Pull-Ups Guide: Techniques, Methods, and Tips

Pull-ups are a great basic exercise for developing the back musclesPull-ups are a great basic exercise for developing the back muscles

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Pull-ups for Total Beginners

If your goal is to do pull-ups properly, you need to learn the theoretical aspect and immediately proceed to practice. At first, it will be very difficult, but gradually your muscle strength will increase and you will be able to do a lot of pull-ups without feeling too exhausted.

Even if an athlete has well-developed chest and back muscles, shoulders and abdominals, he may not be able to complete more than 2–5 reps at the first attempt.

However, you should work out some muscle groups before you start mastering pull-ups, just to make the task easier. Push-ups are an excellent exercise to warm up your muscles.

Pull-ups give the athletes tremendous opportunities to improve their body shape, sculpt and define their muscles. Before you proceed to the improvement of your technique, you should increase the number of pull-ups you do.

In the future, an athlete will be able to do weighted pull-ups using extra weights or even master one-arm variation.

First of all, you need a pull-up bar. This sports equipment can be installed at home, and you will not have to go to the gym or stadium. The pull-up bar is installed in the doorway. But it is still preferable to work out outdoors.

Where to Start

Beginners should use a special technique called “negative repetitions”. This technique suggests that the athlete should get into a position as though he had already done a pull-up. So, place a chair under a pull-up bar and stand on it. Grip the bar and get into the top most position of a pull-up, with your arms flexed and your chin above the bar.

Now, begin to lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Once you reach the dead hang position with your arms fully extended, you need to get back on the chair and repeat the process from the very beginning. A beginner should perform “negative repetitions” until he learns to resist the gravity. However, you should not do more than 5–7 reps at first. After a little rest, you can proceed to the next set. Three sets would be enough.

If you cannot do a single pull-up, you should follow the experts’ advice to work with a partner who can hold your feet behind you and help you complete a rep. You can do it at an early stage, but you should not fully rely on your partner, and do most of the effort by yourself.

How Often Should You Exercise? How Many Repetitions Should You Do?

It is not necessary to work out every day, because your muscles need time to recover. You should have two or three workouts with pull-ups per week. If your muscles are too sore after exercise, you can rest for five to seven days.

If you can do 3–5 pull-ups, you should also incorporate “negative repetitions” into your workout routine. In total, you should do three sets, grabbing the pull-up bar with an overhand grip. In the first set, you need to do as many pull-ups as you can "to failure". In the second and third sets, you should perform “negative repetitions”. The number of such reps should be equal to the maximum number of pull-ups you can do. Avoid overtraining, because it does not lead to progress.

"Negative repetitions" are not needed for those who can do 7–8 pull-ups. Actually, fitness experts do not recommend performing more than 7–8 pull-ups. Doing 8 reps helps build strength. Higher reps are used to improve muscular endurance.

You should better perform 70% of the maximum number of pull-ups you can do. Gradually increase the number of sets to five. You can use various pull-up techniques.

Different Techniques

Reverse-grip pull-up (chin-up)Reverse-grip pull-up (chin-up)

Athletes usually use an overhand grip for pull-ups, but reverse, or underhand grip can be also used (the palms facing up). A mixed grip is an alternating grip – one of your hands is underhand while the other is overhand on the bar.

The L-sit pull-ups are an advanced pull-up variation that involves the abdominal and chest muscles. To do these pull-ups, you should lift your legs until they are parallel to the ground and perpendicular to your torso, and pull your body up to the bar while keeping your legs straight. If it is too difficult for you to perform this exercise, it means that you have poorly developed abdominal muscles, and they need to be strengthened.

Those who can do more than 15 pull-ups should try weighted pull-ups using additional weights. Pulling up with your own body weight only stops the progress at some level. There are several ways to add weight to your pull-ups: you can use a special weight belt or put on a backpack with something heavy inside (for example, 5–6 thick books). Some athletes even ask a partner to hang onto them during pull-ups.

