How to Master the Pull Up

World-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin calls it the single most important exercise for upper body strength development.

Elite level athletes from Crossfit to bodybuilders think of it as the toughest bodyweight move there is, whereas others have placed such importance on the pull up that they simply call it the ‘Upper Body Squat’, it’s THAT important.

Man Doing Pull Ups

For the regular gym goer the pull up occupies a weird middle ground, between bodyweight god, where you can approach the bar and pound out a set without breaking a sweat, and fish out of water, body flailing around hopelessly as you try to pull yourself up with everything you have only to collapse in embarrassment as you barely raised an inch.

The truth is most people can’t do a full set of pull-ups, let alone one or two.

Although the majority of females do struggle with pull-ups it’s not solely women that are unable to complete a pull-up, many men find it just as hard.

This article will explain

  • Why the pull-up is important
  • Where you’ve been going wrong
  • What you should do to get started
  • How you can master this amazing exercise

Why the Pull-Up?

If you’ve ever tried a pull up you’ll know just how hard they are.
Pull-ups place enormous demand on your shoulders, back, and arm muscles not to mention your core, forearms and your glutes.

The pull up really is a full body exercise that can have your body aching from head to toe.
The back muscles (lats, traps, and rhomboids) and arms work incredibly hard to be able to lift your entire body up, you can challenge yourself even more by altering the grip you use or adding weight to your lift.

With so many muscles being worked at once, the pull up is a true test of upper body strength and one that carries many benefits.

You may not need to climb up trees to gather food or pull yourself up a rock to avoid predators like our ancestors did in order to survive, but being able to successfully complete pull-ups is a fantastic sign of a strong and fit upper body that comes with some handy benefits.

It will aid your movement, impress your friends and give you some eye-catching results, not to mention:

  • Your back will get stronger and more aesthetically defined
  • The lats will grow wider, giving you the ultimate sign of a strong and powerful back
  • Your biceps will start to bulge more than ever as they get a real workout
  • And your grip strength will skyrocket

The pull up is a unique bodyweight exercise that has gigantic benefits and should be included in every workout program, especially if adding size and developing an impressive physique are your goals.

As you see the overall improvements you won’t be asking “why the pull up?” you’ll just be wondering why you waited so long before regularly doing them.

Where You’re Going Wrong

You may have been trying to master the pull-up for years, only to be stuck in the same 2 rep cycle, maybe you gave up and haven’t tried it since, chances are, you were probably doing one of these things wrong.

  • You’re too heavy – This can be a hard one to swallow but there’s no way around it, pull-ups require you to pull your entire body weight up, which is no mean feat. The more weight you’re carrying, the harder it’ll be, sad, but true.
  • You’re half reppin – You should be extending all the way down and pulling all the way up, getting your chin over the bar
  • You don’t engage the shoulders – You should pull your shoulders down and back before bending the elbow and starting to pull, engaging the shoulders at the bottom and the top of the ‘pull’ for maximal efficiency and strength
  • Your back isn’t strong enough – The Pull up is all about the back, and if you’ve spent your gym life neglecting your back, then it’s going to show, even if you have an impressive bench press or are strong in other areas, if you don’t have the required back strength pull-ups will always be difficult.

So How Do You Get Started?

You know where you’re going wrong, let’s take a look at what you can do to fix it. Don’t worry there are many things you can do to get yourself ready to complete a pull-up.

  • Work on your core strength to give yourself the upper hand
  • If you can’t do a pull up you may blame your lack of back strength, or your weak arms, when in fact your core could also be the culprit
  • Hollow body holds are a fantastic way to really develop the core strength required to complete a pull-up
  • Lying on the floor, lift your arms up over your head so that your biceps are by your ears and your elbows are straight
  • Cross your hands and your ankles, pressing them into each other to create tension, lift your legs off the floor and your upper body and arms off the floor at the same time, this creates the hollow hold position
  • Brace your abs as if they were about to take a punch. Take a breath in and squeeze
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds or 2-3 breaths per rep, maintaining as much head-to-toe tension as you can. Take a 5-second break, repeat for 5-6 reps per set
  • To take the hollow hold a step further, get into the exact same position, but hold a stick in your hands to replicate the pull-up bar
  • Hanging leg raises or dead hangs are also great for replicating pull up conditions, improving grip strength and preparing you for core bracing and correct breathing
  • Practice hanging from the pull-up bar, with strong arms, and a tight core, holding tension throughout the body. Start with 5-second intervals and work your way up as you improve

