Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. Even some of the fittest women struggle to increase their pull up strength enough to string a few reps together and get a training effect. But the problem isn’t the way they train the pull-up, it’s the way they train everything else.
2. When it comes to a lack of pull-up strength, there are many common faults, but when it comes down to it, the entire body including the anterior core, lower body, upper body and shoulders all need to be involved and trained to improve the pull-up.
3. Just doing band assisted pull-ups or the cheater machine will not help you progress to real pull-ups, ladies. And no, kipping like a CrossFitter doesn’t constitute a “real” pull-up.
4. Here’s how to implement a complete full body remediation of strength, stability and performance for the pull up that will have you repping out on the bar while reaping the benefits of getting functionally jacked in the process.
The pull-up is one of the most superior exercises you can do for your upper body. This versatile bodyweight exercise will help you develop a statuesque and defined upper body, and will improve your ability to burn body fat. In terms of performance, it will dramatically improve your strength and ability to perform all exercises in the gym, and will enhance your overall athleticism and sports specific abilities. Best of all, the pull-up is extremely convenient as it requires very little equipment, so you can perform this great exercise at the gym, in the convenience of your home, and even outdoors.
Unfortunately, many people, particularly females, struggle to perform pull-ups. The good news is that the issue does not stem from the fact that the exercise is too advanced, the problem is how you are training for it. I don’t hesitate to say that if you follow a fundamentally sound training program, and if you are healthy, you should be able to perform at least a few proper pull-ups, if not many more.
In this article, I will describe some of the common problems that prevent people from being able to perform pull-ups, I will talk about how to address and correct these problems, and I will list some more advanced progressions of pull-ups.
Muscles That Pull-Ups Target
The pull-up is such a bang for your buck exercise as it targets many different muscle groups. While the latissimus dorsi, the largest and most powerful muscle of the back is the primary muscle that is targeted, the pull-up also works the trapezius, rhomboid, deltoid, biceps, triceps, serratus, and core muscles. In other words, it essentially hits the majority of muscles in the upper body and core.
How To Execute The Perfect Pull-Up
When it comes to executing a sound technical pull-up, there are many moving parts to this compound movement. Lets break these aspects of the pull-up down one by one:
Step 1: Grip
Either opt for a grip where your hands are approximately shoulder width apart and are facing away from you (pronated grip), or use a narrower neutral grip where your palms are facing one another.
Step 2: Breathing & Core
Before you initiate the pull, take a deep breath in (360° of air around your spine), brace your core, gently tuck your ribs towards the pelvis so your body is in a slight hollow body position, and squeeze your glutes. This will provide the much needed stability around your spine and pelvis so you will generate significantly more strength with your upper body, and it will make the exercise feel significantly easier. I will exhale as my chin approaches the bar, and will inhale as I begin to descend. Right before I return to the starting position, I will re-engage my core/glutes so I am ready to initiate the next pull.
Step 3: Path
Your body should travel in a straight line to the bar. This will create the shortest possible distance between your body and the bar, minimizing the use of compensation and provocative positions at the shoulders for pain and injury. Just think of this as the polar opposite of a “kipping” pull up that has a curved path up and down from the bar.
Step 4: Ascending (Concentric) Portion
Pack your shoulders, and initiate the pull-up by depressing and retracting your shoulder blades. Keep your elbows at approximately a 45• position (similar to an overhead press) and do not allow them to flare. Pull yourself up by leading with your chest and pulling your elbows down to the floor. Make sure that your chin passes the bar, but do not strain your neck and reach with your chin. Keep your head and neck in a neutral position the entire time.
Step 5: Descending (Eccentric) Portion
Lower yourself down until your arms are fully extended. Skimping out on range will shortchange your results, and partial range reps do not count! It is extremely important that you lower yourself down with control and do not fall or drop into the starting position, and you want to keep your shoulders stable by making sure that they remain packed. Failing to do so will make your shoulders and elbows susceptible to injury.
Step 6: Alignment
It is very important that you maintain proper alignment the entire time. Keep your head, neck, and lower back in a neutral position. Keep your ribs down and do not allow them to flare, and do not allow your pelvis or torso to rotate. Your body should be in a straight line from your head to knees (or feet if you keep your legs extended).
Step 7: Legs
You can either bend your knees, or keep your legs straight. It is important that you engage your glutes and muscles in your legs as a rigid body will be much easier to pull up than a body that is limp and unstable.
