsatsouline’s books. He is a well known fitness instructor who also happens to write fun to read books about strength training. What he recommends for any kind of exercise, not just pull-ups, is basically this: Do as many repetitions as you can, but stop a few repetitions short of failure. That’s all there is to it.

I stop doing pull-ups at about 3/4 of the maximum repetitions I can do, and I try to do as many sets as possible spread throughout the day. The pull-up bar is attached to the door frame of my wood workshop in the basement, and the room next to it has my home theater. So, whenever I go down there I try to do one set, and then do some woodworking, watch a movie, or just go back upstairs to do something else, and I would still feel fresh. That way, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing work, I want to do more of it, and my body (or should I say brain) isn’t conditioned against its limits prematurely. When my usual 3/4 max repetitions start to feel too easy, I just add another repetition.

Lately, I decided to work on my abdominal muscles that the all-mighty pull-ups could sadly not reach. The obvious exercise choice would be sit-ups, but they don’t quite meet my 3-item criteria, and a back condition I have makes doing them somewhat uncomfortable. So, I decided to give push-ups a try. Not only do they work the abdominal muscles, but also work a few of the muscles on the upper body pull-ups don’t quite work. Another reason why I chose push-ups is that combined with pull-ups, they are the staple exercises of the militaries around the world. So, all those drill sergeants certainly know what they are doing. Right?

Anyway, after getting my upper body in shape, I thought doing push-ups would be a piece of cake, but it didn’t quite work that way, at least initially. After my first try, during which I apparently pushed myself too hard, I was sore for two days. So, after that I followed my own advice of stopping well short of the maximum repetitions I could do, and things started to improve from there.

With push-ups, you lift about 70% of your body weight, and that seemingly small 30% difference allows your body to do about three to four times as many repetitions as compared to pull-ups. In other words, if you can do 5 pull-ups, you should be able to do 15 to 20 push-ups, but let’s forget those numbers. I think what really matters isn’t the number of repetitions one could do (after all we are talking about doing exercise casually), but keeping the motivation to exercise high. With only a few minutes total to spend on exercise each day, I can certainly manage to keep my motivation high. If you keep doing something every day, even if you are really bad at it at first, it’s inevitable that you will improve over time.

Finally, a word of caution: I’m not an expert at strength training, and I’m just sharing my informed opinions with you. Although it’s unlikely to seriously injure yourself by doing pull-ups or push-ups, it isn’t impossible either. Please use some common sense while you exercise, listen to your body, and if some part of it hurts badly, it’s probably a good idea to rest a day or two (or more) while your body heals. If you have some health condition, it’s wise to talk to your doctor first before following the advice you read on some random web site.