Build your Back Muscles

You already know that pull-ups require strong back muscles so it’s time that you start to focus on them.

Single arm rows, lat pulldowns, Barbell rows and face pulls are just a few of the exercises you should be including in your workout routine.

The main muscles working in a pull up are the lats, so work them, hard.

Lat pulldowns with a wide grip most closely replicate the muscles used in a pull-up and should be in heavy rotation in your program and adding an eccentric set will really push the lats.

Build the Biceps

Biceps are often controversial when it comes to pull-up strength as there are some that don’t see bicep training as necessary, others, however, swear by it, and have reported great improvements in their pull up and muscle up performance once they started working the biceps more.

Our position is straightforward, pull-ups work the back and biceps extremely hard as you’re pulling your entire body weight and your whole body has to work together.
In our book, anything you can do to help is positive.

But don’t go for traditional bicep curls.

Zootman curls, Barbell Bicep curls, and underhand Barbell rows will give you much more bang for your buck and get your ready to really pull some weight.

How to Master the Pull-Up

So you’ve strengthened your core, built your back and have biceps that break out of any shirt you wear, it’s time to pull!

There are a few accessory exercises that will help your overall pull up performance and carry you from beginner to master in no time at all. If you’re not fully able to complete a full set of classic pull-ups yet, I’d recommend starting with this.

Banded Pull Up (Monday 3 Sets of 8-12 )

Assisted pull up machines can take too much load off of your body and don’t often do enough to help you progress. Banded pull ups allow you to complete a full pull up, with a little bit of assistance. Hook the band over the bar and let it hand down in the middle, for you to place your feet on the band. It’s only small but it gives you more support than you would believe.

Chin Ups (Wednesday 3 Sets of 8-12)

Chin ups and pull ups are used interchangeably but they are different. Rather than an overhand grip, your palms should be facing back towards you. This method works the biceps, even more, reducing the load on your back, and are slightly easier than a full pull up.

Negative Pull-Ups (Friday 3 Sets of 8-12)

Stand on a bench to get your body to the ‘up’ position at the top of the bar. Lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Negatives teach you how to control and lower your bodyweight without having to pull back up. They fatigue the working muscles and will do wonders for your grip strength. Use the bench to get back to the ‘up’ position.

Full Pull up

Once you can do the moves listed above, you will be able to complete a full pull up, starting with 3 sets of 4-5 reps or a pull-up ladder.

Pull Up the Ladder

  • Perform 2 pull-ups and rest for 15 seconds
  • Perform 3 pull-ups and rest for 15 seconds
  • Perform 5 pull-ups and rest for 15 seconds
  • Perform 10 pull-ups

A pull up the ladder is a great way to breakdown your set and to split the numbers up while really making the body work.

Pull up Quick Fix Form Guide

  1. 1
    Approach the bar with an overhand grip and brace your body before you start
  2. 2
    Keep your chest up, engage your glutes and abs. Start the move by retracting your shoulders, then drive your elbows down to pull yourself up
  3. 3
    As the chin is higher than your hands, squeeze your working muscles
  4. 4
    Using a full range of motion, both arms should be fully straight. This is the start and finish position

There you have it, your very own guide to take you from pull up newbie to pull up master. The most important thing to develop your pull-ups is to ensure you’re working and strengthening the correct muscles, you’re using the correct form, and you’re practicing them on a regular basis.

As with the example above, adding some small sets on to the end of every workout will do wonders for your overall technique and will help you to develop faster than ever before.

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