10 Key Issues That Prevent People From Performing Sound Pull-Ups
Now that we know what a properly executed pull-up should look and feel like, lets review a few common mistakes and pitfalls I see in people who struggle with this movement:
#1 Inability To Keep The Body From Swinging
Ideally, when you perform a pull-up, your body should travel in a straight path to the bar. Just like the bar path during a deadlift, the shorter the distance you have to move your body, the easier the exercise will be to perform. When many people perform the pull-up, because they think the exercise is purely for the arms, they do not engage their scapular stabilizers, core, or glutes, and this causes their body to swing forward and ahead of the bar. Now instead of having to pull the body in a shorter vertical line, they have to pull their body in both a horizontal and then vertical plane, which will essentially double the amount of work. End result is compromised results.
#2 Not Using Full Range of Motion
Skimping on your range and not fully extending your arms will cheat you out of being able to perform proper pull-ups. Unless you fully extend your arms, the rep is no good…period!!
#3 Using Momentum aka Kipping
While CrossFit encourages momentum as it allows you to perform more reps, a proper pull-up starts from a dead hang position. While kipping definitely makes the pull-up easier (and in my opinion it is actually just cheating) it places the shoulders and other joints under significantly more stress. If you are ever going to perform kipping pull-ups, make sure that you are able to perform proper (strict) pull-ups first and have developed the requisite levels of strength, stability and mobility as this will reduce your risk of injuring yourself. Unless you do CrossFit, skip the kipping, and stick to dead hang pull-ups.
#4 Weak Large Muscle Groups In The Upper Body
While this is fairly straightforward, if your upper body is weak, it will be next to impossible to pull your body in a vertical plane. Women seem more vulnerable to suffering from upper body weakness, in part because many fixate on training their legs and neglect the ever important musculature in the upper body.
#5 Inability To Control The Shoulder Blades
The scapula stabilizers are a crucial link between the arms and the rest of the body. The scapula stabilizers provide the scapula with stability and mobility as it moves synchronously with the arm, and prevents the scapulae from winging out. Many people, including those who are extremely strong, suffer from weak scapula stabilizers. This will absolutely limit their ability to perform pull-ups safely and effectively.
#6 Disengaging During the Eccentric Phase or Bottom of Movement
When many people perform pull-ups, rather than lowering themselves down in a controlled manner, they allow their bodies to violently drop. While this is obviously detrimental to the health of the body, it will also impede their results as it essentially eliminates the eccentric component of the exercise. In order to perform this exercise safely and effectively, the muscles of the mid to upper back, including the scapula stabilizers, and shoulders, need to remain engaged at all times so the shoulders remain pinned. A common sign that someone has disengaged their muscles (usually in their back) is that their neck will disappear into their body.
#7 Under-Engaging The Back and Overusing The Arms
When many people perform pull-ups, they initiate the movement by pulling with their arms, rather than depressing and retracting their shoulder blades. This will decrease their ability to perform the exercise to their full potential, and it will make them susceptible to chronic biceps and forearm tightness, and potentially strains.
#8 Weak Core and Glutes
The core and glutes are what links the upper and lower body, and a stable core/glutes allow you to generate the power that is needed to perform pull-ups. Many people struggle to perform pull-ups, not because their upper body is weak, but because their core/glutes do not provide their body with the stability it needs to execute the movement properly. Imagine trying to pull a 125-225 lb floppy sand bag. Having weak core muscles and glutes turns your body into just that!
#9 Reliance On The Assisted Pull-up Machine or Band Assisted Pull-ups
If you have set the goal of being able to perform pull-ups, stop using the assisted pull-up machine and performing band assisted pull-ups. I’ve watched numerous people slave away on this overrated machine, or use bands, and years later, they’re still not able to do single pull-up. This is not necessarily a reflection of their fitness level, but rather an example of ineffective training methods. With the assisted pull-up machine, zero core stability and glute strength is required, it provides too much assistance, and you are never truly forced to support your body in a dead hang position.
As for band assisted pull-ups, while you are required to use your core and glutes to some extent, and while I would opt for these over the assisted pull-up machine, the band provides assistance at all the wrong times. It provides a huge boost at the bottom of the movement and this is when you need to be able to pull yourself up from a dead stop. The end result is that you will not improve your strength from this position, and will never be able to perform a pull-up without assistance.
