In this article I will present you with all the knowledge I have on pull up development from any stage, whether you’re unable to do one or can do 20. This post will serve as a bible of sorts and should inspire you to work on one of the most fundamental movement patterns the human body has ever seen.
We can get overly fancy and talk about handstands, muscle ups and human flags but if there’s one move more sought after than any other, and also simpler than any other, it’s the ‘basic’ pull up.
I used the term basic as it’s considered a calisthenics basic; a vertical pull that sets the foundation for a whole host of more advanced moves – muscle ups, one arm pull/chin ups and front levers to name a few!
It’s far from basic in the eyes of the general public and even less basic when we begin to distinguish a ‘pull up’ in the eyes of the masses and a pull up in my eyes. This article will teach you the differences between pull ups that simply get the chin above the bar at all costs and pull ups that actually build your back muscles, sculpt your arms and springboard you to more demanding moves down the line.
Before we go any further I’d like to clarify that everything you read here is applicable to chin ups as well – hand position is virtually irrelevant.
The Pull Up – What’s All The Fuss About?
75-90% of all females I’ve worked with within fitness have had a pull up as their absolute number one goal. To them it’s the holy grail. The end journey. The seemingly impossible task. Something only men can do?
And for the boys……..well, they’re never satisfied with their current level – they nearly always know either their form (and/or) their rep count could/should be higher.
But isn’t this all in the name of vain aesthetic interests and cheap ego boosting? Does the pull up have functionality? Aka will it help you in real life situations? This is an area I always like to consider when selecting exercises for clients I work with. Sure, I want you looking good and feeling good but more than that I want you damn well moving good! And, I want those movements bettering your life in as many ways as possible.
Pull up proficiency will help you with a swarm of day to day situations. If you ever need to climb anything, whether that’s over a fence, a wall or even in sport specific (rock climbing?) situations, your pulling strength will be the determining factor in your success. Plain and simple.
Let’s also not forget the pull up is a slightly indirect grip builder. There’s very solid research supporting the correlation between grip strength and anti-aging. And I beg the question: what strength could be more functional than the strength of your hands?! Your hands are the force conductor for SO SO MANY tasks in life.
Compounding this knowledge, you’ll find the better you get at pull ups, the stronger your upper body gets all round. Your core will function better and even moves that use antagonistic (opposite) muscles tend to get easier without too much direct training (trust me on my anecdotal experience here).
What About The Show-Boating?
You’re only allowed to showboat once you have a good understanding of why pull ups are a key movement pattern in an exercise routine, and, how to do them with exquisite technique, deal?
Then you can hit the park and rep it out in front of any admirers you can find. Of course it’s perfectly fine to showcase your strength and hard work, I mean that’s what Instagram’s for, right? I like to call it a celebration of one’s achievements instead of the bragging platform social media can be for so many people.
I guess it all comes down to your perspective.
Pull Up Crimes – Never Do Any Of These….
1) The ‘invisible back’ pull up
You can pull above the bar pretty comfortably, you can even pause above the bar for a few seconds……..but we don’t see any back muscles whatsoever. What we see is a rounded upper back and spread scapula. This is the infamous ‘backless’ pull up! The cause for this is most often a lack of scapula retraction strength; as the body tries to call on the anterior muscles (chest & shoulders) to account for posterior weakness.
The Fix: Make a conscious effort to pull the shoulder blades back and down at the top of each rep. If need be, film your sets until you start to actually see your back at the top of a pull up. Even if you have to drop down to sets of 1-3 you’ll still see much better back gains long term and have far better posture.
2) The ‘Pulser’
If we’re being generous we can call this a ‘quarter rep’. Half rep is far too kind. These are the folks who don’t even initiate the pull from an active hang – they pull with a clear as day BEND in their arms. And they don’t even clear the bar with their chin at the top either. This technique is usually due to 2 factors: 1) a lack of strength in the extremes of the range of motion (top and bottom). 2) Silly bodybuilidng folklore of keeping tension on the muscle…….
What we need to realise is you only get strong in the range you train in. Want to quarter rep? You’ll only be strong in 25 percent of the range!
The Fix: Barge the ego aside and work through a full range of motion. You might have to revert back to negatives, assisted reps or lat pulldown work……whatever the case you’ll make far far better results long term than you ever would pulsing in a tiny range.
3) The ‘Woodpecker’
The name should tell all. They pull to a certain height and then crane their neck to the stars to get their chin over the bar. Rep achieved baby? Not quite. This is akin to above where the full range of motion isn’t being accessed either due to weakness at the top or rep chasing. Let’s face it, it’s easier to do more reps if you don’t have to pull as high.
The Fix: Keep a neutral or ever so slightly extended neck as you pull up. If the chin doesn’t go above the bar you know you’re not strong enough for a full rep and therefore need more top position work.
4) The ‘Kipper/kicker’
As much as people would have you believe kipping is responsible for causing cancer, all kipping technically is is a production of energy/force. Rapid extension and flexion cycles at the spine cause velocity that helps the body pull higher than it would without any momentum. You can think of kipping more as a skill than a product of strength. In the case of muscle ups kipping is widely used to skip the hardest part, the transition and/or to pull high enough for the chest to clear the bar.
