Pull ups… the Mount Everest of gym exercises.
We’ve all been there, hanging like a fish on a line, wondering why on earth we can’t hoist ourselves up.
It’s not just about raw power… it’s a cocktail of technique, strength, and understanding your body.
If you’re wondering why you just can’t seem to get your chin to the bar… this guide is for you. We delve into the factors at play and actionable things you can do to see improvements.
- Consider your bodyweight, back/grip/core strength, and technique.
- Common pitfalls include neglecting shoulders and over-relying on arms.
- Boost success with other exercises like dead hangs, assisted pull-ups, negatives pull ups and inverted rows.
- Don’t skimp on recovery and nutrition; they’re part of the pull-up package.
Pull Up Biomechanics – Understanding Why It’s a Hard Exercise
A pull-up isn’t just a test of strength… it’s a masterclass in biomechanics.
There’s more than meets the eye and that’s often where people go wrong. Below we highlight a few key areas that need to be understood to help you see improvements.
Every time you attempt a pull-up, you’re essentially trying to defy gravity by lifting your entire body weight.
It’s an obvious factor, but one worth noting… the more you weigh, the harder the pull-up.
But instead of seeing this as a discouraging factor, use it as motivation. Focus on weight management through cardiovascular exercises and full-body strength training (as well as eating healthy).
The stars of the pull-up show are the latissimus dorsi muscles (or the ‘lats’).
These wide, wing-like muscles spread across your back, powering your upward movement.
To conquer pull-ups, you need to strengthen these muscles.
Your hands are the only connection between you and the bar.
If your grip is weak, so is that connection. A strong grip not only aids in pull-ups but is also beneficial in other exercises like lat pulldowns and rows (which as previously highlighted, can help you train and target your back muscles).
Core Strength and Stability
Think of your core as the control center during a pull-up.
A robust and stable core prevents unnecessary swinging, ensuring your energy is directed upward, not sideways.
Strength is the foundation of a pull-up, but technique is the blueprint.
There’s a rhythm to pull ups that involves recruiting the right muscles at the right times. If this doesn’t happen… it becomes much harder.
Mastering a Pull-Up – Step By Step
Starting simple, the dead hang builds foundational grip strength and primes your muscles with the sensation of bearing your full body weight.
Aim for three sets, holding as long as possible (check out our guide on dead hang time averages for benchmarks).
As days go by, challenge yourself to hang a little longer each time. Feel the stretch but ensure your shoulders aren’t struggling.
You can also stand on your tip toes to start with if a dead hang is too challenging and slowly increase the load your grip is supporting.
Assisted pull ups are the ultimate stepping-stone.
They can be performed using a resistance band or a machine that subtracts some of your body weight (check out our guide on using an assisted pull up machine).
Focus on using as little assistance as possible. Over time, reduce the assistance until you’re pulling more of your weight.
This really allows you to practice your technique and gets your body used to the motion of pulling yourself up to the bar.
Negatives target the descent or the “lowering” phase of the pull-up (also known as “eccentric” repetitions).
Start with your chin over the bar (use a step or a jump to get there), then lower yourself as slowly and controlled as you can.
By emphasizing this portion, you’re recruiting the very muscles you need to lift.
You want to mimic the pull-up motion without doing the pull-up itself.
Incorporate exercises like the inverted row (using a TRX band or a low bar) and single-arm dumbbell rows.
We really like inverted rows because you can slowly change the angle over time.
Core and Stability
We can’t stress enough how vital a strong core is.
Implement exercises that challenge your stability, like plank variations and other stability exercise.
Charting your progress is a great way to boost motivation and monitor how far you’ve come.
It motivates and directs your efforts.
You can keep a workout journal or use a dedicated app for strength training that allows you to log your workouts.
Change Up the Grip
Variety isn’t just the spice of life but also of pull-ups.
Experiment with different grips… wide, close, underhand (chin-ups). Each grip alters the muscles emphasized, offering a well-rounded strength buildup.
Angles90 grips can also help improve grip and we find them easier to do pull ups with, compared to just gripping a bar.
If you get sweaty hands, using chalk, straps or gloves might also help.
Common Mistakes and How to Correct Them
Not Engaging the Shoulders
Starting a pull-up? It’s like revving a car’s engine. Your shoulder blades should roar into action first… but many only gun their arm muscles, leading to little lift-off.
Correction tip – Try scapular pull-ups. Here, you hang from the bar and focus on shoulder blade retraction, without bending your elbows. It’s like the warm-up act before the main concert.
Over-Relying on Arms
While it looks like your arms are powering the movement, it’s actually your back that is doing the heavy lifting.
Correction tip – Imagine pulling the bar down to your chest rather than hoisting yourself up. This mind trick can coax those back muscles into the limelight.
Neglecting the Elbow Position
Your elbows can sometimes jut out like you’re trying to take flight. This can be less efficient and it’s hard on the shoulders.
Correction tip – Keep elbows angled about 45 degrees from your sides. Think of forming an arrow shape with your upper body… that’s your gold standard.
Advanced Variations for the Pro
So, you’ve mastered the basic pull-up and now crave a bit more spice. Welcome to the big leagues…
Weighted Pull Ups
How about adding a few pounds? Secure weights via a special belt or vest.
This is easiest and probably most popular way to progress pull ups. Instead of opting for more reps, you can add more load.
L-Sit Pull Ups
Raise those legs straight out in front, forming an ‘L’.
This significantly increases the role your core plays and makes it a really challenging exercise.
The holy grail… the unicorn of pull-ups.
Few dare, fewer conquer.
If you’re feeling particularly Herculean, give this a whirl. Just remember, it’s not for mere mortals… and it will put a lot of strain on your shoulders so don’t try if you have any doubts.
Recovery and Nutrition
Effective stretching and mobility work can help speed up recovery and improve performance in your next workout.
For pull ups, include shoulder mobility exercises for shoulder health, and include stretches that target the back.
Muscles run on protein like cars run on gas. After your pull up endeavors, refuel with protein-rich foods.
Good nutrition can also help support weight loss goals, which in turn can make pull ups easier… so nutrition is definitely something not to ignore.
When it comes to perfecting the humble pull up, it’s not going to be an overnight success.
Pull ups demand patience, perseverance, and practice.
The bar’s been set. Now, rise to the challenge.