The pull-up is a classic bodyweight exercise performed across countless gyms all over the world. Even tough pull-ups are performed without external weight, they require a great deal of upper body strength, from the arms to the back and the core.
While there are many variations, the classic pull-up where you take your bodyweight from a hanging position to lifting your chin above a bar is a staple in training in many settings.
As a straightforward but effective exercise, the pull-up has been used as an upper body strength test by many first responder units, is a favourite in many people’s training arsenal, and it’s a goal countless of athletes around the world – we’re guessing yourself included – aim to achieve.
What is a pull-up?
Pull-ups are a bodyweight exercise popular in calisthenics and fitness training. Focusing on your upper-body strength, the pull-up starts with your body on a dead hang from a bar, you then pull your body with the strength of your arms and back until your collarbone comes close to the bar, and ultimately lower yourself down slowly.
Pull-ups are a foundational exercise for upper body strength and can be described as the “heavy-lifting exercises of the calisthenics world.”
How to do a pull-up?
A strict pull-up looks as follows:
- Start with your body hanging from a bar, no movement, elbows locked, and shoulders relaxed. Your hands should grip the bar at a distance slightly larger than your shoulder width, your palms facing away from you.
- Contract the shoulders, brace your core, and pull with your arms to bring your bodyweight upward.
- Pull yourself up until your chin is well above the bar. Preferably, your collarbone with be within a centimetre of the pull-up bar.
- Slowly return to the initial position, keeping the descent under control.
What is the difference between a pull-up and a chin up?
While the mechanics of the exercise are incredibly similar, the hand positioning is what differentiates a chin-up from a pull-up. The former has your hands wrapped around the bar with the palms facing you, while the latter has the palms of your hands facing away.
What are pull-ups good for?
Pull-ups are a great exercise for working your upper body muscles. They tax the muscles on your back, such as the latissimus dorsi; shoulders, such as the traps; arms, like your biceps; and core.
Pulling your bodyweight through space is incredibly valuable regardless of your fitness level, says Functional Bodybuilding founder Marcus Filly.
In addition to granting you the ability to pull your own bodyweight, pull-ups will improve your grip and increase your upper body muscular endurance and strength.
How to get a pull-up?
If you’re unable to perform pull-ups or can’t do more than a couple at a time, first and foremost you’ll need to develop your grip, back, and arm strength. You’ll require strong lats, stable shoulders, a solid grip, a core of steel, and strong sense of body awareness.
All of this can be achieved through a variety of exercises and drills, and we’ve created a detailed 6-week pull-up training plan that you can follow here.
Before you build up to performing dozens of pull-ups in one go, you’ll need to build a solid base for strength and good movement patterns. Try the progressions below.
There are many popular progressions to achieving the required strength to do pull-ups. They include the ring row, banded pull-ups, and negatives (jumping up and slowly lowering down).
In addition to progressions, you’ll need solid and consistent practice.
- Deadhangs – deadhangs are an effective way to build shoulder stability and grip strength, both of which you’ll need before you can perform a pull-up. Aim to simply hang from a bar for around a minute. Deadhangs can be performed passively or with active shoulders, train both.
- Push-ups – push-ups are your friends when working on developing strict strength for pull-ups. Most athletes are able to perform at least a dozen push-ups unbroken before they have the strength to perform pull-ups.
- Ring rows – ring rows follow a similar movement pattern of a pull-up except you get the extra aid from having your feet on the floor. Alongside with ring dips, ring rows are a great exercise to develop strength for pull-ups.
- Bands – use a band to get yourself used to the movement pattern of pull-ups and know exactly which muscles will be taxed. Bands take some weight away from your body and help you perform the movements easier. Assisted pull-ups have their place as a developmental exercise but you should combine them with other variations and progressions to develop better pull-ups.
- Negatives – in your quest to becoming stronger, negative pull-ups are probably one of the most effective exercises because they focus on the eccentric part of the movement. Jump onto the pull-up bar so your chin is over it and hold this position for a few seconds. Then, lower yourself as slowly as possible until your arms are extended again. Make sure you go through the full range of motion.
- Chin over bar hold – this will help you develop your end strength, required for the final portion of the pull-up. Aim to hold this for around 30 seconds while keeping your whole body under control.
- Supine barbell row – this movement will allow you to develop similar muscles to the pull-up except in a different plane of motion and at an easier intensity. Unlike ring rows, the supine barbell row keeps the hands in a fixed position (like the pull-up).
Why can’t I do a pull-up?
Pull-ups can be a hard exercise to master because they require you to lift your entire bodyweight with just your arms and shoulders, additionally working against gravity.
The most likely answer to why you can’t do pull-ups is lack of strength.
If you’re not strong enough, all your technical abilities will start to diminish once you start approaching your threshold. You’ll need to develop strict pulling strength and your ability to stay tight throughout the movement.
Movement deficiencies can also come in the way of your achieving pull-ups; underdeveloped muscles, misalignments, or shoulder mobility issues can all affect your ability to pull your chin over the bar. Spend some time decoding all the positions of the pull-up and find out where you struggle most.
Read more: Why do I suck at pull-ups?
Most common pull-up mistakes
- Not enough range of motion
- Uncontrolled eccentric portion
- Lack of grip strength
- Misguided rep-range
How to increase my pull-ups?
- Strengthen the primary muscles worked
- Build neural adaptations
- Follow progressions
1 – Strengthen the primary muscles worked
According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports, the muscles most activated during the pull-up are the core, the biceps, the lats, and the mid and lower traps. Those are the muscles you should be strengthening.
Use the pull-up progressions above to strengthen these muscles.
2 – Build neural adaptations
You need to train your body to be able to understand the movement and what it requires your muscles to do. Going through the full range of motion of a pull-up, as enabled by banded pull-ups for example, will help you build the neural adaptations required to become proficient in this exercise.
3 – Follow progressions
The best way to improve when it comes to training is to add progressive overload to your muscles. Continue to make your exercises and pull-up progressions harder by adding weight, increasing the time, or adding more reps.
Read more: How to Increase Your Pull-Ups
The pull-up is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups while at the same time developing functional strength as well as a powerful grip. There are many variations that target slightly different muscles and will challenge you in new ways.
- Hammer grip pull-up
- Narrow and wide grip pull-ups
- Mixed grip pull-up
- Around the world pull-ups
- Towel pull-up
Try pull-up workouts to help you build a stronger upper body and improve your skills throughout a variety of modalities, intensities and time ranges.
- c2b-pull-ups: RX'd Photography