If you’ve ever taken a look at a gymnast you know that they are some of the strongest and fittest athletes on earth. They also have some of the best physiques you’ll ever see and many look like they could step foot on a bodybuilding stage.
This is because their event involves them constantly pulling and lowering their entire body weight.
This article will look at why the pull up, and the ability to lift your own body will accelerate your strength and physique goals.
How to do a perfect pull-up (form and technique)
As with many big compound lifts, the concept is very simple: pull your body weight upwards. However, the execution is more complicated.
Here are the steps you want to follow to do a pull-up:
- If using a grip with palms facing away from the body you want to grip the pull up bar with your hands around shoulder-width apart
- The starting position will be hanging all the way down
- Keeping your core tight and your head up pull your body weight up until your chin reaches the bar
- Pause for a moment and lower yourself under control back to the starting position
- You want to lower back to that hanging position but stop just short of full extension to take any unnecessary pressure off your rotator cuffs
That’s the basics of the pull-up, but there are a few other pointers to be aware of: when lifting your body weight picture yourself pulling the bar down to you the way you would with a lat pulldown.
It also helps your form to imagine trying to get your elbows to touch each other behind your back. This will ensure you are recruiting and utilising the majority of the muscles in your back.
Why is the pull-up important?
As mentioned, the ability to lift one’s own body weight is a sign of real functional strength. Not only is this beneficial in a survival situation, but it also leads to improved athleticism and muscle coordination.
The pull-up is a complete compound movement that recruits major and minor muscles.
Among the many muscles used during a pull-up you will work:
- Middle and lower trapezius
- Pectoralis major and minor
- Latissumus dorsi
- Terres major
The pull-up is a complete upper body workout with the majority of upper body muscles being used. From a muscle mass standpoint, the pull-up is an ideal exercise for increasing muscle mass in your back and biceps.
For everyday benefits, the pull-up will help improve your posture and grip strength.
The pull-up gives you the perfect combination of muscle gain, strength gain, coordination, athleticism, and true functional strength.
Further Reading: Pull-ups muscles worked & benefits
How to include pull-ups in your workout
If you are a beginner to pull-ups, it’s a good idea to try those beginner pull-up variations 2 to 3 times a week mixed in with other workouts. When pull-ups become more manageable, they are the ultimate back day, or pull-day, exercise. It’s important to not do them first thing in the workout as it helps to activate the back muscles with other exercises such as dumbbell rows.
You also want to make sure you have a good warm-up to get blood flow to the muscles. Performing 5 to 10 minutes of cardio will help increase your heart rate and blood flow, and some dynamic stretching including arm swings will also help to activate the muscle and prepare them to work.
Don’t forget to stretch out the back and lats at the end of the workout. This stretching can also be performed between sets to get the most out of your pull-ups
Pull-ups for beginners
Don’t feel concerned if you have trouble doing even a few pull-ups at first; the average person cannot do a single one and even seemingly strong weight lifters have trouble doing a few.
There are a few things, however, that a beginner can do to increase their strength in order to perform pull-ups.
- Work on motions that mimic the pull-up – Lat pulldowns will
be one of the main choices as they are a movement that tries to recreate the benefits that come from performing a pull-up. This exercise uses similar muscles that lead to better pull-ups. Dumbell rows will also engage the same muscles and help strengthen and prepare you for pull-ups. Inverted body-weight rows are another great exercise that is a less intense version of a pull-up but still helps in building functional strength. Start with the bar up high if you have trouble with them, and as your strength grows you can lower the bar closer to the ground.
- Assisted pull-ups – These can be done using the assisted dip/pull-up machines that have the assisted lever to reduce how much of your own bodyweight you use. Another – and seemingly better – way to do this is to take a box or chair and place it under the pull-up bar. Using either one foot, or two, this can help you perform a pull-up. Try to push yourself with your feet as little as possible – your feet are there for support and you want to use your upper body as much as you can.
- Negative pull-ups – This is where you can use a box or chair again and focus on the eccentric, or negative, phase of the motion. You will use your feet to push you up to the completed position where your chin is at the bar, and then lower your weight back down before pushing back up again with your feet. This is to help develop strength and muscle to assist with full pull-ups down the road.
How many should I be able to do?
This will vary on many things including; age, gender, experience, body weight, and overall athleticism. To be a U.S. Marine, you need to be able to do at least three, and a Navy Seal should be able to do at least 8.
For the average fit male, they should also be able to do around 8 pull-ups with extremely fit and strong individuals being able to perform 13 to 17. For the average active female, they should look to be able to do 1 to 3 with very fit and strong females able to do 5 to 9.
Data surrounding pull-ups are hard to come by but males tend to be able to do more due to higher levels of muscle mass. The good news is that at whatever age and stage of fitness you are at, you can still train to improve your pull-ups.
What Do I Do If I Can’t Do Any?
Don’t let yourself get frustrated and also realise this is one of the hardest exercises to do.
There are some good tips here for exercises to help build up your pull-up ability. Like any other skill, it’s going to take some time and focus in order to improve them. Set a goal of performing just a single pull-up because that is achievable. This will give you the confidence to stick with it and progress further.
Pull-Up Bar Progression
- Bent-over dumbbell rows. At least 8 reps each arm and then progress to a heavier weight for a week or two
- Inverted bodyweight pull-ups. Start with the bar at chest height until you can complete 3 sets of 8. When this is possible, start to lower the bar over the next days and weeks until you can complete 3 sets of 8 with the bar lower down the rack
- Start doing assisted pull-ups. You can use the box/chair method or use a resistance band to assist in pulling up your body weight. Another option is having a partner help to lift your feet through the sticking points of the movement. Aim for 3-5 reps each time for a week or two.
- Negative pull-ups – Perform 3 sets to failure aiming for 5 reps at the most for a week or so.
- Performing your first full pull-up
- Completing as many pull-ups as possible
The position of your hands is going to increase, or decrease, the difficulty of the pull-up. A closer grip with hands turned in towards you will make the pull up easier. This is a good grip for beginners as it will help build confidence in the lift and build strength and muscle still.
When your grip is turned towards you, this will recruit the biceps more. With your grip facing forward, the pull-up will be more difficult but it also recruits more muscle in the back.
When your hands are facing towards you the movement becomes a chin-up, but they re still a great strength and mass builder. The wider your hands go, the harder the pull-up will be.
You don’t want to go too wide, however, as this can put unnecessary strain on the shoulders. Progressing to just outside shoulder-width is a good goal.
Common mistakes when doing a pull-up
You have probably seen this a hundred times in your gym, but swinging your body, and using that momentum to perform a pull-up, is shortchanging yourself on the purpose of the exercise. There is also the risk of injury due to the force on your joints and shoulders.
Another mistake is performing the motion too fast and not allowing for a proper negative phase. This again is shortchanging yourself and not allowing your body to build that true functional strength. You also want to make sure to use the full range of motion to get maximum muscle recruitment and the highest ability to build muscle mass.
Other mistakes you want to avoid are having your elbows flared too far outward, not keeping your back and body straight, and not pulling high enough (you’ve probably also seen people lurching their head upward in the attempt to get their chin to the bar…)