If you have no aspiration to perform unassisted pull-ups, both options are fine, and from a physique standpoint, they can be used to add additional volume into a solid training program that already contains unassisted pull-ups, but they offer very little in terms of helping you progress to being able to do proper pull-ups. I do not include them in my training program, and rarely use them when I am training others.
Avoiding performing bodyweight ‘’pulling’’ exercises and spending the bulk of your time on machines – When it comes to being able to do pull-ups, being able to lift a lot of weight on a machine will offer little benefit. This also applies to exercises with free-weights. While many exercises with free-weights and some machine based exercises can be very beneficial to you strength-wise and aesthetically, they will do little good when it comes to enhancing your ability to pull your bodyweight in a vertical plane.
#10 Carrying Excess Body Fat
Pull-ups are already challenging enough for most people to perform. Now imagine performing them with an extra 5-100+ lbs of weight strapped to your body. Guess what, carrying excess body fat is no different. The less body fat you have, the easier it will be to perform pull-ups. This is especially true for females as many tend to carry their excess body fat in their hips and legs.
How To Progress Your Pull-Ups
Now that we have the common mistakes covered, lets go through some detailed coaching progressions so you can transform your pull-ups from flawed to fabulous!
When it comes to all of the exercises below, the key points for stabilizing the body and maintaining proper alignment apply (breathing, bracing, glutes) so I won’t repeat myself.
Phase 1: 4-8 weeks
To acquire the ability to perform pull-ups, start out performing various isometric holds, and pulling your bodyweight, but with some modifications. During this phase, you will also work on improving your grip strength, strengthening your scapula stabilizers, core, and glutes.
Many people are not able to support their bodyweight in a hanging position. Until you’re able to acquire this basic skill, you will not be able to perform any variation of a pull-up.
Set your grip so your hands are pronated and approximately shoulder width apart. Depress and retract your shoulder blades, pin your shoulders, engage the muscles in your core/glutes, and hang. Once you are able to hang for 30 to 60 seconds, you can make this more challenging by hanging two sturdy towels on the bar and performing hangs while holding on to these, or you can perform basic hangs using extra weight as resistance.
Do 3-5 reps of 30-60 second holds and perform these 3-5 days per week
This exercise will help improve your arm strength, grip strength, and core stability.
If you are able to do an unassisted pull-up, pull yourself to the top position so your chin is above the bar. If you are not able to, you can jump up, or stand on a chair or the safety racks so your chin is above the bar. Grab on to the bar,depress and retract your scapula, pin your shoulders, and engage the muscles in your core/glutes, and hold your body so it is in the top position of the pull-up.
Do 3-5 sets of 10-60 second holds and perform these 3-5 days per week.
Inverted Pull-Ups On Fixed Bar, TRX, or Rings
You can perform modified/inverted pull-ups on a fixed barbell, a TRX, or rings. Focus on depressing and retracting your shoulder blades, pinning your shoulders, and engaging the core/glutes. As you become more proficient, you can progress by lowering the bar so you are pulling more of your body weight, and if you are on the TRX/rings, you can move your feet forward so your body is more parallel to the ground. Eventually, you can prop your feet up on a bench so you’re performing decline modified pull-ups or chin-ups. This will help you make the transition to regular pull-ups as you are using similar muscle groups, are performing similar movements, and have to maintain proper alignment.
Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps perform these 3-5 days per week.
Scapular Retractions and Protractions on Wall
Just to be clear: this exercise is NOT for your arms. Many people make the mistake of using their arms to perform this exercise. ALL of the movement should be occurring due to the controlled movement of your shoulder blades.
Place a resistance band around your wrists. Choose a tension that allows you to use proper form at all times. Adopt a split stance and put one foot against a wall. Your torso should be 3-6 inches away from the wall. Bend your elbows to approximately 90 degrees, set your forearms so they are in an “11 o’clock position, place your forearms against the wall so they are chest height, and press them out against the band. When you do this, you should feel the muscles around your shoulder blades kick in. Engage the muscles around the shoulder blade area, using them to draw your shoulder blades together and towards your spine (retract). When you do this, your arms should move apart. Now use the muscles around your shoulder blades to control your shoulder blades as they move apart and away from your spine (protract). When you do this, your arms should return to the starting position. For the duration of the exercise, make sure that your arms remain in a vertical (11 o’clock) position, and do not allow the band to lose tension.
For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or your ribcage to flare. As for your breathing, do what feels the best for you. Be sure to take deep breaths in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), and exhale through your mouth.
