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How to Do a Proper Pull-Up

pullups

Does it seem impossible for you to do one or two pull-ups, let alone perform this exercise for a whole minute? You're not alone. Pull-ups are one of the most basic and straightforward exercises, yet many would agree that they're far from the easiest. They're used in gym classes and even Army training as one of the ways to evaluate fitness, and for good reason. In order to perform pull-ups properly, you must have both mental and physical strength.

The good news is that with perseverance, practice and the right know-how, it's possible for you to perform this challenging exercise over time. Read on to find out more about the benefits of this workout, its types and the many ways you can perform it using different equipment.

What Is a Pull-Up?

A pull-up is a multijoint bodyweight exercise that targets major muscle groups in your upper body. As the name implies, this workout involves pulling your entire body up while you're hanging from a fixed bar using an overhand grip, and then lowering your body back.1

When pulling your body upward, the muscles in your arms and back contract concentrically, meaning they shorten as they act against the resisting force, which is your own body weight. During the descending phase, your muscles act eccentrically, making them lengthen while producing force.2 Since you're moving against gravity, a pull-up requires incredible upper body strength and trunk stability.

Pull-ups also fall under closed kinetic chain exercises, along with back squats and pushups. These are workouts wherein one part of the body involved in the exercise, usually the hands or feet, is fixed to something solid like the ground or a bar.3

Benefits of Pull-Ups

Since a pull-up works many muscles all at once, doing it regularly helps build muscle mass in your back, abdomen, shoulders, chest and arms, ultimately increasing your upper body strength. It also improves shoulder stability, which may be useful for activities like swimming, rock climbing and gymnastics.4

Pull-ups help improve your grip strength and core strength, as well as your functional movement, making you less prone to injuries and helping you maintain independence as you grow old. For more information about the benefits of pull-ups to your well-being, read my article "Why Pull-Ups Should Be a Part of Your Weekly Exercise."

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Chinup Versus Pull-Up: What's the Difference?

Chinups and pull-ups are often mistaken for each other, but these are actually two different exercises. The key difference between these two workouts lies in the position of the hands. Unlike pull-ups, which are done with the palms facing away from the body (also known as a pronated grip), chinups are done with the palms facing toward the body (also known as the supinated grip). This type of grip engages the biceps more, making chinups a lot easier to perform than pull-ups.5

How to Do Pull-Ups

While the basic pull-up is a straightforward exercise, learning how to do it properly can be a challenge. There are many things you need to consider such as your form, the level of difficulty you should start with and your workout area. Doing this exercise incorrectly won't do your body any good, so make sure you follow this step-by-step guide when doing regular pull-ups:6,7

1. Stand under the horizontal bar. Grasp the bar firmly with your palms facing away from you. Make sure that your arms are fully extended. The distance between your hands should also be slightly wider than your shoulders.

2. Hang freely under the bar. Keep your knees together and your legs slightly bent to avoid touching the ground during the routine. You can also cross one leg over the other to stabilize your lower extremity and spine, and to stiffen your abdominal muscles.

3. Slowly pull yourself upward and then pause momentarily.

4. Lower yourself to your starting position until your arms are fully extended overhead. Try to maintain your body's vertical alignment to the floor.

Remember that it's not necessary to get your chin over the horizontal bar. Repeat the steps mentioned above for as many as you can, but you don't have to stress about the number of pull-ups you can do.

correct pullups

Tips to Score the Perfect Pull-Up

If you're finding it hard to do a pull-up, don't give up just yet. Here are some tips to help you do the perfect pull-up:8

Keep your movements slow and controlled — Avoid pulling your body up and down too fast, as this will waste your energy. Keep tabs on your speed and try to perform every movement in a consistent, fluid manner.

Focus on your form — When pulling yourself up, try to keep your body from swinging to get momentum. You should also avoid tensing up too much, shrugging your shoulders or dropping your chin to your chest.

Practice proper breathing — Breathe out while you're pulling yourself up and then breathe in during your descent. Poor breathing can affect your athletic performance, so make sure you follow proper breathing during a pull-up routine.

Don't forget to warm up — Warming up is important, as it makes your muscles more pliable, which in turn helps prevent injuries and allows you to make the most out of your exercise.

