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June 30, 2020 10 min read

Unless you're a total beginner, you have already recognized that we’re talking about the toughest bodyweight exercise around. If, for any reason, you were unaware of that fact until now, don't get scared. Just know that it requires (and builds) strong back, shoulder, and arm muscles. Only a few exercises can strengthen your upper body, challenge your core, and improve overall posture like a pull-up.

Even though it presents a challenge even for advanced gym-goers, it is still an essential building block exercise. The pull-up is one of those moves that you can do almost anywhere, as long as there is something horizontal and high, that can withstand your weight. A tree branch would do, as well as a pull-up bar placed inside your door frame at home. 

It's a great move to prepare for CrossFit, for bodybuilders, and any recreational fitness enthusiasts alike. It puts focus on the part of your body that you want to train a lot. Strong back muscles look great, support your whole upper body, and protect your shoulders from injury. An iron back also makes every other exercise more comfortable to do.

What Makes the Pull-Up So Important

The pull-up challenges your entire upper-body, builds muscular strength, and works your upper back, lower back, and biceps. The bench press might be popularised as an ultimate male workout staple. Still, pull-ups effort is much closer related to the performance requirements of the real-world.

The toughness of exercise depends on three main factors. The top one is, of course, gravity. The Earth is pulling everything towards its center, including yourself hanging in the air. Doing a pull-up means resisting this force, so lifting your body weight becomes a serious challenge. The second factor is the distance or, in this case, the length of your arms. More range you have to cover, the more energy you need to invest. And last but not least, there's a mass. More mass clearly means more considerable effort.

There is, though, a significant effect all that toughness has on shoulder mobility, back, lats, traps, and rhomboids, which take the most substantial portion of the effort. This move will also let you easily challenge different parts of your arms, by merely changing your grip. Learning to do a pull-up with proper form is far from easy, but once you succeed, it's packed with benefits. 

To begin and progress, there's a series of moves that help you build up the strength to execute a full pull-up in proper form. Don't demoralize if you find yourself unable to do more than a couple of reps at a time. Start with something like assisted pull-ups or dead hangs, gradually improve your form, and you'll be ready to try your first pull-up challenges before you know.

A man doing a pull-up in a gym.

How Many Pull-Ups Is Enough?

If you are a beginner, do one full pull-up in a proper form and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Once you are in good shape, you should be able to do about six perfect reps in a slow and controlled pace. After you reach that point, set the next goal to twelve. Then you should try to make your pull-ups harder by adding weight or through various movement challenges.

If you can't do any pull-ups yet, focus on building more power first. You can do wide-grip lat pull-downs, chin-ups, or eccentric pull-ups, which are kind of a "light" version of a real thing. Get used to your own body weight by holding a dead hang for as long as possible, without even bothering to move up.

How To Do A Regular Pull-Up With Proper Form

The Proper Form Pull-up With Regular Grip

  • Reach and grip the bar with both hands, keeping them apart at shoulder-width. Your palms need to stay facing away from you. 
  • Fully extend your arms and let your bodyweight hang. If the bar is set too low, no problem. Just bend your knees.
  • Keeping your back, shoulders, and core engaged—pull up. 
  • Try to feel and engage every single muscle to help your efforts.
  • Move slowly up to bring your chin above the bar.
  • Start lowering down at the same pace, until your arms are extended again.
  • Repeat, if possible. Do as many as you can.

Negative Pull-Ups 

If the recent attempt was too challenging, try "negatives" or "half" pull-ups first. Negatives are half pull-ups. The goal is to get your chin over the bar, and you can do it either by standing on something or having someone push you over the bar. After you succeed, slowly lower yourself all the way down and feel your body weight hang while grasping the bar, fully stretched. Keep this position for at least 5 seconds, so your arms will gradually get used to holding your entire weight.

You should prep for pull-ups by strengthening your back muscles with exercises like bent-over dumbbell rows or inverted bodyweight rows. Also, try assisted pull-up machines, where you kneel on a platform that helps raise you up, depending on the weight you had set. 

Assisted Pull-Ups

This is the first step for a beginner in pull-ups. Sit under the bar that is 3-4 feet off the ground, and grab it with the regular grip. Straighten your hips, back, and bend your knees slightly. Pull yourself to the bar to touch it with your chest. 

You can also do this version of the exercise on a pair of parallel bars for dips.

Some Common Pull-Up Mistakes

You Don't Go High Enough

If you end your lift as soon as your chin touches the bar, you're missing quite a bit. A proper form of pull-up should lead to significant gains in your shoulders. Ending the movement too soon and too low doesn't help.

If you're unsure what to do, remember to tap your chest to the bar each time you lift. That way, you'll know that you're reaching the right altitude.

You Want to Do Too Many, Too Fast

It's annoying to listen to all those guys in the gym brag about doing 10 or 20 pull-ups, and it's normal to feel impatient. But there's also no point in forcing the path that leads nowhere. If you aim too high and push yourself too much, you are probably compensating by limiting your range of motion. When all the movement energy comes from your elbows and forearms, it limits your potential for muscle growth, turning your progress backward. Not only is this rendering your efforts useless, but it also makes you prone to injury.

If you want to push something, push your form. One proper pull-up is worth dozens of bad, wild ones, so set your eyes to the path that will actually get you there.

You Jump On Too Quickly

The pull-up exercise appears deceptively easy at first, giving you the false impression of a perfect beginner exercise. You may soon discover that lifting your body weight puts a crazy load on your muscles, and you aren't quite ready for it. If you are jumping, the chances are high that you will end up discouraged or even injured.

