How To Master The Pull-Up – One Of The Toughest Bodyweight Moves There Is

You probably don’t need us to tell you that the pull-up is just about the toughest bodyweight exercise there is. If you’ve ever attempted to knock out a set in the gym, or just pull yourself up over a wall out in the real world, you’ll know the demands it places on your back, shoulder and arm muscles.

In the back it’s the lats, traps and rhomboids that bear the brunt of the effort, while you can challenge different parts of your arms by changing your grip (which you’ll learn all about below). The move also improves your core strength, and it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to leave your entire upper body quivering with fatigue when training at home because a doorframe pull-up bar is the only equipment you need.

Alongside form guides for pull-ups and many variations on the exercise, you’ll also find a series of moves that help you build up the strength to execute a full pull-up, because if you’re not able to do more than a couple at a time you’re better off starting with something like assisted pull-ups or dead hangs. There are also form tips to help you pull off the perfect pull-up below, plus a few pull-up challenges you can try once you are adept at the exercise. Enjoy.

Why is the pull-up important?

“It’s the ultimate test of upper-body muscular strength and one of the very few bodyweight moves that works your back and biceps,” says former Royal Marines PTI Sean Lerwill. “A lot of guys get fixated on their bench press best, but I think your total pull-ups effort is a far better indicator of a strong, stable and functionally fit upper body that has real-world performance capability.”

How many should I be able to do?

The Potential Royal Marine Course (PMRC) requires you to do three full pull-ups to stay on the course, while 16 gives a maximum point score. “A guy in good shape should be able to do about six perfect-form pull-ups at a slow and controlled tempo, with an aim of getting to 12 reps,” says Lerwill. “Once you get to that point you should make them harder by holding a dumbbell between your ankles or wearing a belt with weight plates attached.”

What do I do if I can’t do any?

“The best way to build pull-up power is by doing wide-grip lat pull-downs, both heavy-weight sets and high-rep sets,” says Lerwill. “Eccentric pull-ups – where you ‘jump’ to the top position and lower back down very slowly – are also very good training drills.”

How To Do A Perfect Pull-Up

  1. Leap up and grip the bar with your hands shoulder width apart and your palms facing away from you. Hang with your arms fully extended, you can bend your legs at the knee if they’re dragging on the ground.
  2. Keep your shoulders back and your core engaged throughout. Then pull up. Focus on enlisting every upper body muscle to aid your upward endeavours.
  3. Move slowly upward until your chin is above the bar, then equally slowly downward until your arms are extended again.
  4. Aim for 10 pull-ups, but be prepared to fall short.

Do not be daunted if the idea of smashing out 10 pull-ups seems laughable right now, there are plenty of ways to build up to even your first full pull-up. Start by getting used to your own bodyweight by holding a dead hang for as long as possible without even bothering to try and pull yourself up.

You can also prep for pull-ups by strengthening your back muscles. Exercises like bent over dumbbell rows and inverted bodyweight rows will help. Many gyms will also have assisted pull-up machines, where you kneel on a platform that will give a certain amount of help in raising you up depending on what weight you set it at. You can also put your foot or knee in a large looped resistance band attached to the bar if you don’t have access to an assitance machine. 

Pull-Up Assistance Lifts

Try these supportive machine moves to power up your pull-up prowess.

Lat pull-down

This machine move most closely replicates the muscle actions required to do pull-ups. The wider your hands on the bar, the more you isolate your lats, making each rep harder.

Cable face pull

This works wonders for your pull-up ability by not only improving your hunched-over posture from too much sitting but also making you learn how to retract your shoulder blades properly, which is key to perfect pull-up form. Do three light sets of 15 after your back or shoulders session.

Negative pull-up

Make a positive effort to up your pull-up max with negative reps. Your muscles are stronger when lowering a weight than lifting it so at the end of a set, jump to the top, then lower as slowly as possible. Keep going until you can no longer control your descent.

Pull-Up Form Tips

Recruit the glutes

It’s tempting to think of the pull-up as an upper-body move and relax everything below the waist. But squeezing your glutes before you pull up will help you recruit as many muscle fibres as possible.

Use the full range

Using a full range of motion engages more muscle fibres and works them harder. Hang from the bar with both hands so your arms are fully straight. This is the start and finish position. Keep the full-range reps slow and smooth to reduce joint stress.

Get tight at the start

Bracing your body will engage your big and small stabilising muscles, making it easier to manage your weight. Keep your chest up and abs and glutes engaged. Initiate the move by retracting your shoulders, then drive your elbows down to pull yourself up.

Squeeze at the top

Once your chin is higher than your hands, squeezing your working muscles will recruit even more muscle fibres for greater strength and performance gains. Pause for one second at the top to squeeze your muscles, then lower back to the start.

