Pull-ups are a strength training staple and a popular compound bodyweight exercise; whether you’re building mass or cutting fat, they’re great for both, and an excellent way to measure your relative strength.
They’re also notoriously difficult.
If you’re able to perform one clean pull-up, you’re likely in not bad shape – 10 or more and you’re a boss!
But those who can pull their own bodyweight for 10 or more reps, with good form, are few and far between.
So, let’s look at some ways to help improve your pulling power, and increase your pull-up reps.
What Are Pull-Ups?
As a calisthenic compound movement, they’re one of the best pulling exercises for back development.
They work the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles, and at the top of the movement – when the shoulder blades come together – the rhomboids, and middle / lower parts of the trapezius are stimulated.
Also, the biceps and forearms are worked, too.
Overall, pull-ups work a vast network of muscle fibres, over large and small muscle groups.
The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle group involved in pulling the body up, they do most of the heavy lifting. We inherited these powerful “Lat” muscles from our tree-climbing ancestors – both humans and monkeys have very well-developed pulling muscles over our backs.
Pull-Ups vs Chin-Ups – Is There a Difference?
Chin-ups are a close sibling of the pull-up, and both activate much of the same muscle groups.
Despite this, there are some key differences.
With chin-ups, you’ll be targeting your lower back, middle back and heavy involvement form the biceps, more than the traditional wide-grip pull-up.
Chin-ups also tend to be a bit easier.
With a chin-up, you’ll be gripping the bar with your palms facing you (supinated), and your hands only a few inches apart.
Pull-Ups, on the other hand, use a much wider grip and palms facing away (pronated), and are generally harder.
Getting Your Pull-Ups Done Right
As with any other exercise, the best thing you can do to ensure you’re performing pull-ups at your best is to confirm that you’re using the right form.
Never abandon good from and proper muscle activation in the name of just getting your chin over the bar.
Recklessly yanking yourself (kipping) up to the bar and allowing your body to slam back down is not a pull-up.
It’s a screw-up.
The movement should be smooth and controlled, with focused tension on the target muscles – primarily, the latissimus dorsi and teres.
For standard wide-grip pull-ups you should grip the bar with your hands around shoulder-width and your arms straight.
Once you’re hanging steadily, begin pulling yourself up until your chin is level with the bar, making sure to pull your elbows toward the floor to maintain the correct form.
Lower yourself gradually all the way down under tension until your arms are straight; repeat this for however many reps fit your routine.
The importance of maintaining correct form is in part to avoid under-utilising your back muscles and over-using your arms.
This isn’t a chin-up, the pull-up is a multi-joint, multi-muscle upper-body exercise, and while it might feel good to pump up your forearms and biceps, you’re never going to progress properly if you’re not activating your back and core.
As mentioned, the big muscles you’ll be using are your latissimus dorsi, your rear deltoids, and to a lesser extent your biceps.
It’s your abdominal core which keeps you stable during the exercise, and that stability, with core engaged throughout the movement, is important.
Long planks are a great way to strengthen your core for this.
Avoid building too much momentum between reps and unintentionally “swinging” your way to the top; kipping might be in vogue for cross-fitters and exercise nuts around the world, but you won’t be achieving the same results by moving like an out-of-control yo-yo!
Watch your shoulders, too, ensuring that you properly “pack” your scapula to avoid hunching your shoulders. Inadequate shoulder girdle mobility makes it much more difficult to perform the motion properly.
How to Develop Correct Pull-Up Form
I’ve described the movement pattern, the do’s-and-don’ts – but the problem is, you’ll never be able to practice proper pull-up form if you’re barely able to do one rep.
Here’s what you need to do: assisted pull-ups.
Use a machine assisted pull-up for 3 – 4 weeks, or until you feel like you’ve learned how to do the exercise properly.
Feel the target muscle contract and move your body through the correct movement pattern, get really good and perming the exercise with excellent form.