The single-arm pull-ups are among the hardest exercises used by athletes. You can perform this pull-up variation only after you learn to do more than 20 standard pull-ups. This exercise is more dangerous because of the higher risk of tendon injury, so you need to be very careful.

You can start mastering the one-arm pull-up technique by holding the wrist of the arm that is gripping the bar, and using both to pull yourself up. Gradually, you should change the position of the non-working arm by placing it on your forearm, on your biceps, and finally on your shoulder. 3–4 reps are enough for this exercise. You should avoid any sudden movements when performing the exercise.

Which Muscles Work During Pull-Ups?

Different pull-up variations involve different muscle groups, depending on the grip used. However, in general, the exercise targets the chest and back muscles, arms and shoulders. Let’s consider the muscle groups involved during different kinds of pull-ups separately.

Overhand Grip Pull-Ups

This is the traditional variation of pull-ups used not only by athletes, but also by schoolchildren during physical education classes. The emphasis in the standard pull-ups is made on the back muscles and flexors of the forearm. Besides, the exercise works out the triceps, biceps, and shoulder muscles.

To perform this exercise properly, you need to grab the pull-up bar with an overhand (standard) grip, with your hands shoulder-width apart. You should hang from the bar with your back slightly arched and your legs crossed. Contract your shoulder blades and pull your body up until you touch the bar with your chest. Try to fully extend your arms as you reach the lowest position.

Find out how good you are at pull-ups:

Medium-Grip Chin-Ups

The reverse-grip pull-ups are a bit easier than the standard overhand pull-ups. Actually, beginner athletes should use a reverse grip. This is because beginners’ arm muscles are stronger than their shoulders, and the emphasis in the medium-grip chin-ups is placed on the biceps. The exercise also works the latissimus dorsi muscles.

To perform the exercise correctly, you need to grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing up, and your hands shoulder-width apart. You should slightly pull your shoulders back.

Wide-Grip to the Chest

Pull-ups with the wide-grip to the chestPull-ups with the wide-grip to the chest

This is probably the most beneficial, but the hardest pull-up variation. It is quite rare to see someone doing pull-ups with the wide-grip to the chest.

The emphasis is placed on the latissimus dorsi muscles (their upper part), on the paired teres muscles, and on the trapezius muscles.

To perform a pull-up with the wide-grip to the chest, you need to grab the pull-up bar with your hands placed as wide apart as possible. Put your thumbs above the bar.

Start to pull your body up to the bar until you touch it with your chest. Try to avoid using your biceps. Your back should be arched and you should look up toward the ceiling throughout the exercise.

Wide-Grip Behind-the-Neck

This is an extremely difficult variation of pull-ups. This exercise is definitely not suitable for beginners. A skilled athlete should properly warm up his shoulder joints before he performs the wide-grip behind-the-neck pull-ups.

This exercise targets the paired teres muscles, middle part of the latissimus dorsi muscles, and the trapezius muscles.

The width of the grip should be twice as wide as the shoulder width. Keep your legs as straight as possible. Do not arch your back during the exercise. Your elbows should point down to the floor. Tuck your head under the bar and pull your body up as smoothly as possible, without any sudden movements, until the back of your neck or shoulders touch the pull-up bar.

Close-Grip Overhand Pull-Ups

This kind of pull-ups is suitable for those who suffer from poor wrist mobility. The close-grip overhand pull-ups focus on the serratus, latissimus dorsi (lower part), and shoulder muscles.

To perform the exercise, you need to grab the pull-up bar with your hands placed close to one another and your thumbs touching each other. Arch your back and start to pull your body up, trying to touch the bar with your chest at the highest position. As well as in the previous pull-up variations, you should lower your body down until you fully extend your arms.

Close-Grip Underhand Pull-Ups

This exercise helps develop the latissimus dorsi muscles and biceps.

