As it turns out, the pull-up is simple, but not easy. This fact is both unfortunate and uplifting: Those of us who can’t do a pull-up are not alone! Sure, it’s going to take some work, but with the right plan in place, you can go from hanging from the bar to hammering out rep after rep of the perfect pull-up.
The Proof Is in the Pull-Up
Before we get down to the business of practicing (and perfecting!) our form, let’s take a second to ponder the pull-up itself. For starters, one of the most puzzling parts about the pull-up might be explaining why—why do we care so much about performing a pull-up in the first place? Why not just focus on the lat pull-down?
The true difference between these two exercises isn’t which muscles are worked—both exercises target the same muscle groups (mainly the upper back, chest, shoulders, and biceps)—but how and how well they’re worked. Put simply, a pull-down trains maximal strength (how much weight you can pull down) while the pull-up improves relative strength (the ability to move one’s bodyweight through a plane of motion).
What's more is that the thought of sitting at the lat pull-down machine isn’t nearly as captivating as obtaining cliffhanger status. (Master pull-uppers will have nothing to fear if they find themselves dangling from a ledge!) Heroic feats aside, one study found that NCAA swimmers were able to complete more reps of the pull-down and that ”pull-ups and lat-pulls were not highly related and should not be substituted for one another in a training regimen Relationship of 1 repetition maximum lat-pull to pull-up and lat-pull repetitions in elite collegiate women swimmers. Halet KA, Mayhew JL, Murphy C. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009 Aug;23(5):1496-502..”
Put simply, there’s a difference between moving weight on a weight stack (the lat pull-down) and moving our own bodyweight (the pull-up). That’s because our muscles and movements are connected. When the brain says so, the central nervous system and kinetic chain spring into action. Think of these two things as individual nerves and joints that work together. The result: muscles fire, force is applied, and movement occurs.
When it comes to strength training, improving these outcomes can take two forms: open or closed kinetic chain exercises. Fans of exercise machines like the lat pull-down are performing an open chain exercise—moving an object toward or away from the body. In this case, the movement takes place around one joint, isolating one muscle group. On the other hand, individuals aiming to perfect the pull-up are attempting a closed chain exercise—moving their body to or from a fixed object. This type of movement involves multiple joints and muscle groups.
Here again, it’s not that either approach is wrong. Generally speaking, all exercise is good exercise (except when it’s not). But depending on your goals, some kinds of exercise will serve you better than others. In most cases, closed kinetic chain exercise, like the pull-up, win out. We’re not just saying that either, it’s science. When researchers put two groups of adult exercisers through the paces, a group of open chain exercisers versus closed chained counterparts, the closed chain group made more improvement over the course of the six-week regimen (told you so!) The effect of open and closed kinetic chain exercises on dynamic balance ability of normal healthy adults. Kwon YJ, Park SJ, Jefferson J, et al. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2013 Jun;25(6):671-4..
Up, Up, and Away
It’s true what they say: Practice really does make perfect. But practicing improper form is more likely to hinder pull-up performance than actually help, so anyone aiming to make their first pull-up a reality should begin by perfecting the proper form.
The time has come, let’s get down to the business of perfecting the pull-up.
1. Get a Grip
Stand under the bar and grab it with both hands. Your palms should be facing away from you with hands shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar, get a boost from a bench, stool, or box.) Use a standard overhand grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar so that they almost meet the tips of your fingers.
2. Play Dead
A true pull-up begins in a dead hang. When you hang from the bar, your arms should be fully extended with your core engaged and shoulders back. Build strength by keeping form in mind as you pull—it'll help you avoid swinging, kicking, and jumping, which means that you'll be using your muscles, not momentum, to master the move.
3. Pull (Up)
Initiate the actual pull by squeezing the bar with your hands while engaging the muscles of your upper body and core. Imagine pulling your elbows down to your sides as your entire body travels toward the bar. Resist the urge to strain your neck in an attempt to break the plane of the bar with your chin. Continue to pull until your chin clears the bar with ease, at which point the upward phase of the pull-up is complete.
4. Get Down
Congratulations! You nailed the up part of the pull-up. But you still have to get down. The trick is to return to the dead-hang slowly. Maintain a firm grip on the bar while allowing your arms to straighten as you lower. Once you return to the dead-hang, you can count your first rep. Cue shouting "Nailed it!," high-fiving yourself, pumping your fist triumphantly, all of the above, etc.
Working Up to the Pull-Up
Knowing how to do a pull-up is one thing, but actually doing it will probably take some time (and practice and patience). Instead of walking away from the pull-up forever, use these exercises to work your way up to the perfect pull-up.
