Bench press? Bicep curl? Pffft. Those moves are peons compared to the pull-up. The classic exercise is the high king of upper body workouts. Why? The act of grabbing a bar and lifting your body up is essential to creating a big, strong, and, most importantly, functional top half, as few other exercises engage and isolate your lats, biceps, traps, and core so fully. Dean Somerset, a personal trainer and certified exercise physiologist from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, likens it to the upper body equivalent of that lower body must, the deadlift. And he also understands why so many guys avoid reaching for the bar during their workouts: the exercise is, well, hard and it can be emasculating to dangle from the bar, struggling to bust out more than a few reps, let alone consecutive sets. The key lies in sticking to proper form and building your body to meet the challenge. With Somerset’s help, here is a guide to getting yourself into pull-up shape. Stick to this regimen and your bar-dangling days will be over.
How to Perform a Proper Pull-Up
First and foremost: you’ll fail to do a proper pull-up if you don’t memorize the basic movement. Here’s how to do it:
Standing under the bar, grab it with both hands shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip (palms down), wrapping your thumbs around the bar.
1. Lift your feet and hang from the bar, fully extending your arms. Aim your eyes upwards to align your body correctly.
2. Squeeze the bar with your hands and engage the muscles of your upper body and core as you pull, keeping your elbows close to your body and moving them in the direction of the floor.
3. Continue to pull until your chin clears the bar and lean back slightly to ensure that you’re engaging your back muscles.
4. Slowly lower yourself down, allowing your arms to straighten.
Some Pull-Up Pointers
Try to touch your chest to the bar.
“You do this to get your shoulder blades to pull back and down so you get some thoracic spine extension,” says Somerset.
Engage Your Core
Involve your lower body by flexing your abs, glutes, and hamstrings as hard as you can, and keep your feet from kicking out in front of you. “Your arms can pull a lot harder if you’ve tensed your lower body and core sufficiently,” says Somerset. Doing so, he adds, “gives you a rigid lever for all of the muscles connecting your upper body to your core.”
Consider Your Shoulders
Get your shoulders as close to the bar as possible before rolling them over the top. “This will help you progress to something like a muscle-up,” i.e., transitioning your body from a pull-up to a dip in one smooth movement, says Somerset.
How to Build up to an Effective Set of Pull-ups
Love the Lat Pulldowns
The movement mimics the form of the classic pull-up, helping you build the muscle strength you’ll need to perform the movement correctly. Same goes for assisted pull-up machine.
Pull-up wise that is. Leap up and grab the pull-up bar so that your body is at the top of a traditional pull-up. Then, slowly lower yourself down with a controlled movement.
Mind Your Core
Yes, the pull-up is an upper body exercise, yes. But the movement requires a chain of events that engages your core muscles. And a strong core is essential for proper pull-ups. Some of the best core-training exercises for pull-ups are the ab wheel (it lengthens you and teaches you how to “hollow out”, as well as the hanging leg raise.
Practice with Chin-Ups
Chin-ups, that is the same move except you’re using an underhand grip, are easier to pull off because you have a stronger line of pull when engaging your biceps.
How To Pull Off A Pull-Up
In addition to strengthening your core and lats, here’s how Somerset says to go from zero to 10 pull-ups in three months.
Perform multiple sets of single pull-ups to accumulate 10 sets of 1 (for 10 reps total) over the course of a full workout. “Your progress comes down to repetition,” Somerset says. “If you’re walking down the street, do a single rep from the street light or from a construction scaffold. At the gym, do a single rep between each set of exercises. If you can do two, even better.”
Perform multiple sets of slightly less than your max reps. “Let’s say you can comfortably do si reps,” Somerset says. “Completing 10 sets of 3 reps will allow you to accumulate 30 total reps without fully maxing out any of the sets, except maybe for the last few.”
Accumulate the same volume of reps in fewer sets, decreasing reps if needed. “You could complete six reps per set over five sets, or perhaps eight, seven, six, five, four for a total of 30 reps, with some light overload on the first 2 sets,” Somerset says.
Get max reps on the first set of your workout when you’re fresh, following a light warm up. “If you’re able to hit ten, you’re golden, but if you fall short, the rest of the workout is 10 reps for every one you were short,” Somerset says. “If you managed nine, you have ten reps left in the workout. If you managed eight, you have 20. Follow the volume breakdown from month two and complete in as few sets as possible.”
Follow this routine and you’ll be able to regularly raise yourself above the bar — and have the back and arms to prove it.