How to do Pull-ups
Pull-ups are very simple, but very hard. To perform a pull-up, hang on to any bar, doorway, tree branch, etc… with your arms straight and your palms facing away from you, and pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar. That’s it.
Pull-ups can be performed on anything that allows you to hang with your arms straight and your knees not touching the floor.
Beginners can’t typically do a single pull-up, which is why we need a proper tutorial for increasing pull-up strength. This post will teach you how to do increase your performance with pull-ups using the correct technique.
Proper Pull-up Technique
Now that you know how to perform a basic pull-up, let’s consider proper pull-up technique. No need to waste your time performing half reps or place your shoulder health in jeopardy.
The following tips should be used for optimal pull-up technique:
- Straight Arms. Always start each rep with nearly straight arms. Don’t hyper-extend your elbows, but execute each rep with a full range of motion (ROM).
- Recruit the Forearms and Biceps. Squeeze the bar to maximally recruit the muscles in your forearms, biceps, and triceps.
- Grip. I prefer a hook grip, but many people prefer a conventional overhand grip. Either way, grip the bar more with your fingers than with your palm.
- Breathing. It is much easier to breathe in at the bottom and out at the top. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you different.
- Chest and Shoulders. The chest is always puffed out and the shoulders are always back. Anything else makes the exercise harder and could lead to shoulder injury.
- Eyes and Chin. Always look up towards the bar, never look down. The chin should always point up. Your body always follows your chin.
- Leg Position. I actually prefer to pull-up with my legs extended and knees slightly bent. However, most athletes prefer to fully bend their knees and cross their ankles. Sometimes the ankles-crossed technique cramps my hamstrings, but it is generally recommended to perform pull-ups with bent legs and squeezed glutes.
Pull-ups vs. Chin-ups
Because they are so similar, we should also consider the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups. The difference is in the grip:
- Pull-ups are the harder of the two. They are performed with palms facing away. You’ll use your biceps less and your back more.
- Chin-ups are easier. They are performed with palms facing towards you. You’ll use your biceps more and will work your back in a different but pleasant way.
The Benefits of Pull-ups
Pull-ups are one of the best strength training exercises you can use to build strength and muscle in your upper body. They force you to use your own body weight and they work a significant number of muscles from the back to the shoulders, arms, and even core stability.
Some benefits of mastering the pull-up include:
- Gaining muscle mass. Since pull-ups force you to lift your own body weight, your arms and back will gain a tremendous amount of muscle as you increase your pull-up strength.
- Carryover to other exercises. Your overhead press and bench press strength will increase along with your pull-up strength. Elite powerlifters strive to increase their back strength in order to set new PRs in the bench press. No joke.
- Shoulder stability. Balancing press exercises like the Bench Press with pull exercises like Barbell Rows & Pull-ups prevents muscle imbalances.
- Sports performance. Any sport that involves grip strength; for example grappling, strongman events, MMA, rowing, or rock climbing; will all benefit from increasing your pull-up strength.
What if You Can’t Perform a Single Pull-up?
As I wrote earlier, beginners usually can’t perform a single pull-up. Fortunately there are several options for increasing pull-up strength without actually having to perform a legit pull-up.
- Try chin-ups. Since chin-ups are easier than pull-ups, you may want to consider building your pull-up strength my training chin-ups really hard for a couple months. Of course if you can’t perform even 1 pull-up, chances are you will only be able to manage 1 or 2 chin-ups. Frankly, doing 5 sets of 1 or 2 chin-ups, is far better than doing 5 sets of 10 pull-downs.
- Use resistance bands for assistance. Hang a resistance band from the bar and loop it around your knees. This will assist you more at the bottom of the movement than at the top, which will help you develop acceleration through the pull-up movement. Take advantage of this by using maximum intensity with every single pull.
- Get a spotter. There are several ways to spot a pull-up. Your spotter can place his hands on your lats, use one hand at the small of your back, or place his hands under your feet/shins. Any of those choices will help you to complete a rep when you know you just can’t. Whatever you do, tell your spotter not to help you until you absolutely need it.
- Use a kip. Just read about How to Perform a Kipping Pull-up for more information.
- Use a jump. Use your legs to jump up to the top of the pull-up position. Then control your descent. Since these are essentially forced negatives, you might end up with a pretty sore back due to DOMs about 48 hours after the set.
- Assisted pull-up machine. While not the best option, assisted pull-ups can help you perform a real pull-up one day. Just don’t let the assistance get into your head. Still apply maximal intensity to each rep, and always TRY to perform at least 1 real pull-up every week.
- Any pull-down machine. Lat pull-downs just do not translate into pull-ups. Don’t kid yourself. If you want to do pull-ups, do pull-ups.
If you are too heavy to perform a pull-up then you have two options:
- Lose fat. Nutrient partitioning is optimal when you have low body fat. Therefore lose fat first, before trying to gain muscle or strength. Once you’re at your desired body fat, then focus on gaining.
- Get stronger. There are dudes out there who weigh more than 300 lbs and can do 20+ pull-ups. Use the tips outlined above to increase your pull-up strength.
Once you can perform more than 10 consecutive pull-ups, it is time to add weight. You’re not going to maximize your strength potential by using sets any higher than 10-15 reps. You might get stronger, but not as strong as if you started to incorporate weighted pull-ups.
Here are some options for adding weight to pull-ups:
- Use a weight belt with a chain. Put on the belt. Loop the chain through weight plates, or around a dumbbell. Attach the chain to your belt. Pull.
- Wear a backpack. Put weight plates in your backpack. Wear it. Pull.
- Hold a dumbbell with your ankles. This doesn’t work for dumbbells heavier than 50 pounds or so. It just becomes cumbersome at that point. Get yourself a belt with a chain.
- Resistance bands. Secure the bands around something heavy on the floor. Loop the band over your shoulders and behind your neck. Pull.
Common Pull-up Mistakes
ROM. The most common pull-up violation is incomplete ROM. If your arms aren’t straight and your chin isn’t over the bar, then your rep is not complete. Do you really want to be able to do 20 half-reps, or would you rather be able to do 10 full reps?
Using momentum. Do not use your hips or legs for momentum unless you are performing kipping pull-ups on purpose.
Using stretch-reflex. Performing reps too quickly by using the stretch-reflex at the bottom of each rep, is cheating. Only use the stretch-reflex when you are forcing the last rep on the last set, otherwise you’re just fooling yourself.
- chin-ups – palms facing you
- neutral grip – palms facing each other
- thumbless, or hook grip
- pull ups with a towel – works the grip
- fat bar pull-ups – more grip work
- mixed, or alternating grip pull-ups
- horizontal pull-ups – way easier
- kipping pull-ups
- clapping pull-ups – clap at the top, very difficult
- behind the neck – dangerous for the shoulders, somewhat difficult
Above, World’s Strongest Man competitor Jesse Marunde, uses straight legs, a small kip, and a slightly shortened ROM. Still, I’m not criticizing the guy. 21 pull-ups at 316 lbs is pretty impressive.