I’m no supporter of kipping and don’t endorse you doing it. The technique is hard on the joints and most people’s mobility doesn’t allow them to move through extremes of their range with such speed and force.
The Fix: Practice pull ups with ‘tight legs’; this is where your leg position remains fixed from start to finish.
5) The ‘arbitrary number chaser’
Again, closely linked to our previous points, we have the rep chasers. They screenshot their generic program from bodybuilding.com that prescribes 5 sets of 10 on pull ups and they do anything and everything in their power to get there – yep, jerky half reps where it’s a race to get the set finished.
This is why I absolutely despise generic sets and rep schemes slapped on moves like pull ups, where the form variance is huge and people’s strength variance is bigger still.
The Fix: learn the best form you can (read on for a full run through of the perfect pull up) and only do sets where the technique remains at the highest quality. Any degradation in technique = wrap the set up and recover for the next one!
The Perfect Pull Up From Start To Finish
Relax the arms and extend them fully. This should provide a good lat and shoulder stretch.
Scapula depression & retraction (active hang)…..
Draw the arms down and back while keeping the arms straight until the shoulders are down and back (in their ‘sockets’). This requires decent scapula strength.
Pulling the elbows towards the hips……..
Continue the pull phase by powerfully driving the elbows down and back – as if you’re trying to pull your elbows to your hips.
Briefly pausing with the chin comfortably over the bar…….
When you’ve developed a strong enough pull you will clear the bar with your chin comfortably.
Keeping the shoulders pulled together…….
Now it’s key to try to actively pull the bar apart; this will create more of an external rotation effect at the shoulders and push your chest up and out. Backless pull ups? Not round here, son!
Lowering under control to the active hang……….
Rather than just letting the tension go and almost falling to the bottom, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS resist gravity and control the descent back down. The eccentric/negative portion is just as important. A good eccentric lays the groundwork for another solid concentric!
Relaxing into the passive hang………
For a brief moment relax and release the tension as you stretch the lats before reigniting them for the next rep(s).
In terms of timing, don’t complicate it, at least initially. Getting all fancy with precise second counts can be too many signals in the beginning. Less is more. Aim for the biggest range of motion you have full control over, fancy shit can come in due course.
Repeat the process.
If You Can’t Do A Single Pull Up, What’s The Most Efficient Approach?
There are different schools of thought here and I don’t think the answer is completely black or white. Many of the commonly suggested approaches have merit at times, although I will say some approaches tend to work better empirically than others.
Let’s see if we can put together a hierarchy of keys to unlocking your first pull up……
Eccentrics aka Negatives
Simple but unsexy, eccentric training has been used for years and for good reason. You’re 120-150% stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically. This is a fancy translation of: you can handle more weight on the way down as opposed to on the way up. The reason these are top choice is their specificity. They allow you to do the exact movement pattern you’re gunning for. You should aim for descent speeds of at least 10 seconds or more. The hardest part of eccentric training isn’t their boring nature but more mustering up the necessary focus to really really fight all the way down, from top to bottom.
Inverted rows are like the little sister of pull ups/chin ups. Using rings for these is the best choice as this offers you not only freedom of movement at your joints but also a variety of grips and hand positioning. They are a great way of practicing the mechanics of the pull up, too. Once you’re able to do these almost on a decline – where your hands are lower than your feet – you’ve virtually got the strength for at least a single clean pull up.
Besides eccentric pull ups themselves, these are the next best choice and for good reason!
Targeted Weak Link Training
Usually overlooked due to a lack of knowledge, weak point training can be the difference between it taking years to get your first pull up and a matter of weeks/months. The hard part here is identifying exactly what YOUR weak point is. It can either be a point in the range or a set of muscles, or both.
When you strengthen the weak link you can see immense progress in impressive time frames. Some examples would be holds at the top of pull ups to focus on a weak top position or scapula engagement work for somebody with a very ‘arm-dominant’ pull up.
Band Assisted Pull Ups
These are heavily bastardized in the community nowadays and my own stance on these has evolved too in recent times. The issue with bands is the lack of assistance they provide at the TOP of the movement – and the TOP is nearly always the place where you’re weak!
Bands can be good for getting a feel for the movement but that’s as far as it goes really and I wouldn’t base my entire training around them.
Lat Pull Down Work
The Lat Pull Down is a machine exercise so this falls into a different category to the pull up itself as the pull up is a closed chain move and the lat pull down is an open chain move. The difference between the 2 is in the closed chain the body moves as a unit and in the open chain, the body is fixed and only the limbs are moving. Accordingly, this limits the carryover from the lat pull down to the pull up. But nevertheless, the muscular pattern is almost identical and therefore a good way to get some extra conditioning in if you’ve already exhausted variations of the pull up within your session.
And lastly, please do yourself a favour and avoid the assisted pull up machine. I know you love it but it’s a glorified lat pulldown with even less carryover to the real move! If you look at the mechanics of the machine, you pull up and backwards aka away from the bar. Try and do this in a real pull up. It’s hard as fuck.
