It’s true what they say: Practice really does make perfect. But practicing improper form is more likely to hinder pull-up performance than actually help, so anyone aiming to make their first pull-up a reality should begin by perfecting the proper form.
The time has come, let’s get down to the business of perfecting the pull-up.
- Get a Grip
Stand under the bar and grab it with both hands. Your palms should be facing away from you with hands shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar, get a boost from a bench, stool, or box.) Use a standard overhand grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar so that they almost meet the tips of your fingers.
- Play Dead
A true pull-up begins in a dead hang. When you hang from the bar, your arms should be fully extended with your core engaged and shoulders back. Build strength by keeping form in mind as you pull—it’ll help you avoid swinging, kicking, and jumping, which means that you’ll be using your muscles, not momentum, to master the move.
- Pull (Up)
Initiate the actual pull by squeezing the bar with your hands while engaging the muscles of your upper body and core. Imagine pulling your elbows down to your sides as your entire body travels toward the bar. Resist the urge to strain your neck in an attempt to break the plane of the bar with your chin. Continue to pull until your chin clears the bar with ease, at which point the upward phase of the pull-up is complete.
- Get Down
Congratulations! You nailed the up part of the pull-up. But you still have to get down. The trick is to return to the dead-hang slowly. Maintain a firm grip on the bar while allowing your arms to straighten as you lower. Once you return to the dead-hang, you can count your first rep. Cue shouting “Nailed it!,” high-fiving yourself, pumping your fist triumphantly, all of the above, etc.
Working Up to the Pull-Up
Knowing how to do a pull-up is one thing, but actually doing it will probably take some time (and practice and patience). Instead of walking away from the pull-up forever, use these exercises to work your way up to the perfect pull-up.
- Suspended Row
Similar to a pull-up, the suspended row is a closed-chain exercise. In this case, however, you’ll be lying under a bar instead of hanging from it. Using a Smith machine or power rack set the a barbell so that when you’re under the bar, lying faceup, it’s just out of reach. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms out, and thumbs around the bar. Anchor your heels into the ground. Now, pull your chest toward the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. You can also perform this row on a set of rings. In either case, if the movement is too challenging, adjusting the bar or rings so that your body is more vertical. As you build strength, you can set yourself up to be more horizontal.
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
For this free weight move, snag a set of dumbbells. Hinge at the waist to grip the weights with both hands outside of your knees, palms facing each other. With a slight bend in the knees, back straight, and chest parallel to the floor, row your elbows back and up toward the ceiling, pulling the weight and exhaling as you do. At the top of the movement, squeeze the muscles of your back, pause for a moment, then lower the weight.
- Assisted Pull-Up
Practicing a pull-up can present a bit of a problem. Mainly that hanging helplessly from a bar is no way to make progress. The underlying issue preventing us from pulling up is twofold. First, it could be a lack of strength holding us back. (This where exercises like the suspended and bent-over rows come in, strengthening the muscles of the arms and upper body.) Second, strength-to-weight ratio could be keeping us down. Put simply, our muscles can’t move our bodyweight. Luckily it’s possible to practice the pull-up, with a little bit of a boost.
- Buddy Up
A workout buddy will help out by gripping your legs and gently pushing up, thereby reducing the amount of weight you need move up. Dead-hang from the bar per usual but cross your legs. This is where your friend steps in, holding your legs and pushing up. Ah… upward motion just got a little easier.
- More Like Machine Fun
Most gyms have a couple of assisted pull-up machines, which serve the same purpose as your workout buddy—they support your body, thereby reducing the amount of weight you’ll have to pull. To get started, set the pin on the machine’s weight stack. (On most exercise machines, the pin’s placement determines the amount of weight you’ll be moving. Here, though, the pin’s placement indicates how much support you’ll get from the machine.) Once the weight is set, climb up onto the platform, kneel, and grip the bar as if you we’re performing the perfect pull-up. As the support arm sinks, the platform will move with you, the counterweight supporting you through the range of motion.
- I’m With the Band
Giant rubber bands called flex bands can be used for a variety of assisted or mobility exercises. For use in perfecting the pull-up, the band is looped around the top of the bar. As it hangs, step your foot through the bottom of the band. Grip the bar and notice that you’re getting up, allowing the band to help you. More effective than the assisted pull-up machine, the banded version is more akin to the actual pull-up, engaging core and stabilizer muscles throughout the movement. (Be careful when stepping into and out of the band. There’s a chance that it could snap back with force.)
- Go Negative
When it comes to perfecting the pull-up, the “up” part gets a whole lot of attention, but pulling is only one piece of the puzzle. Slowly lowering yourself from the bar—a “negative”—is a terrific way to build the strength that will eventually help you pull yourself up. Grip the bar as you would for a pull-up and very slowly lower yourself to a dead hang, squeezing your back muscles and biceps and keeping your core engaged. You might not be able to pull-up, but you sure can get down. And that’s half of the pull-up battle.
- Assisted Pull-Up Machine: The pull-up machine is a great way to try your first go at pull-ups. The machine uses counter-balance weights, which means the higher the weight you set the machine, the easier the exercise becomes. Start by setting the weight to about 9kg less than your weight, complete three to five reps, and then adjust the weight accordingly. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to use the assisted pull-up machine at your gym.
- Band Pull-Up: With the help of a super-band — a giant, two-inch-thick rubber band — you can tackle consecutive pull-ups. All you have to do is wrap the rubber band securely around the pull-up bar, put it under one knee (or one foot for even more assistance), grab onto the bar (stepping off a stool if needed to reach), and begin your pull-up. Superbands are the same length, but the wider the band, the more assistance. Eventually, you will no longer be a “groupie” to the band and will be able to use your body weight!
- Jump Pull-Ups: Consider jump pull-ups (pull-ups with a jump start) the next level after the assisted pull-up machine. Standing under the bar, jump up to grab the bar, harnessing the momentum of the jump to pull your body and chin to the bar. If your chin doesn’t come close to the bar, don’t give up — this move often takes practice.
- Traditional Body Weight Pull-Ups: Using your body weight is the most traditional, but often the most challenging, way to complete a pull-up. With palms facing away from you, grip a pull-up bar with arms extended. Keeping your core tight while engaging your back and lats, bring yourself up until your chin passes above the bar, then lower yourself down into the starting position. The trick (and challenge) to any pull-up is to avoid swinging your entire body or using your neck for added momentum.
- Weighted Pull-Up: When you’re ready, let your inner gymnast shine. Following the movements for a traditional pull-up, add a weighted plate for an extra challenge. Using a weight belt or simply holding a weight between your knees, you will be the star of the gym and any workout.