While lat-pulldowns are a great exercise for targeting your latissimus dorsi, they’re no replacement for the old-school pull-up.
However, they serve as a useful tool in building pull-up strength, by developing the muscles involved in pull-ups.
The difficulty of performing pull-ups is directly proportional to a number of key factors –grip strength, upper-body strength, and development of the muscles used to pull your body up.
Training and improving these factors are crucial to getting better at pull-ups, and using a Lat Pull Down machine to build some initial strength – a starting foundation – can help.
I’ll show you how to incorporate everything into a strategic program that’s going to have you cruising through your pull ups.
Improving Your Pull-Ups
Once you’re sure you’re using the correct form, then it’s time to start tackling real development.
The best way to develop any exercise is to perform it – repetitively, and progressively – and if you’re already capable of executing a few pull-ups, then it’s important to make sure you’re always putting in the work when it’s workout time.
As with anything, the crucial thing is progressive resistance – if you’re managing three or four pull-ups today, you’re going to aim for five or six on following occasions.
Progressive resistance is vital, even if you’ve mastered the motion.
Once you’re easily completing multiple sets of pull-ups as a part of your routine it’s time to introduce weighted pull-ups.
Most gyms will have belts for weighted dipping and pull-ups, but if yours doesn’t they can be purchased online fairly easily, and cheaply.
Starting from Scratch with Negatives
If you’re a complete beginner, and unable to perform even a single pull-up yet then doing “negatives” will help you to build the required strength, and the technique at the same time, without the need for any equipment.
The negative is essentially the eccentric phase of the exercise, where you’re lowering yourself back to your initial hanging position. Importantly you’ll be replacing the pulling portion of the exercise completely, either by jumping or standing on something to reach the raised position.
If you’re going to stand on something then you can use a bench, cardio step or even a dumbbell.
The vital thing to remember when performing negatives is to lower yourself in as slow and controlled a manner as possible – you’re cutting out the most difficult part of the exercise but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taxing.
Try to keep the pace up, getting straight back up to your initial position once you’ve completed a rep.
With an exercise like this frequency and volume is king; performing these a few times a week is a great way to get pull-up ready.
Between negatives and full pull-ups is partial range training, where you’ll actually be pulling yourself up, but only lowering yourself halfway down before rising again.
If your back and arms are doing alright, but you still find yourself falling, the problem may be your grip; hanging from the bar for extended periods helps develop your grip strengths, as do the all-powerful deadlifts.
For an added challenge, consider a thicker bar (or try using Fat Gripz), hanging leg-raises or even weighted hanging! In the weight room, heavy dumbbell holds are great at developing a stronger grip.
In the machine section lat-pulldowns are the closest to the pull-up in terms of activated muscle groups, but the absence of core engagement and the easier grip means you’ll see slower progress.
Once you do get to higher weights, the need for a knee-bar to keep you grounded means you’ll be needlessly activating hip and lower body muscles as well.
Deploying a Progressive Pull-Up Program
There are plenty of options for beginner and intermediate athletes alike when it comes to improving your pull-ups: from increasing your frequency, adding other isometric exercises to your routine, or targeting key muscle groups individually.
What’s important is consistency and progressive development; as long as you’re doing the right things and working harder each session, you’ll see results in this most important of exercises.
What I did was start with assisted machine pull-ups to develop form, and combined that with lat pull-downs.
I’d do something like, 3 sets of assisted pull-ups followed by 3 sets of lat pull-downs.
Always trying to decrease the assisted weight, and increase the pull-down weight, each training session.
As my strength increased, I switched to 3 sets of assisted pull-ups, followed by 4 sets of negatives.
Pretty soon I was able to start doing full pull-ups, one rep at a time, without any assistance. I’d manage 2 – 3 reps, then progressed to 4 – 6, and I’m now able to easily do 10+ with perfect form (6 – 8 with 20kg weight).
It’s all about building progressive strength, while maintaining great form.