Get a training partner — Having a training partner to keep an eye on your movements helps you perform pull-ups properly and safely.

How to Get Better at Pull-Ups

In addition to the tips mentioned above, there are many exercises that you can do to improve your pull-up strength, including:9,10

Negatives — Also known as half pull-ups, this exercise helps your arms get used to supporting your weight. It's performed by standing on an elevated surface or having someone push you to get your chin over the bar. Lower yourself as slowly as possible, all the way down until your arms are fully stretched. Hold this position for five seconds. Remember to keep your feet up.

Assisted pull-up — This helps you get used to the right movement pattern for executing a proper pull-up. It's also a great start for those who can't do pull-ups at all. You can perform this exercise using a pull-up band or an assisted pull-up machine, both of which will keep you supported as you pull yourself up on a horizontal bar.

Straight-arm pulldown — This exercise helps you build up your latissimus dorsi (lat) strength and trunk stability. You can use a cable machine with a lat pulldown bar attachment to execute this. Simply engage the lats and press the bar down to your thighs, while keeping your arms straight, your knees slightly bent and your hips hinged forward.

Other Exercises to Help With Pull-Ups

If you're still looking for other exercises to help you get better at pull-ups, then you should try adding these into your workout routine:11

Biceps curls — Hold two dumbbells level with your thighs, with your palms facing downward. Slowly lift them up until they're at shoulder-height, squeezing your biceps all the while. Be sure to extend your arms fully as you lower the dumbbells back down.12

Eccentric chinups — Starting from the ascended phase, with your palms facing upward, slowly lower yourself until your arms are fully extended, and then pull yourself back up until your chin goes above the bar.

What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work?

When performing a pull-up, you have to use a lot of muscles in your arms, back, chest and shoulders, which include:13,14

  • Middle and lower trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Pectoralis major and minor
  • Deltoids
  • Infraspinatus
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Teres major
  • Subscapularis
  • Biceps brachii
  • Brachialis
  • Brachioradialis
  • Flexor carpi radialis
  • Palmaris longus
  • Flexor digitorum profundus
  • Flexor digitorum superficialis
  • Flexor pollicis longus
  • External oblique
  • Erector spinae

Types and Variations of Pull-Ups

There are many different ways to perform pull-ups. Each type works on different kinds of muscles and varies in difficulty. Knowing which varieties are beneficial to include in your routine and which ones are not helps you make the most out of your workout and achieve balanced muscle development. Some of the most common pull-up types include:

Weighted Pull-Ups

Weighted pull-ups are done just like the regular pull-up, but with the addition of a weighted vest, belt or backpack. This type of pull-up helps improve your upper body strength. Performing a traditional pull-up will become easier for you after you've done a few sets of weighted pull-ups, since you'll feel lighter.15

Neutral Grip Pull-Up

Also known as the full-body pull-up (since it works multiple muscles in your upper body as well as your core), the neutral grip pull-up is one of the easiest pull-up types to do. It's performed on a bar with handles that are angled at 90 degrees. Here's how:16

1. Keep your arms slightly inside the span of your shoulders as you grasp the handles with a pronated grip.

2. Pull yourself up over the bar, making sure that your movement is slow and controlled.

3. Lower yourself back down until your arms are fully extended. Repeat the movements for as many as you can.

Wide Grip Pull-Up

Also considered the hardest type of pull-up because it puts more strain on the shoulders, the wide grip pull-up engages your trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles. This is not recommended for people who've had past shoulder injuries or pain. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to perform a wide grip pull-up:17

1. Grip the bar firmly with your palms facing outward. Keep your arms fully extended, knees bent and your feet behind you. Ideally, the distance between your hands should be wider than your shoulders.

2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and then slowly pull yourself up until your chest is only a few inches below the bar.

3. Pause for a moment before lowering yourself back to your starting position, and then repeat the movements.

wild grip pullup

Kipping Pull-Up

A kipping pull-up is similar to a regular pull-up, but it involves swinging your legs backward and forward to gain enough momentum to pull yourself up over the bar. This engages the muscles in your trunk and lower limbs. Kipping pull-up is usually performed during CrossFit training or when you have to crank out as many pull-ups as you can during a limited time.18 Here's how it's done:19

1. Lift yourself up on the bar using an overhand grip, and then pull your legs back so that your body creates a backward arc.

