Introduction to the Pull-Up Bible

We’ve had a lot of interest and question on this topic, so we decided to put our heads together and come up with the best possible informations that will help you excel at pull-ups whether you are about to do your first 1 or 100. Please enjoy the information below and go and become the Pull-Up Beasts we know you can be!

Intro to Pull-ups

Pull-ups work all of the “pull” muscles in your body: your back, biceps and forearms. Interestingly pull-ups are actually indicative of your overall fitness… for example anybody that can do a pull-up is in pretty good shape; anybody that can do 10 or more is in great shape. However, pull-ups are also tough as hell, especially if you’re just getting started.

One of the main reasons people have problems doing pull-ups is that they have weak posture. Chest caved in, upper back rounded. All caused by sitting still all day long.

Another issue is that unlike other exercises that can be completed with just your body weight (squats, lunges, and push ups etc.), pull-ups and other exercises that strengthen your pull muscles require at least one piece of equipment which is one of the reasons so many people are unfamiliar with the satisfaction of completing them.

We’re going to show you how you can gain those ‘Pull Payloads’ and build into what can become an amazingly addictive and rewarding exercise to add to your routines. First we’ll start with the 4 simple mistakes that people encounter so you don’t fall into the same trap. Then we’ll move onto completing your first sets and developing on your first sets with exercises to build you to your best.

So…

Lets begin!4 Biggest Mistakes In Pull-Up Form

Mistake 1: Not using full range of motion

It’s important to remember that the back muscles are supposed to be the primary focus when performing pull-ups. Doing partial reps doesn’t allow the lats to come to a fully lengthened position between reps, which encourages the arms to kick in and do most of the work. If you can’t do as many pull-ups from a full hang, make it your new starting point. Even finishing the rep with a slight bend at the elbow is cheating.

Mistake 2: Letting your elbows flare

If you want your lats to become stronger and more developed, then keeping your elbows under the bar matters. It will also make it much easier to get your chest up when the elbows aren’t held too wide. All of this means more back stimulation and a good quality pull.

Mistake 3: Not setting your shoulders

The hardest part of a pull-up is actually learning to control your scapulae, or shoulder blades. Each and every rep should begin with a notable depression and retraction of the shoulders. This tightens up the back muscles and prepares you for a proper pull using less of the biceps than you would otherwise. There is more online about ‘Setting your shoulder blades before pull-ups’.

Mistake 4: Staying straight as an arrow

Many bloggers out there claim that the body should be held completely straight from head to toe in order to perform a good pull-up. If you’re starting off though, this can set you off on the wrong path. Pull-ups are intended to be a back developer, and we know that hitting the back requires the shoulders to be retracted and set to engage the posterior muscles. Try pulling your shoulders back without mildly arching your back. It’s not possible. To hit your back properly during pull-ups, think of raising the rib cage toward the bar. Arch the back, and set the shoulders. You’ll feel the difference.6 Steps To Mastering Your First 5 Pull-Ups

Step 1: Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

If you’re starting from absolutely square 1, start with bent over dumbbell rows. These are the most basic of back exercises

Tips:

  • For these exercises, focus on lifting more and more as you get stronger.
  • Every OTHER day, pick up a dumbbell that you can lift for three sets of 8 repetitions with a 2 minute break between sets.
  • As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time to move up to a heavier dumbbell.

Note: If you are a little overweight at the moment, it’s ok. You might want to stick with this step until you lose a little bit more weight and get stronger – maybe go to 35 or 40-pound (18kg) dumbbells and then increase the intensity until you’re happy to move onto step 2.

Step 2: Body Weight Rows

Body weight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups. The body weight row works the same muscles at a different angle. You can also make adjustments to the weight or height with ease.

Tips:

  • Clench your butt and keep your abs tight and body straight throughout the exercise. Focus on pulling with your arms.
  • Set the bar at a height where it’s challenging for you to complete 3 sets of 8 reps with two minutes of rest between sets.
  • As soon as you can complete all 3 sets of 8 reps, lower the bar!
  • If you need to make the exercise easier, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the ground. You can drop your hips too to make things easier.

Notes: If you use a squat rack you can adjust the height of the bar, you can adjust how difficult the exercise is. If you’re just getting started, put the bar very high, so you only have to lean back slightly. If you’re stronger, you can start with a lower bar.

Step 3: Assisted Pull-Ups

You can use the assisted pull-up machine in a gym. It doesn’t give you the full feeling of a pull-up, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Or, try doing one of these alternatives:

Tips:

  • Clench your butt and keep your abs tight throughout the exercise – try not to swing like crazy.
  • Keep your shoulder blades pinched behind you throughout the movement and focus on PULLING the bar down with your arms.
  • Use the least amount of assistance that you can handle – as soon as you can do multiple pull-ups with both feet on the chair, switch to just one foot.
  • If you’re using an exercise band, try to get a few bands of varying tension so you can decrease the resistance as you get stronger.
  • As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 with assistance, it’s time time move on up.

Assisted Pull-Ups Variations:

  1. Assisted Pull-Ups with chair – (either one foot or two depending on your needs) – your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.
  2. Assisted Pull-Ups with exercise band – (you can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength). Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.
  3. Assisted pull-ups with a partner – (have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep). Have your friend use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.