1. Suspended Row
Similar to a pull-up, the suspended row is a closed-chain exercise. In this case, however, you’ll be lying under a bar instead of hanging from it. Using a Smith machine or power rack set the barbell so that when you're under the bar, lying faceup, it’s just out of reach. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms out, and thumbs around the bar. Anchor your heels into the ground. Now, pull your chest toward the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. You can also perform this row on a set of rings. In either case, if the movement is too challenging, adjusting the bar or rings so that your body is more vertical. As you build strength, you can set yourself up to be more horizontal.
2. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
For this free weight move, snag a set of dumbbells. Hinge at the waist to grip the weights with both hands outside of your knees, palms facing each other. With a slight bend in the knees, back straight, and chest parallel to the floor, row your elbows back and up toward the ceiling, pulling the weight and exhaling as you do. At the top of the movement, squeeze the muscles of your back, pause for a moment, then lower the weight.
3. Assisted Pull-Up
Practicing a pull-up can present a bit of a problem. Mainly that hanging helplessly from a bar is no way to make progress. The underlying issue preventing us from pulling up is twofold. First, it could be a lack of strength holding us back. (This where exercises like the suspended and bent-over rows come in, strengthening the muscles of the arms and upper body.) Second, strength-to-weight ratio could be keeping us down. Put simply, our muscles can’t move our bodyweight. Luckily it's possible to practice the pull-up, with a little bit of a boost.
4. Buddy Up
A workout buddy will help out by gripping your legs and gently pushing up, thereby reducing the amount of weight you need move up. Dead-hang from the bar per usual but cross your legs. This is where your friend steps in, holding your legs and pushing up. Ah... upward motion just got a little easier.
5. More Like Machine Fun
Most gyms have a couple of assisted pull-up machines, which serve the same purpose as your workout buddy—they support your body, thereby reducing the amount of weight you’ll have to pull. To get started, set the pin on the machine's weight stack. (On most exercise machines, the pin's placement determines the amount of weight you'll be moving. Here, though, the pin's placement indicates how much support you'll get from the machine.) Once the weight is set, climb up onto the platform, kneel, and grip the bar as if you we’re performing the perfect pull-up. As the support arm sinks, the platform will move with you, the counterweight supporting you through the range of motion.
6. I'm With the Band
Giant rubber bands called flex bands can be used for a variety of assisted or mobility exercises. For use in perfecting the pull-up, the band is looped around the top of the bar. As it hangs, step your foot through the bottom of the band. Grip the bar and notice that you're getting up, allowing the band to help you. More effective than the assisted pull-up machine, the banded version is more akin to the actuall pull-up, engaging core and stabilizer muscles throughout the movement. (Be careful when stepping into and out of the band. There’s a chance that it could snap back with force.)
7. Go Negative
When it comes to perfecting the pull-up, the "up" part gets a whole lot of attention, but pulling is only one piece of the puzzle. Slowly lowering yourself from the bar—a "negative"—is a teriffic way to build the strength that will eventually help you pull yourself up. Grip the bar as you would for a pull-up and very slowly lower yourself to a dead hang, squeezing your back muscles and biceps and keeping your core engaged. You might not be able to pull-up, but you sure can get down. And that’s half of the pull-up battle.
Variations: Like a Pull-Up But Different
So far we’ve been trying to harness all the strength of our upper body to perfect the pull-up—gripping the bar with an overhand grip at shoulder width. This is not the same as gripping the bar with an underhand grip, palms facing toward you. That, friends, is a chin-up. Sure, these two exercises are closely related, but they’re not identical. The chin-up engages the biceps more than the overhand counterpart, making it a tried and true back builder but the slightest bit easier to perform. As a result, the chin-up is a useful training tool for those among us struggling to perform a pull-up.
2. Wide-Grip Pull-Up
How much of an effect can hand placement have on the pull-up? A lot more than one might think. Going from a shoulder-width grip to a wider-than-shoulder-width grip takes the already difficult pull-up to a place of pure absurdity. No, it’s not impossible to perform a wide-grip pull-up, it just feels like it. A wider grip requires more strength in the lats and less assistance from the biceps, chest, and shoulders. Focus on making this move a reality once you've mastered the pull-up, chin-up, and negative!
3. Kipping Pull-Up
A pull-up variation popularized by CrossFit, kipping is part gymnastics, part strength training. The move itself allows exercisers to transfer momentum, making it possible to perform more pull-ups faster than you could otherwise. Like the wide-grip pull-up, it’s best to hone your skills and strength on strict pull-ups and chin-ups before taking on the kipping version.
4. Weighted Pull-Up
Once you perfect the pull-up and are repping 'em out without fail, it’s time to take your pull-up game to another level. When pulling your bodyweight doesn’t present the same challenge it once did, try adding weight—in the form of a weighted vest or dumbbell—to up the ante. If your gym has one of those hardcore-looking belts with a chain attached, tie it around your waist and use it to secure a dumbbell. The exercise itself, from set-up to the pull to the lowering phase, stays the same (except now you can continue to make it more difficult by adding weight).
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