You should grab the pull-up bar with an underhand grip, placing your hands close together. While pulling yourself up to the bar, you should move your shoulders backward. The shoulder blades should contract together as you perform the exercise. At the top point of the movement, you should arch your back as much as possible and try to touch the bar with your chest muscles.

It is a well-known fact that sport requires regularity. This is the key to success. If you have started to master pull-ups, you should continue, despite the resistance of your body. Only this way, you can achieve positive results.

The Effect of the Grip and Hand Position on the Muscle Activity

Taking into account that pull-ups can be performed in different ways, there is a question about the difference in muscle activity while performing a particular pull-up variation. The pull-ups performed with the standard (overhand) grip, reverse (underhand) grip, and “perfect” grip (these are pull-ups using two 360 rotating handles) have been compared.

The experiment revealed the following aspects:

  • The comparison of the exercises performed with the standard and reverse grip, stated higher activation of the lower part of the trapezius muscle in the first case;
  • When the overhand-grip pull-ups and “perfect” pull-ups were compared, the larger activity was observed in the infraspinatus muscle in the first case;
  • The comparison of the “perfect” pull-up and reverse-grip pull-up showed that higher activity of the latissimus dorsi muscles was observed in the first variation;
  • The reverse grip puts greater stress on the chest muscles and the biceps brachii compared to the standard grip.

As for the effect of the wide and close grip on the muscle activity during the exercise, various studies did not reveal much difference between them. In the middle part of the trapezius muscle, biceps brachii, and latissimus dorsi muscles no changes were found when the exercise was performed with various grips. The changes in muscle activation in all studies were found only while changing the hand position with the simultaneous change of the grip width.

Common Mistakes

Each exercise should be performed correctly and methodically. If you do the exercise with a proper technique, you can definitely achieve good results. The proper technique is especially important for the newcomers in sports and for those who have never tried pull-ups. The table below lists the most common mistakes that not only prevent the athletes from achieving decent results, but also can seriously harm their health.

Mistake Proper Technique
During the exercise, you stretch your neck, trying to reach the pull-up bar with your chin, or try to tilt your head back. Your neck should remain fixed throughout the exercise, and also, you should make sure to keep your spine in its natural position.
Before you start doing a pull-up, you jump to grab the bar and swing your body. Do not use jumping or swinging to lift your body to the highest point of the movement.
Once you reach the highest point of the exercise, you quickly lower your body down in an uncontrolled motion. You should lower your body down slowly, while keeping your bodyweight distributed evenly over both arms.
Your spine is positioned unnaturally, you are slouching, or curling your shoulders forward. Your spine should always remain in its natural position.
When you reach the lowest point, you hang on your straight arms extending your shoulder joints. When your body is at the lowest point, you need to continue to hold the muscle tension.

Conclusion

Summarizing the above information, we can highlight the main points, for the sake of simplicity of understanding. They should be known by everyone who wants to perform pull-ups:

  • To make the task easier and speed up the process of mastering pull-ups, you should do a pre-warm up in the form of push-ups;
  • At the very beginning of working out, when your muscles are not prepared for stress yet, you should perform the exercises two or three times a week. If you feel severe muscle soreness after exercise, you should rest for 5–6 days to give your muscles time to recover;
  • It is recommended to start with a standard overhand grip and perform this variation of the exercise until you perform 8 reps. After that, you can proceed to more difficult techniques;
  • If your fitness level allows you to do more than 15 pull-ups, you should add extra weights. It can help your muscles develop further and get stronger;
  • If you fail to do a single pull-up, you can ask a partner for assistance. Your supporting partner should not do most of your work. It is important for you to apply your maximum effort.

Shesternenko Alexander
Fitness trainer, group instructor, dietitian
  • Counsels and educates on proper nutrition principles, body weight correction, and adjustment of individual diets and diets during pregnancy;
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  • Specializes in modern functional testing techniques in sports, athletic recovery, sports supplementation, pharmacological support, and actual women's problems in sports;
  • On the website, provides analysis of different dietary schemes, reviews modern training techniques and effective exercises.

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