Hollow Body Holds
This extremely effective core stability exercise reinforces the rib tuck that is required to perform the pull-up. Start by extending your legs straight up in the air, then gently tucking your ribs towards the hips. While maintaining this hollow body position, simultaneously reach back with your arms, and slowly drop your legs toward the floor and hold. Your back should NOT arch, yet should not be forcefully pressed into the ground. Your arms and legs should be relaxed so the anterior core is doing all of the work. You should NOT feel your legs or low back, just the anterior core.
Do 3 sets of 15-30 second holds and perform these 3 days per week. You can make this more challenging by dropping your legs closer to the floor, and/or holding a weight in your hands as this makes the rib tuck even more challenging.
Glute Bridges or Hip Thrusts
Lie on your back, bend your knees, and set your shins so they are vertical. Squeeze your glutes and pick your hips off the floor. Pause at the top, return to the starting position and repeat. Make sure that you pick up your hips by squeezing your glutes and not by hyperextending your spine. You can make this exercise more challenging by placing a resistance band above your knees, and/or using a barbell for extra resistance.
Do 3 sets to burnout and perform these 3 days per week.
Phase 2: 4-8 weeks
Once you have spent some time working on being able to support your body weight, and pulling your bodyweight in a diagonal plane, you can focus on the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) component.
Either jump up (or pull yourself up if you are able to), and slowly lower yourself down in 3-10 seconds.
Do 3 sets of 5-10 reps and perform these 3 days per week. If you are able to perform unassisted pull-ups, do as many as you can, and once your form fails, do the rest with just the eccentric component.
If you are not able to perform unassisted pull-ups, jump up and pull yourself the rest of the way up. Lower yourself down using regular speed, or even negative speed.
Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps and perform these 3 days per week. If you are able to perform unassisted pull-ups, do as many as you can, and once your form fails, do the rest with just the concentric component.
This variation of pull-up strengthens the ever important yet often neglected scapular stabilizer muscles, the muscles that are supposed to initiate the movement of the pull-up. It also helps develop grip strength.
Set your grip so it is approximately shoulder width apart, and use a pronated grip. Keep your elbows fully extended (important that they aren’t hyperextended). Without bending your elbows, perform a reverse shrugging movement by depressing and retracting your shoulder blades, and lift your body a few inches. Pause for a second at the top position, and lower yourself in a controlled manner to the starting position where you will reset and repeat.
Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 3 days per week.
Ab Wheel Rollouts
When most people perform this exercise, they allow their back to hyperextend and allow their body to go into a severe anterior pelvic tilt. The body should remain in a slight hollow body position the entire time, and this is accomplished by bracing the core, tucking the ribs, and squeezing the glutes. Reset before each rep.
The most basic form of the ab wheel rollout is from the knees, and you can make it more advanced by performing the exercise from the feet.
Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 2-3 days per week.
Single Leg Deficit Hip Thrusts
Set yourself up so your mid-upper back/rear delts are on one bench or box, and your foot is on another bench or box. Make sure that the boxes are close enough so your knee is kept at approximately a 90° angle. Drop your hips down as low as you can, drive through the back of the foot that is on the forward step, squeeze your glutes, and pick your hips up so your body is level. Hold for a count at the top of the lift, reset, and repeat. Make sure that you engage the glute of the nonworking leg as well. Failing to do so will allow your nonworking hip to drop faster, and will cause your pelvis to rotate. Once you are comfortable performing this, you can add weight.
Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps per side and perform these 2-3 days per week.
Phase 3: 8-16 weeks
Now that you have acquired the requisite skills, it’s time to perfect your ability to perform unassisted dead hang pull-ups. And yes, we’ll start to implement them right into training as stand alone exercises and sprinkled into some novel sets as well.
The video below is a pull-up and push-ups conditioning superset that I performed.
See description above that talks about how to execute the perfect pull-up.
Build up to doing 3-5 sets of 8-12+ reps, and perform these 3 days per week. Obviously when you’re starting out, you will not be able to perform this number of reps in a row. Aim to add an additional rep per set every 1-2 weeks. Perform as many reps as you can, and when your form fails, do the remaining reps while just focussing on either the concentric and/or eccentric component, or inverted pull-ups. Eventually, the goal is that you will be able to perform the full number of reps unbroken. You can do regular pull-ups the entire time, or you can use a neutral grip.
