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The Rafter Pull-Up

October 20, 2004 01:14 PM

When I talked about sports and fitness with my grandfather, he told me how much softer my generation was. He said that he could run the 100-yard dash in pads and helmet faster than current track athletes and that he and his father could pick up an anvil by the horn and carry it around. The feat that he talked about that interested me the most was the rafter pull-up. I have always had a knack for bodyweight exercises and I thought that I would be able to accomplish it on my first attempt. WRONG! My grandfather has a tendency to exaggerate the truth and I am not sure if he really did this feat or if he had heard about them but the rafter pull-up has been in the back of my mind ever since.

I have always enjoyed the pursuit of difficult physical fitness feats and enjoy testing my body to see its' limits. My first attempt at the rafter pull-up came about ten years ago when I bought my house. The laundry room of my basement is not finished and has exposed rafters. I stood on a chair, grabbed the rafters and tried to pull myself up. NOTHING! After a few more attempts I got frustrated and turned my attention to other things.

I did not try another rafter pull-up until a few weeks ago. But this time, I had an ace up my sleeve and had stacked the deck. I had read Power to the People! and had easy access to the author. I now had knowledge of tension techniques and have clearly seen their benefits. I outlined a plan to train for them and hoped to achieve one by Christmas.

I knew that I would have to improve my pinch grip strength and I thought of several ways to do this but did not even begin my training before consulting with Pavel and the Party. Pavel informed me that this was not just a feat of pinch grip strength and that pec strength (pressing in) is even more important. He recommended hammer curls with barbell plates sandwiched between my palms.


(1) Isometric Rafter Pulls while standing on a bathroom scale.

Since I could not do a rafter pull-up, I stood on a bathroom scale that was placed on a chair and pulled down to measure the amount of weight that I was pulling. I trained two different positions: (1) pulling from a position where my arms were extended straight overhead (bottom of the pull-up) and (2) pulling from a position where my arms were bent at a 90 degree angle (middle of the pull-up). I performed each rep in the following way, gradually increase tension over about 3 seconds, hold for 3, and then gradually decrease the tension. I performed two sets of 2-3 reps. with brief breaks between reps. I only performed three reps because my technique deteriorated after the third rep and I knew that practicing proper technique was critical. I used the bathroom scale to learn the technique that was most advantageous. I'll discuss this training further when I get into technique.

(2) Barbell Plate Hammer Curls

Grab two smooth barbell plates and perform hammer curls with the plates sandwiched between the palms of your hands. Attempt to generate as much chest, bicep, lat, and shoulder tension as possible by pressing inwards. I performed two sets of 3-5 reps with two 25-pound plates. As I learned to generate more inward force against the plates, I extended the rep by pressing upwards (military press) after finishing the curl. I was very careful to lift the weights slightly in front of my body just in case the weights slipped. I extended the rep to gain pressing-in strength with my arms extended upward. I thought that this was important because this is the position that the arms will be in when performing the pull-up.

(3) Barbell Plate Pinching

To improve my pinch grip strength, I pinched 2 smooth barbell plates between my thumb and fingers. I did 1 set for time on each hand.

(4) 2x4 Block Pinching

Drill a hole in the bottom of a short 2x4 and thread a chain through it. Attach weights to the chain and then grab the 2x4 at the top and hold for time. I increased the weight when I could hold for approximately 15 seconds. I did this for one set on each hand. I really liked this exercise because it was specific to the task of pinching a rafter. I also did some swings while pinching the weighted 2x4.


Learning and utilizing the proper technique is the major reason for success in this exercise. I grabbed two separate rafters with thumbs on the inside and four fingers on the outside. I took Pavel's advice and attempted to engage my chest muscles by pressing my fingers toward the rafters. I then squeezed my thumbs toward my fingers. It felt very awkward to press one direction with my fingers and the opposite direction with my thumbs. This was especially true with my arms held overhead. I overcame this by standing on a chair and isometrically practicing the rafter pull. I experimented with different tension sequences while standing on a bathroom scale on top of a chair. The tension sequence that I found to be most advantageous was (1) press my fingers inwards towards the rafters and consciously tensing my chest, lats and shoulders (2) squeeze my thumbs towards my fingers (3) squeeze my abs and glutes and (4) pull down. Even after I got to where I could do a legitimate rafter pull-up, I was not successful without pre-tensing before squeezing the rafter and pulling.


(1) The bottom position where you are hanging with your arms straight is the most difficult part of the exercise. Once you are able to pull up a little bit, the rest is easy. Do not be discouraged when you are having difficulty pulling from the bottom position and practice with your arms at other angles to increase your confidence.
(2) Visualization helped me tremendously. Before every attempt at the pull-up I imagined energy that was guided by my breath ascending from my abdomen through my back, chest, arms and hands. Some sport psychology studies suggest that visualization may be another neurological phenomenon that increases strength performance. These gains are thought to be greater when you visualize what you actually see through your own eyes rather than what an outsider would see when they observe you doing the exercise. Furthermore, including kinesthetic feeling (what you actually feel during the exercise) as part of the visualization is supposed to further increase its' effectiveness. In order to improve my body awareness for the rafter pull-up, I deviated from my normal practice of pre-tension and did the opposite. I did a brief relaxation with deep breathing followed by a body scan where I focused my attention on various body parts. I then got up on the chair, grabbed the rafters and closed my eyes while maintaining the inward body focus. To prevent injury I was careful to very gradually increase tension in the sequence described earlier and studied how my body felt by scanning my muscles. In my subsequent visualizations, I attempted to imagine these same feelings. If you utilize this exercise to increase your body awareness for an exercise, please use no weight or well under the weight that you generally use. I visualized myself doing a rafter pull-up after a brief relaxation every night right after going to bed.
(3) Pre-tension is a MUST for successful performance of this exercise.

I would be glad to answer any questions from party members on the Forum.

Good Luck!

Brad Johnson