The pull up is a movement that many people strive to achieve at least one. It takes a great deal of strength and confidence to perform making it a perfect exercise to spotlight in our blog series. The pull up is a fantastic exercise for increasing upper body strength and is very intense on the core as well.

In pull ups, the arms are pulled downwards and into the midline of the body. In chins ups, the arms are pulled downwards and backwards a movement called shoulder flexion. Both adduction and flexion are the role of the latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) which are located on the sides of your back. Other major muscles involved in the pull ups are the rhomboids, posterior deltoid and biceps.

Now you’re probably wondering what is the difference between a pull up and a chin up? Well that answer lies in how the position of your hand affects the function of your elbows. In an overhand grip, also known as a pronated grip, palms facing away from you; your biceps are in a mechanically disadvantageous position. Conversely, when your hands are in a supinated grip, palms facing towards you; your biceps can generate more force. This simply means that pull ups are harder than chin ups.

One other way to hold your grip at the bar is neutral grip position, palms facing one another. This one is my favorite way to perform a pull up as it is the friendliest version on the wrist, elbows and shoulders.

To perform this exercise:

  • Grip the bar in the hand position of your choosing. Have your ribs back and down and create whole body tension. Initiate the movement by pulling your lats back and down by thinking of pulling your shoulder blades into your back pocket as you pull your sternum towards the bar.
  • Reverse the motion so that your arms are completely straight.
  • Repeat for the desired rep count.

Now some of you might be thinking I’m defiantly not ready to do a full pull up just yet and have no fear, there are ways to get you there. The following are two regressions to pull ups:

The Kneeling Chin Up

 Is a great regression to a regular chin up because it allows you to give yourself a little bit of support but only as much support as you need. I like it for people working towards their first chin up or maybe someone who can only perform a few chin ups right now but want to be able to add more volume with the movement.

To perform this exercise:

  • Start in a tall kneeling position with a suspension training system, a TRX for example.
  • Kneel with your toes tucked underneath you. You should be able to sit down and still be able to reach the handles of the suspension system.
  • With your core braced and rib cage down initiate the movement with your arms not your lower body and pull yourself up. Make the movement as challenging as possible and only use your legs for as much support as you need.
  • Perform the pulling motion by pulling your shoulder blades back and down. Pull with your lats and keep your elbows by your body.

The Band Assisted Pull Up

Is another great regression to the pull up. The band gives you more assistance at the bottom of the pull up and less assistance as you get closer to the top of the bar.

To perform this exercise:

  • Start by grabbing the band and looping it at your knee. You also have the option of looping it at the foot which gives you even more assistance if you’re not quite ready for the knees just yet.
  • Grip the bar, ribs down, create tension in the whole body and initiate the movement with your lats, pull shoulder blades back and down while you pull your sternum towards the bar.
  • Reverse the motion so that your arms are almost completely straight.

At MPC, we use the power of Keiser to mimic the band assisted pull up. Using air pressure, we help assist clients to achieve pull ups. The air acts like the band but can be more accurately tracked regarding how the client is progressing. The more air pressure being utilized the more assistance it gives a client.

    Many people thrive to be able to achieve this difficult bodyweight exercise. The most common problems with pull ups can include:

  • Eye Position – looking at the bar cause you to move further away from the bar.
  • Start of pull – lack of lat engagement when initiating the pull.
  • Middle of pull – lack of strength and full body tension
  • Finish of pull – lack of strength and elbow drive.

The main factor when working towards achieving pull ups is to practice vertical pulling. Many people believe they can’t do a pull up so never actually try. If you want to do pull ups you must practice them, often! Depending on what your goal is will depend on how you should program your pull ups in your plans. If you can do one or two without any assistance but your goal is for muscular endurance add assistance either with a band or using a Keiser system and aim for 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions. If your goal is for maximal strength, hypertrophy, aim to complete 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions. If you can complete 6-8 repetitions without much effort try adding a weight vest or dumbbell at your feet as a progression for the pull up.

As stated previously some people’s main goal is to be able to achieve one pull up but feel their limiting factor is strength. Try incorporating more vertical pulling on days you don’t practice your pull ups. An example of this could be a Seated Lat Pulldown. The key factor is working in the same vertical plane that mimics the pull up. If you feel your limiting factor is grip strength try adding farmer’s walk in your training plan as well.

Pull ups are challenging, without question. But try to remember you can’t achieve them if you don’t actually practice them!

Author: Megan Cook