There’s no denying it… pull ups are badass.
There’s something primal, something animalistic about being able to pull your own bodyweight up over a bar.
Perhaps it’s because humans (and our greater ape ancestors) have been pulling themselves up for hundreds of thousands of years.
But our ancestors weren’t repping out pull ups because they looked badass. Not even close…
They did it for survival.
Long before the luxuries of safe homes and guns, the only way to escape from a wild beast chasing you was to pull yourself up and away from danger.
If our ancestors lacked the ability to pull themselves up, they were DEAD… lunch for a blood thirsty beast.
Fast forward to today. If we still needed the ability to pull ourselves up to survive, the population of earth would probably shrink by more than half overnight!
Today we have the luxury of stepping outside our front door and not having to worry about getting mauled by a savage animal.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this luxury has contributed to the pitiful pulling strength that most people have today. Since people don’t need to do pull ups to survive, they don’t.
That’s a shame because this primal need to pull ourselves up still exists deep within… locked away inside our own human biology.
If you don’t believe me, head to your local playground and watch what the kids do. They gravitate like a magnet towards the monkey bars and other things to hang from.
Why? Because it feels natural.
As we get older, society conditions us to sit in chairs and cars. Rarely if ever do we hang from something.
But the kids know what’s up…
Pull Ups Build Lats That Look Like Wings
Pull ups (and their sister exercise chin ups) rock the latissimus dorsi muscles. Oftentimes referred to as the “lats”, these large muscles are located on your middle and outer back.
Well developed lats give you that nice “v-shape” upper body that many guys want.
It’s often said that Red bull gives you wings. That’s bullshit. Pull ups do.
Although pull ups primarily target the lats, other muscles get some work too:
- Forearms (including grip strength)
- Many other back muscles
Even your core gets some work (six pack anyone?) to help stabilize your body in space.
The Right Way To Do A Pull Up
Walk into any commercial gym and look at how the majority of guys do pull ups. They’re flailing around on the bar like a fish out of water.
DON’T do this.
Instead, focus on executing your pull ups with picture perfect form:
- Legs straight or slightly in front of you. Try to keep from bending at the knees if possible.
- Use a full range of motion. Begin in a dead hang at the bottom and strive to get your chest to the bar at the top.
- Use a grip and width that feels comfortable to you. Many people find pull ups with underhand (supinated) grip easier, but experiment to see what feels best.
- Avoid swinging your body or using any type of momentum by pausing for a brief moment at the top and bottom positions of the pull up.
Keep these tips in mind and your pull up form will be light years ahead of everyone else.
We cannot discuss perfect pull up form without discussing scapular positioning. Scapular positioning refers to the position of your shoulders during an exercise.
For a normal pull up, begin in a dead hang position with your shoulders elevated (like you have earmuffs).
As you pull yourself out of the dead hang position, your scapulas should come down (depress).
It’s important to go down to the dead hang position after each rep.
Where To Do Pull Ups
Pull ups can be done anywhere that you can find a place to hang from:
- Pull up bar
- Local park (monkey bars, etc.)
- Tree branch
- Underneath decks
Look around at your environment and you can almost always find a place to hang from.
If you’re still struggling, then I recommend investing in a pull up bar. It’s an inexpensive investment that will pay massive dividends in your pull up training.
No excuses here… you MUST find a place to hang from to do pull ups.
4 Simple Steps To Your First Pull Up
Although I was always a skinny bastard, even as far back as middle school I could usually crank out at least a few pull ups. But they were always with pathetic form.
It wasn’t until college that I got serious about my pull up training.
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe your pull up needs some good ol’ fashioned rehab. Or maybe you can’t even do a single pull up at all.
That’s okay… we all start somewhere. What matters is that you want to get better, and I respect that shit.
As with any bodyweight exercise, the pull up has a series of easier progression exercises you can follow. As you gain strength with these easier exercises, over time you will eventually master the full pull up.
Below you will find this series of pull up exercises. It’s not the end-all-be-all to pull up training, but it’s a dang good starting point.
Use it as a framework rather than a rigid sequence that must be followed to a tee.
Step 1: Bar Hangs
You may have enough strength in your arms and back to do a pull up, but if those paws of yours are as weak as a kitten, then you’re going to struggle with pull ups.
The good news is that the best way to achieve bone crushing grip strength is to hang from a bar. That’s why bar hangs are the first step in the pull up progression.
Bar hangs not only improve grip strength, they also get you comfortable in the bottom position of the pull up.