Mix your grip

“Vary between wide, narrow and hammer grip hand positions to recruit more muscle fibres and correct any weaknesses for greater overall strength,” says trainer Andy Watson (@functionalfitnesstraining).

Break them down

“Remove momentum to target all three phases of the lift,” says Watson. “Pull your chest to the bar, pause for three seconds, lower halfway, pause, then lower to the bottom and repeat.”

Hang tough

“If your grip goes, you go. Get used to hanging from the bar with extra weight until failure. Then raising your own bodyweight when doing pull-ups will feel easy.”

Different Pull-Up Grips

Overhand grip

An overhand grip pull-up is the hardest to do, because it places more of the workload on your lats. The wider your grip, the less help your lats get from other muscles, making a rep harder.

Underhand grip

This grip turns a pull-up into a chin-up, and places more emphasis on your biceps, which makes it more of an arms move than a back one. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart.

Neutral grip

A neutral or palms-facing grip is your strongest hand position because it distributes the workload between multiple muscles. Use it initially to start building strength, or even as your final grip for a drop set.

Pull-Up Challenges

When you become a relative pull-up pro, test your mettle with these challenges.

Russian Special Forces Challenge

This test stems from the entrance exam undertaken by new recruits to the Russian Special Forces. It’s not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to perform 18 complete pull-ups without sacrificing form or technique. If that doesn’t sound tough enough, you’ll have a 10kg weight attached to your body – either in the form of a kettlebell, plate or weighted vest.

Dead Hang Challenge

Select a weight with which you can perform 15 comfortable pull-ups. That may be your bodyweight alone, or you may be able to add 5-10kg via a weighted vest or dipping belt. Your challenge is to hang at the bottom portion of the lift for 1-2min (depending on fitness level). It’s not as easy as it sounds, and to make it tougher, retract your shoulder blades as if you were about to perform an actual pull-up – and hold that position. This is extremely useful for those looking to quickly gain strength on the pull-up.

The 10 Set Press-Up / Pull-Up Combo

Five pull-ups, straight into ten press-ups. No rest in between. Ten sets. Ideally perform this at the end of your session for a strength and endurance test. It’s a favourite of Combined Strength coach Andy MacKenzie (@ironmacfitness), and while appearing relatively simple at first glance, will lead to a lung-busting finish.

The Arched Back Pull-Up

“The pull-up is the key lift for upper-body strength, and I prefer the arched-back pull-up to maximise back muscle size and strength,” says Viktor Genov (pictured), a personal trainer at Fitness First Tottenham Court Road. “Arched-back pull-ups are more difficult than conventional pull-ups and that’s why most people don’t do them, but it is one of the very best ways to work to the lats, lower traps and forearms, and also recruits the middle traps, rhomboids and erector spinae muscles. Your lower back, glutes and hamstrings should also be engaged to keep your lower body from swinging back and forth.

“The ideal hand position for pull-ups is to have your hands grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. This position will ensure optimal engagement of the lats, whereas taking your hands too wide will put too much pressure on your shoulders and going too narrow will restrict your range of motion.

“In the bottom hanging position, push your shoulders forwards and ensure they are externally rotated. This is very important to keep the shoulder joint stable and the ball of the joint secure in its socket. Starting a rep with your shoulders in a position of weakness can increase the risk of injury and dislocation.

“You want to start by depressing and retracting your scapula, which happens when you pull your shoulder blades down and together. Squeeze your lats, then initiate the move by pulling from your elbows and keep them close to your torso so they don’t flare out to the sides.

“You want to raise your chest up to touch the bar for the fullest range of movement – simply raising your chin to bar level or just over the bar won’t achieve the fullest range. Going to this top position will also improve the development of the connective tissues around the shoulder joint and increase muscular engagement across your entire back.

You can start with band-assisted reps to build up strength, and then introduce additional weight when you need to. “Add weight when the reps you can do no longer fit your training goal,” Genov says. “So if you can do 15 reps but want to train for muscle so you need to be in that eight-to-12 rep range, can add extra resistance to stay in that hypertrophy range.”

Targets:

  • Beginner Up to 5 band-assisted reps at a 3120 tempo
  • Intermediate Up to 5 reps at a 3110 tempo
  • Advanced 10+ reps at a 2110 tempo
  • Viktor Genov’s PB 18

More Pull-Up Variations

We’ve put together 11 variations plus the classic pull-up – from the first-time negative pull-up to the ultra-difficult towel grip pull-up – to help progress your pull-up game. Once you can do a set of six to eight reps, move up the scale – adding an extra pull-up each week is a good rule of thumb.

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