Specificity is key. Want to get good at something? Then do the damn thing in question. You don’t become a top piano player by doing motorcross.
Increasing Rep Numbers The RIGHT Way
Man, I’m fucking sick of my set of 8 pull ups. It’s been 6 months now. When am I going to get to 10??!!
The dreaded pull up plateau has infected you and you’re now personally identified as the guy with 8 pull ups. How do we change it? Well, again let’s create a order list of plateau busting training strategies……..
High sets, low/moderate reps
It seems to be secret knowledge but one of the worst things you can do for improving reps with pull ups is take every set to failure. In fact this goes for almost any bodyweight move you’re looking to build proficiency in! You always want to leave a rep or 2 in the tank and instead of looking at your rep totals per set, try looking at your rep totals per session.
If your max is 5 reps, work with sets of 3. Start with 5 sets and build up to 10 sets. Then go back down to 6 sets of 4 and work back up to 10 sets of 4. And so on. This will build overall volume while sustaining the very best quality – the quality matters far more than the quantity.
Again, fitting in quite nicely with the previous sentiments, density training is all about getting more work done in the same time frame. A great way to do this with pull ups would be to decrease your rest times between sets before you increase weight. For example, you’d start with 3 mins rest and shave 15 seconds off each time until you’re down to 2 mins and then repeat the process with either more weight or extra reps per set.
Weighted pull ups
Contrary to some beliefs, you don’t need to have loads of bodyweight pull ups in you already to be able to benefit from weighted pull ups. Even if you have a max count of 5 or 6 reps you can still train doubles or triples with some additional weight (if only a mere 2.5-5kg). This will get your body used to lifting more than your bodyweight and thus, build more rep capacity.
Higher frequency/Grease the groove
‘With just one polka dot, nothing can be achieved’ – which translates to: if you want to get good at something, you’d better do it often. Increasing the frequency at which you train a certain move is always a great plateau buster in itself. You can either add an extra weekly session to your schedule, or, do the proper ‘grease the groove’ as famed by Pavel Tsatsouline.
For GTG you take around 40-60% of your max reps and perform 4 – 6 sets spread across the day with at least an hour in between. You repeat this daily and ensure to never take your sets to failure or even close. For more on GTG, have a read of My ‘Grease The Groove’ Experiment With The Back Lever.
The Next Level
When you’re near the end of the game, everyone likes a few bonus levels and to be honest each of these bonus levels lead to a whole new land with their own levels. We’ll start with the easiest and most practical upgrade to the pull up and work up to the ultimate ‘beastmode’ levels.
Chest To Bar Pull ups
A simple and easy progression, increasing the range to where the chest must touch the bar for the rep to count. This can be done 2 ways: either with a hollow body and a shoulder/close(ish) grip or with a wider than shoulder width grip and an arched back. The former has carryover to muscle ups while the latter has carryover to the front lever and targets the mid back more.
L-Sit Pull ups
A cool looking but deceptively tough variation, the L-Sit pull up involves keeping the legs firmly fixed in an L position at all times. The demand on the core here is higher than other variations. Also, the weight of your body is displaced further behind the hands here which makes the leverage a little worse, thus making it essentially heavier without added weight.
Weighted Pull Ups
A time tested staple and probably the simplest way to measure progress, the weighted pull up can be progressed with accurate precision. This is a simple choice if you have access to a weight belt/weight plates etc. One thing to watch out for here is not chasing reps or accepting crappy reps to say you can use X amount of weight. Set yourself a baseline standard of range to use and only increase weight once you can sustain movement quality within the range set.
Explosive High Pull Ups/Muscle Ups
The muscle up is iconic and I’ve written entire pieces on the muscle up alone. The muscle up or the explosive high pull up is an impressive looking way to supercharge the range of motion on your pull ups. You need an explosive pull up for a successful muscle up and the explosive power built with high pull ups does correlate to weighted pull ups but the same isn’t always true the other way round. As an order for progression you can start with chest to bar pull ups then move to ribcage to bar, then bellybutton and then hips – if you’re an absolute GLADIATOR.
One Arm Pull Ups & Their Cousins
Definitely the holy grail of pull ups, the one arm pull up will take you from having 15-20 good pull ups to finding one rep an all out effort. Typewriter pull ups or Archer pull ups are great ways to open the door to one arm work as they shift the weight from a 50/50 split between arms, to more of a 75/25 or 80/20 split. The road to one arm pull ups is slow and arduous; going from one rep to doubles or triples can take months and months but this is the nature of such an intense move.
Front Lever Pull Ups (Bonus)
As if the front lever itself wasn’t hard enough, try pulling up and down in a front lever. Now technically this is considered a ‘rowing’ pattern but I’ve included it here as it’s by far and away harder than regular pull ups and just about every variation of them! You can do these in a tucked position and every progression between that and the full lever itself; advanced tuck, straddle/halflay.
I hope this post has given you a new found motivation to work on your pull ups and has maybe given you ideas to get the life back in your training. If you’re still struggling and would like detailed and personal help, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I work with many people remotely and in person and can definitely help you take your strength and physique to the next level.
Thanks ever so much for reading. Keep me updated with your progress!
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