Big, burly bodybuilders generally don't do them. Neither do little old blue-haired ladies. Nor does anyone in between. That's because, as strength training goes, the pull-up, the king of the back exercises, is quite difficult. But the benefits of this rigorous, compound body-weight movement -- which targets the latissimus dorsi along with a host of supporting muscles -- are so pronounced for posture, balance, flexibility and overall upper-body strength that everyone should try to do at least one or two at home. After all, pull-up bars are among the least expensive of all home-training equipment, require no space other than a few inches of a door frame, and will even help you blast your abs via hanging leg lifts. A couple of the models reviewed below offer some surprising innovations that make pull-ups more convenient and doable for all ages and fitness levels. And, of course, they all double as great coat hangers in a pinch.
-- Roy M. Wallack The old-fashioned bar
Altus 3-in-1 Chin-Up + Push-Up + Sit-Up Bar: Simple, age-old design featuring a telescoping aluminum tube suspended in place between two brackets on each side of a door jam.
Likes: Basic, simple, safe design. Affix two brackets in the door jam via five screws each and slip the bar in place. Thin neoprene hand pads are comfortable. With bar solidly in place, you can confidently place a lot of torque on it; do knee raises-leg lifts and rotate legs through your arms, like you're back on the monkey bars. Two extra brackets give you the option of positioning the bar low to hook ankles for sit-ups or 3 feet off the ground for Australian pull-ups, in which you hang your body at a sub-45-degree angle in plank position with feet on the floor and pull up -- a great movement for all, including beginners.
Dislikes: Each bracket requires the drilling of five holes in the door jam for wood screws.
Price: $19.99 to $29.99. (800) 654-3955; www.altusathletic.com.
A well-rounded program
Perfect PullUp Complete System: A unique system featuring a hanging padded bar and rotating handle grips. The bar is attached to hinged struts and moves in an arc from standard vertical pull-up position to waist level, for use with horizontal Australian pull-ups.
Likes: Fun, beneficial variability. Friendly to older users due to the range of possible exercises. The bar can also be freely positioned half-way up for a relatively easy standing row, which adds the challenge of an unstable, unsecured bar. The comfortable swiveling handles, said to reduce joint pain, also add to the challenge. Nice touches include a comfortable rubber coating on the bar, and ab straps (included in the complete system) for use in hanging leg lifts. The bar itself works fine without the handles.
Dislikes: Though anyone more than 5 feet tall with normal-height doorways has to bend his/her knees to clear the floor while hanging off any bar, the bend increases and the knees come precariously (and uncomfortably) close to the floor here, as the swiveling handles hang 6 inches underneath the bar itself. (Of course, you don't have to use them at all.) Also, you do have to drill into the door jams to secure the bar support frame with wood screws.
Price: $99.95; without ab straps $79.99. (800) 738-4543; www.perfectpushup.com.
Look ma, no screws
Everlast Multifunction Home Gym Bar: Pull-up bar that rests on the lip at the top and sides of the doorway frame.
Likes: Very convenient -- no holes to drill (or holes to fill when you move). Can be instantly moved to any door. Numerous padded hand positions for underhand, overhand and handshake-style holds. The various grips and body angles let you target different muscles and develop your back more fully. Example: The basic overhand pull-up grip works your outer lats, while the wide-grip pull-up with your back arched (pulling your mid-chest to the bar) stresses the middle of your back and your rear deltoids.
Dislikes: Although the bar was stable, I had a nagging fear that it might suddenly fall off the door sill or that the wooden sill would collapse or splinter. After all, your entire weight is resting on the thin 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch sill of the door frame. Also, you can't leave the bar in place because you can't close the door, as with the others. I'd be afraid to do upside-down monkey-bar moves on it. You can't do Aussies or horizontal rows.
Price: $39.99. (800) 221-8777; www.everlast.com.
The bargain bar
Ironman Chin-Up Bar: Simply designed telescoping bar, like the Altus, but without an extra set of brackets.
Likes: Simple, effective. Drill three holes per bracket, slip in ends, and go to work.
Dislikes: You're stuck with just one position for the bar, eliminating any horizontal rows or Aussies. No padding. Feels a bit flimsy.
Price: $15. www.ironmanfitness.com.
Wallack is an Irvine-based endurance cyclist and runner and the coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100."