Step 4: Negative Pull-Ups

Now, let’s say you don’t have a rubber band, you don’t have somebody to hold your feet, and you don’t have a chair – you ONLY have a pull-up bar. That’s okay – you can do what we call negatives. When doing a negative, you jump above the bar and try to lower yourself slowly and in control until you’re at the bottom of the movement. This can be very dangerous if you’re very overweight, so move slowly through the previous steps first. However, once you have a decent amount of back strength, doing negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength. You can either jump above the pull-up bar, and then begin to lower yourself back down IN CONTROL, or you can hop up on a chair to get above the bar and then lower yourself back down. Again, the name of the game is “in control.” You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition destroys you…lower yourself in a controlled speed – Counting to three during the movement is a good tempo.

Tips:

  • Do as many as you can (up to 5 reps) per set – jump and lower yourself in control, then jump right back up and lower yourself.
  • If you can do 5, wait 2 minutes and then start again. If you can’t do 5, do as many as you can in control, wait 2 minutes and then start again.
  • Once you’re doing 3 sets of 5 repetitions on your negative pull-ups, along with your assisted chin ups and body weight rows, you’re ready.

    Step 5: Your First Pull-Up

For MANY people, especially if you have spent time in the gym in the past working on your biceps, you might find it easier to start with chin ups (with your palms facing toward you) for your first exercise before trying pull-ups (with your palms facing away from you).

Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength, and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able to start with more than one pull-up.

Tips::

  • Pull your shoulder blades back as you’re going through the movement, and focus on pulling the bar down.
  • Again, keep your butt clenched and your abs tight throughout the movement.
  • Get your chin above the bar, or it doesn’t count as a full rep.
  • Do whatever you need to get through the full rep.
  • If you can only do one rep, try to do at least 3 sets of one rep…after your three sets, add in some negatives to exhaust the muscle.

Step 6: Do MORE And Show Off

Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups or chin ups, you have a few options:

Option 1: Volume

Continue to get better at doing more reps – 3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15, 3 sets of 20, etc.

Option 2: Variety

Start doing other types of pull-ups – like wide grip pull-ups (grab the bar WAY out with both hands), side to side pull-ups, uneven pull-ups, etc.

Option 3: Weight

Add weight and do weighted pull-ups or weighted chin ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:

  • Get a weight belt. The whole “put weights in a backpack” certainly works, but the angle of the weights hanging off your back is weird. With a weight belt, the weight hangs down between your legs (not a euphemism) so it feels more natural.
  • Add small amounts at a time. Most gyms will have 2.5 lb (roughly 1kg) weights; you might feel stupid putting on a big weight belt and only hanging a tiny weight off it, but you need to start somewhere.
  • Consistently add more weight. Warm up with two sets of 5 pull-ups with no extra weight, and then do 3 sets of 5 weighted pull-ups. If you can complete all 3 sets of 5 reps (with you chin over the bar for every rep), make a note to add 2.5 or 5lbs (1 or 2kg) to your weight belt for the next time.

5 More Drills To Help Build On Your First Pull-Ups

1. Bent Over Rows/Batwings

  1. Holding a barbell with a pronated grip (palms facing down), bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forward, by bending at the waist, while keeping the back straight until it is almost parallel to the floor. Tip: Make sure that you keep the head up. The barbell should hang directly in front of you as your arms hang perpendicular to the floor and your torso. This is your starting position.
  1. Now, while keeping the torso stationary, breathe out and lift the barbell to you. Keep the elbows close to the body and only use the forearms to hold the weight. At the top contracted position, squeeze the back muscles and hold for a brief pause.
  1. Then inhale and slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position.
  1. Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

Caution:

This exercise is not recommended for people with back problems. A Low Pulley Row is a better choice for people with back issues.

Also, just like with the bent knee dead-lift, if you have a healthy back, ensure perfect form and never slouch the back forward as this can cause back injury.

Be cautious as well with the weight used; in case of doubt, use less weight rather than more.

Variations:

You can perform the same exercise using a supinated (palms facing you) grip.

2. Ring Rows

  1. Set the rings to the appropriate height (the lower the rings the more difficult the exercise).
  1. Grip the rings and lean back until your arms are straight.
  1. Keep your body straight and pull your chest up towards the rings as high as you can.
  1. Pause briefly at the top of the exercise and then slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position. That is one full repetition.

Notes:

As you become stronger lower the rings to increase the difficulty of the exercise.

3. Jumping Pull-Ups

Tips:

  1. Simply stand under a pull-up bar that you can hold onto and jump up so that you are at the top position of the pull-up.
  1. Hold the top position for a two count, really focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together and then lower down under control.
  1. Let your feet touch the ground, then jump up again and repeat the process for the desired number of reps.

Notes:

This takes advantage of the fact that eccentric training is far stronger than concentric training – in other words, you are much stronger while lowering a weight than you are while lifting it.

4. Sled Pulling

Tips:

  1. Attach a rope to a sled and pull it towards you, in hand-over-hand fashion.
  1. Repeat.

Notes:

The key is to make sure not just to pull with your arms. Instead, just like with the rows, focus on pulling your arm as far back behind you as you can. The sled can be a good transition to hard pulling work, as it’s possible to load it with as much or as little weight as needed.

5. Rope Climbing

A way to develop great arm strength is rope climbing.

Just like we used eccentric training to quickly boost strength with the jumping pull-up idea, we can do the same with rope climbing. Don’t worry about climbing the rope – just use your feet and climb in the most energy-efficient manner possible.

Once you get to the top of the rope, come down using only arm strength. This is a great way to build both the grip and arm strength required for strong pull-ups.

Duncan Peters
Duncan Peters

My name is Duncan Peters. I'm a former competitive power lifter and gym owner. I've bought millions of dollars of fitness equipment over the last 20 years.


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