Better start by plain hanging from the bar, with your core engaged and your ribs pulled in. If you can hold it for a full minute, then you're probably ready for more. If you can't last a minute, then just hang for as long as you can and challenge yourself to add 5 seconds every time you're back at the gym. Alongside that, build strength by using the lat-bar cable machine or a pull-up machine.

You're Not Using a Full Range of Motion

Remember that the back muscles are supposed to be the main focus when doing pull-ups. Partial or interrupted reps prevent the lats from coming to a fully lengthened position, encouraging the arms to do most of the work. This is why proper form is so important—finishing the rep even with a slight bend at the elbow will not give you all benefits of the exercise.

You Let Your Elbows Flare

Keeping your elbows under the bar is vital if you want your lats to become stronger and more developed. If you don't place your elbows too wide, it will also help you get your chest up. Both of these will provide more back stimulation and a good quality pull.

Tips For Improvement

Prepare Yourself

Build more strength and muscle in your arms, shoulders, and hands in order to improve grip strength and overall endurance. Consider doing additional training if you discover that full, proper form pull-ups are too much at this stage. The better you prepare and the stronger your muscles are, the sooner you will be able to do pull-ups.

Learn the Details of a Proper Form 

Put your focus on three distinct stages of a pull-up, namely: the base position, the pull-up stage, and the drop-down stage. The first stage is hanging from a bar with an arm extended (a dead hang). You should always feel the tension at your back, and your arms should be entirely straight. Maintain the tension across your shoulder blades and collarbone. 

Once you start pulling up, don't use your arms alone; pull your shoulder blades down and back as your elbows travel toward your ribs. 

Once your chin clears the top of the bar, don't stop pulling. Instead, squeeze your shoulder blades back and try to make and hold a double chin. Act like you want to keep on pulling upwards, even if you're not getting any higher. At the same time, maintain tension in your abs and glutes. 

Your hand grip should be a shoulder-wide full grip with your palms facing away. While pulling up, make sure to keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle and your head looking forward at all times. 

Never forget to breathe correctly! Inhale and exhale when going up the bar and when coming back down. The sheer difficulty of the exercise will make you hold your breath sometimes, but it is not recommended. It will hamper both your fluidity and mobility.

Keep on Learning

Perfecting the proper form of a pull-up is essential, but the real test starts after your first successful set. 

Know when to rest. A good set of pull-ups is not like a marathon, so there's no need for rushing things. Take the time to rest between sets. Even a short 2-4 minute break will help your muscles relax and prepare them for the next round. One of the worst things you can do to your body is continually forcing it beyond its limits. 

Lose Some Weight

Lower body weight means less effort to pull it all up. If you are overweight, that could render the exercise, more or less, impossible. You don't want this to happen, as it will have a bad impact on your drive of training and doing pull-ups. Choose a suitable workout program to shred first, and don't feel like you're missing out on something. The strength training alongside losing weight will give you quite an advantage once you're ready for pull-ups.

A man and woman doing pull-ups in the gym.

Proceed Beyond the Basics

Once you have figured out all the rules of a perfect pull-up and challenged yourself beyond the dead hang, it's time to move on.

Low-Rep Drill

After you do one pull-up, release the bar and land on the floor. Do five reps like this as a part of your training during the first week. The next week, raise it up. Aim to do four sets, each with two pull-ups before you release and land.

Assisted Pullup With Resistance Band

Hang a band over the bar and pull the shorter loop through the longer one. Place your feet on the bottom loop and hang from the bar. Try to do two sets of eight reps.

The Scapular Pull-Up

Keep your shoulder blades slightly tightened while hanging from a bar. Hold your arms straight and further squeeze your shoulder blades. One rep is to hold this position for one second. Try to do at least two sets of 10 to 15 reps.

The Weighted Pull-Up

Once you're ready for even more challenge, it's time to add resistance and make you stronger. Do a pull-up while wearing a vest or weight plates. If it goes smoothly, aim for three sets of 10 reps, before adding more resistance. 

The Mixed Grip Pullup

This is a functional exercise. Grab the bar with one overhand grip and the other underhand. While you do reps, fight to stay balanced and never let your hips shift to one side or the other.

The Plyo Pullup

Here, finally, comes the speed you crave from the beginning. Pull yourself up as quickly as you can. When your chin is up, let go of the bar for a moment before grabbing it again. When that becomes too easy, try to grab the bar using an underhand grip.

The Rope Pullup

Pull-ups are a challenge for your grip, and this variation brings that further. Hang a thick rope over the bar, hold on to it with each hand, and do some pull-ups.

The L-Sit Pullup

While in the bottom position, squeeze your legs together. Extend them forward, form an L with your torso, and keep your core tight. Try to hold this position as you do pull-up reps.

The Archer Pullup

While you're raising yourself up, pull your chest toward your left hand and, as your chest nears the bar, straighten your right arm. Lower, pause, and repeat the opposite way.

You Can Do It!

Never forget that practice makes perfect. Don't expect amazing results when you're just starting out, just be patient, and take your time to improve. Every single pumped-up guy in the gym once started as a beginner. It's only natural to be unable to do it all at once and start slow with a few reps until you get the real hang of things. Remember, doing the right way is far more important than just doing.

Every single body is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution, no matter what someone may tell you. Ensure that you know your limits in the beginning, so you can learn exactly what you can improve to have a better experience and results in the end. It will save you some time, too. Have a lot of patience, build your body muscle, and stay consistent and focused on what you're trying to achieve. 

Doing one set of pull-ups per month, or doing a whole bunch of wrong ones will not get you anywhere, so don't be ashamed to ask, and keep learning. If you feel like you need more help and a specific training program, hiring a personal trainer is always a good idea. Once you notice the progress, the sky will be the limit.