The ability to pull your bodyweight up with grace and ease is a wonderful goal that showcases your strength and control over your body.
Unfortunately, for a lot of people, a pull-up can look more like a heaving and straining that is anything but graceful!
In this column, we’ll share with you how the power of proper technique and progression will either get you to that first smooth pull-up or refine your form so you can do several with polished poise.
Most of the difficulty comes from a lack of understanding of the most effective pulling technique. It seems like such a simple thing: just pull hard! But training for pull-ups without preparation or building the foundations of the movement is less efficient and creates potential for injury. It’s much better to learn the proper way to start, as well as the correct pulling form. The method is not only more effective, it’s also healthier for your body.
As a former competitive gymnast and long-time martial artist and coach, let me tell you this: Pulling strength is super important. It’s also very complex, requiring numerous large muscle groups to work in perfect concert. No wonder most people have a hard time building it right!
A bit of anatomy and biomechanics
First, it can be helpful to understand a little of the anatomy and biomechanics of the pull-up. Knowing the fundamentals can help you visualize and think about the best cues when you practice.
The pull-up is a concerted effort of your musculature from your hands to your hips. You can feel this by just hanging on the bar. You have to grip to keep yourself up and contract your abdominals to keep steady. As you pull, there’s the obvious arm and back actions to get your body up towards the bar.
But you may not realize the importance of your scapula (shoulder blade) positioning and how that greatly affects the performance of the pull. The scapulae connect your upper arm bones to your collarbones, and the muscles attached to and surrounding them bring your shoulders in different positions around your ribcage. In the case of a pull-up, the crucial actions are bringing your shoulders down and back. This positioning gives you the proper leverage to use your arm and back muscles in the strongest way.
You can feel this for yourself with this simple exercise. Stand tall with your arms up overhead, and round your shoulders out so they are pushed in front of you and keep them that way as you bring your hands down in front of your chest. Now try this again, but this time start by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pull them down toward your butt before you bring your hands down.
Feel the difference? With your shoulder blades pulled back and down, you can feel how that positioning is more powerful and balanced. That’s the power of technique!
This is the first movement I teach and may be something very new to you, but it is essential to understanding how to do a pull-up well. You will properly strengthen (and likely, discover!) your lower trapezius, rhomboids, and middle trapezius in this exercise.
The Pulling Prep teaches you to start all of your pulls the right way, and once mastered, it becomes automatic and ingrained in your pulling.
- Start in a “dead hang” position on the rings or a bar. Your elbows should be straight, with the movement occurring completely at the shoulder girdle, not in your arms.
- Lift your chest up and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. It’s a relatively small movement, but it’s crucial for getting the most out of your pulling exercises.
- Contract the shoulder girdle strongly, hold for a couple seconds, then release and repeat.
Start the first part of your exercise routine with this movement. I’d also recommend that you start learning this movement by using a step or box to take some of your weight, so you concentrate on the right form without straining. Then as you get stronger, you can bear your full weight through your arms.
Warm up with three sets of five to 10 repetitions of this exercise.
If you need to build your strength for the full pull-up, it’s good to focus on the “negative” or lowering portion of the pull-up. But don’t get caught up in doing a lot of repetitions of this movement. It’s better to do a couple of reps correctly, than to do a lot of reps poorly. Hold at the halfway point for a couple of seconds and really hone in on shoulder blade positioning and keeping everything tight.
Do three to five sets of two to three repetitions. If you’ve already been doing pull-ups, do these instead for a couple of weeks, and when you return to full pull-ups, you’ll find performance improved.
Jump to halfway pull-ups
If you are already doing a few repetitions of pull-ups well, these next exercises are a couple of great variations to focus on proper shoulder blade positioning while in motion.
First, jump to the top position of the pull-up (remember to keep your shoulder blades pulled down and back). Then lower to halfway down, while still keeping that good form, and then slowly lower to the bottom. Doing repetitions of a pull-up this way really ingrains great technique.
As you get stronger, challenge yourself with this variation: jump up to the top of a pull-up, and slowly lower to hold at your halfway point. Instead of continuing to lower yourself, pull up to the top again, and repeat.
Do three to five sets of three reps for these variations. Add these on after one or two sets of your regular pull-ups.
Full pull-up intensifier
Here’s a killer exercise if you are interested in amping up your pull-up power. Try a mix of isometric, concentric and eccentric contractions that will do more for you in one repetition than several sloppy reps will do.
Focus on strong and good technique in your pull, the holds, and controlled lowering and you’ll build tremendous pull-up strength. Three to five sets of three to five reps will test even the strongest puller!
The Difference Between a Pull-up and a Chin-up
The accepted distinction between a pull-up and a chin-up is that your palms face away from you in a pull-up grip, but your palm face toward you in a chin-up grip. And there are technique differences that will help keep your shoulders and elbows healthy when you perform either movement.
In a chin-up where your palms are facing you (or towards each other if you are using rings or different handles), it is best to keep your elbows close to your sides. This aligns your hands, elbows and shoulders in a way that distributes the force and strain equally among them.
But in a pull-up, you’ll want to flare your elbows out. Keeping them in when your palms are facing away from you puts your elbows in an awkward position, and is the main reason why some people complain of elbow pain and develop tendonitis (medial epicondylitis) when they work on their pull-ups. You’ll have to play a bit with how far apart your hands are; it may be just outside of shoulder-width, up to a six inches more. It depends on your body structure and how you feel as you perform the pull.
This is another example of why it is so important to learn and understand proper exercise technique. It can save you a lot of grief by preventing injuries as well as making your progress smoother and less frustrating. The power of technique helps us build and improve, instead of tearing ourselves down.
Photo credit: Thinkstock, jacoblund; instructional photos and videos: GMB