Phase 4: Pull-Up Progressions
Now that you have mastered the ability to perform the pull-up, here are some more advanced variations that you can do:
This type of pull-up will really test and develop your grip strength. You can either hang two sturdy towels over the pull-up bar and perform regular grip pull-ups, or you can use one towel and perform neutral grip pull-ups. Because the towels are somewhat unstable, you will need to engage your core, glutes, and scapular stabilizers even more than during regular pull-ups.
Do 3 sets of 8-15+ reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.
Narrow Grip Pull-Ups
This type of pull-up will really develop your grip and forearm strength.
Set yourself up as you would during a regular pull up, but position your hands so they are completely together.
Do 3 sets of 8-15+ reps and perform these 1 day per week.
Do not perform this type of pull-up unless you are able to perform at least 10 regular pull-ups in a row. Many people attempt to do weighted pull-ups to boost their ego, but lack the strength and stability to perform the exercise safely and effectively.
While you can hold the weight between your knees or feet, I prefer to use a weight belt, and anchor the weight plate to a chain. In my video, I am holding the dumbbell between my feet, only because I didn’t have access to a belt that fit. When the weight is held between the feet, it demands significantly more core strength.
Due to the additional weight, when many people perform this type of pull-up, it is very common to observe a severely hyperextended spine. In order to perform this pull-up safely and effectively, it’s absolutely crucial that you brace your core, keep your ribs from flaring, and squeeze your glutes as this will provide your pelvis and spine with the stability that it needs to perform the exercise safely and effectively.
Do 3 sets of 6-10+ reps and perform these 1 day per week.
Single Arm Pull-Ups
While this type of pull-up is very flashy, it demands a tremendous amount of upper body and core strength, and stability.
Use a neutral grip and grab the bar with one hand. Hold on to your wrist with the opposite hand. This will give you a small amount of assistance, and will stabilize your arm. Perform the pull-up the same way you would with two arms. Because you are only holding on with one hand, you will need to engage your core, glutes, and stabilizer muscles in your upper body that much more or else you will find that your body will swing from side to side.
Do 3 sets of 6-10+ reps per arm and perform these 1 day per week.
Advanced Calisthenics Climbing Pull-Up
This is my favourite pull up to perform, and is a great example of an advance callisthenics exercise. While it is flashy, it demands a tremendous amount of upper body and core strength and stability.
While you can use a regular grip, I prefer to use a neutral grip. Initiate the pull with your one arm and the muscles on that side of your upper body, and simultaneously drive up with the leg on the same size. Now repeat with the arm and muscles on your other side of your upper body, and drive up with your opposite leg. Repeat until your chest reaches the level of the bar. Once you are at the top, engage the muscles in your back, arms, and brace your core, now pull yourself back and forth laterally, while performing a jogging motion with your legs. Once you’ve performed between 5 to 10 reps in each direction, return to the bottom position by performing the opposite movement as you did on the way up. The descent really focusses on the eccentric component. Throughout the entire rep, it’s absolutely crucial that you keep your core muscles engaged and rib cage down. Aim to look as graceful as possible.
Do 3 sets of 1-5 reps (10 lateral movements per side) and perform this 1-2 days per week.
If that wasn’t enough, here are some ultra novel progressions for all your pull-up fanatics.
Pull-Up/Skin The Cat Combo On The Rings
This gymnastics exercise is fun to perform, and is extremely effective. It also tests the mobility, stability and strength of the shoulders.
Coaching Notes: Refer to video tutorial above.
Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 4-10+ reps and perform these every 1-2 weeks.
Pull-Up To Pullover Combo
This gymnastics exercise is fun to perform, and is extremely effective. It also targets the triceps.
Coaching Notes: Refer to video above
Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 4-10+ reps and perform these every 1-2 weeks.
Legless Rope Climbs
These three rope climb variations will dramatically improve your upper body and grip strength.
Make sure that you keep your core and glutes engaged the entire time as a rigid body will be much easier to pull.
Pick one of the variations, and do 1 set of 1 reps and perform these every week.
Final Thoughts On The Pull-Up
Now that I have systematically provided you with what it takes to being able to perform the pull-up, it’s time to get the ball rolling. Stop doubting your abilities as you are more than capable of performing this extremely beneficial and empowering exercise. Master the pull-up and its many variations, and you will take your upper body strength, athleticism, and aesthetics to another level.
About The Author
Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics. She is also the author of The Ultimate Pull Up Program that is the definitive guide to sculpt your upper body and unlock your true strength potential.