Work your way up to several sets of 30 second hangs. If you’re really a stud, shoot for 60 seconds.
Step 2: Jumping Pull Ups
Once you’re comfortable hanging from the bar, the next step is jumping pull ups.
Get into the bottom hang position (STEP 1). Bend at the knees and use your legs for assistance to “jump” up to the top position of the pull up.
Strive to get your chest to the bar. If you can only eek out your chin for now, that’s okay. Over time aim to get your chest to the bar, which is good pre-training for muscle ups.
Once at the top, quickly lower yourself back down to the bottom position and perform another rep.
Jumping pull ups use strength from your beefy leg muscles to make up for a lack of pulling strength in your upper body. As you get stronger, aim to use your legs less and less for assistance.
Depending on the height of your pull up bar, you may need to place a chair or box beneath your feet so that you can bend your knees in the bottom position.
Once you can perform a couple sets of 8-12 reps, consider moving on to step 3.
Step 3: Eccentric Pull Ups
Eccentric is just a fancy name for the “negative” or “lowering” portion of an exercise. With pull ups, this is where you lower your body back down to the bottom hang position.
With jumping pull ups (STEP 2) you were quickly lowering yourself back down to the bottom position. Now we’re going to sloooooow that lowering process down.
Get into the top position of the pull up by either jumping (STEP 2) or standing on a surface high enough so that your chin is already above the bar.
At first you may only manage a measly one or two second eccentric. That’s okay… we all start somewhere, right?
Over time aim to work up to 10 second eccentrics. Once you can manage a couple sets of 10-12 second eccentrics, I guarantee you’ll be able to do at least one full pull up.
Eccentrics are a deadly effective training tool you can use to achieve exercises you once thought unimaginable.
For example, I struggled to bridge the progression gap between the tuck back lever and the advanced tuck back lever. By using eccentrics, I eventually achieved the advanced tuck back lever.
If you do implement eccentrics into your workout routine, keep it temporary and keep it to a minimum. Eccentrics should only be used to help bridge progression gaps.
Step 4: Full Pull Ups
If you’ve followed all of the previous pull up progression exercises slowly and carefully, you’re ready for the full pull up.
Grab an overhead bar and get into the bottom hang position (STEP 1). Using your upper body strength, pull yourself up until your chin crosses over the bar. Ideally, try to get your chest to the bar.
Once at the top, pause for a brief moment before carefully lowering yourself back down to the start position.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Go have a beer, have sex with your partner, or buy yourself something. You deserve it. The full pull up is no easy feat.
Once you master the full pull up, build your reps before moving on to anything more advanced.
From there, the world is your oyster. You can begin working any of the following:
- Muscle ups
- Weighted pull ups
- One arm pull ups
- Wide pull ups
- Close pull ups
- Archer pull ups
There are many options, but you need to have a SOLID pull up (with multiple reps and sets) before attempting any of these advanced variations.
What About Assisted Pull Ups?
The progression exercises listed above assume you have no equipment except your body and somewhere to hang from. But if you have access to TRX bands or other means of assistance, you may want to consider using them.
TRX bands can provide assistance on the “concentric” or “raising” portion of the exercise. Concentrics are the opposite of eccentrics, and are considered the more difficult portion of an exercise.
Integrate TRX bands into Steps 2 or 3 above by placing the band beneath your feet:
- For Step 2, instead of jumping and using your legs for assistance, use the TRX band for assistance.
- For Step 3, instead of jumping or starting at the top position, use the TRX band for assistance to reach the top position. DON’T use the band for the eccentric portion.
Again, you don’t need TRX bands to achieve the full pull up, but they can help.
What About Australian (Aussie) Pull Ups?
You may be wondering why I didn’t include Australian (aussie) pull ups in this pull up progression series. In case you aren’t familiar with aussie pull ups, they are essentially bodyweight rows:
While you can include aussie pull ups in your workout, I recommend that you perform them in addition to your pull up training. Pull ups are a vertical pulling exercise while australian pull ups are a horizontal pulling exercise.
It’s good practice to work both a horizontal and vertical pulling exercise in a workout routine. This helps maintain good muscular balance.
We covered a lot in this post. Don’t be surprised if you have to go back and reread it a few times for everything to sink into your noggin.
The bottom line is that pull ups are a fundamental human movement that your body is designed to do. Everyone (and yes I mean everyone) with some hard work and patience can achieve a full pull up.
It might take you a month, or it might take you 3 years. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are getting after it and working hard towards your goals every day.
If you enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let me know where you are with your pull up training.