2. Swing your legs forward as you pull your body up to the bar. While swinging, make sure that your shoulders are in front of the bar, your chest is arched forward and your feet are behind the bar.

3. Push away from the bar and move your legs backward to get back to your starting position. Repeat the movements.

A word of caution: I do not recommend doing the kipping pull-up, as it may put too much strain on your shoulder joints and make you more prone to hyperextension of the lower back.20 So unless you've been taught proper body mechanics by a knowledgeable CrossFit trainer, I advise against doing this type of pull-up.

kipping pullup

Butterfly Pull-Up

The butterfly pull-up is almost similar to the kipping pull-up, since it also uses momentum to propel your body up to the bar. The only difference is that butterfly pull-ups are more intensive, and they involve continuous circular motion of the body instead of swinging during the descending phase. Compared to the regular pull-up, the butterfly pull-up has more movements that engage the entire body. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to do it:21,22

1. Jump up and grab the bar with an overhand grip, making sure that your hands are shoulder-width apart. Swing your feet backward, while keeping your core fully engaged and your body tight.

2. Kick your legs in front of you, toward the ground, while pulling your body up with your lats and arms.

3. As you descend to your starting position, kick your feet forward to start the next rep.

Warning: As with the kipping pull-up, the butterfly pull-up may also put excessive strain on your shoulders and back, so I do not recommend doing this exercise, especially if you're not being supervised by a professional trainer.

butterfly pullup

Chest-to-Bar Pull-Up

Unlike regular pull-ups, where you just have to get your chin above the bar, chest-to-bar pull-up involves pulling the body high enough for the chest to touch the bar. It requires greater pulling strength and engages more muscles in the upper body, therefore increasing muscular strength and growth. Here's the proper way to perform it:23

1. Jump up and hold the bar using an overhand grip. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart.

2. Slightly jut your chest forward then slowly pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar.

3. Lower yourself all the way down until your arms are fully extended. Repeat the movements for as many reps as you desire.

chest to bar pull upp

Pull-Ups Used in CrossFit Training

CrossFit workouts are focused on speed and efficiency — the more pull-ups you perform within a short period of time, the better. This is exactly why this workout routine is timed. Out of all pull-up variations, the types that work best for a timed routine are kipping and butterfly pull-ups, since they involve momentum, which propels your body up and helps you do more reps. Strict or regular pull-ups are still necessary for CrossFit training, though, as it helps build muscle and strength.24

Pushup/Pull-Up Workout Routine

To achieve well-rounded muscle development and avoid possible injuries, it's important that you pair pull-ups with other exercises. One of the best fundamental exercises that you can add into your routine is the pushup. You can combine different variations of pull-ups and pushups to get the best result. For instance, you can pair basic pull-ups with single-leg pushups. You can perform different kinds of pushup/pull-up workout routine every other day, squeezing in some lower body workouts in between.25,26

Pull-Up Alternatives

If you can't do pull-ups because you lack the required equipment, there are other workouts that you can do to target the same muscles that pull-ups work. Some great pull-up alternatives include:27,28

Renegade rows

1. Put a set of 10- or 20-pound dumbbells on the floor, and get into a pushup position over them, with the distance between your feet slightly wider than your hip width.

2. Put your hands on the weights and then bring one up to shoulder-height, with your elbows pointing toward the ceiling.

3. Put the dumbbells down and repeat the movement with the other side.

Lat squeezes

1. Hold a set of 3- or 5-pound dumbbells with your hand. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees and keep your tailbone tucked.

2. With your forearms parallel to the floor, bring your elbows toward each other as tightly as you can, keeping your upper arms close to your body.

Rhomboid pulls

1. While holding a set of 3- or 5-pound dumbbells, lift your arms to shoulder-height and bend them to form two right angles.

2. Move your elbows backward an inch and then forward an inch, maintaining the bend of your arms and drawing your shoulders down away from your ears.

Band pulldown

1. While holding the band with a supinated grip, stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and chest lifted.

2. Step back to put tension on the band, and then pull it with straight arms until it reaches your hips.

Snatch grip bar hold

1. Stand with your knees bent, then shift your hip back and keep your chest up.

2. Hold a squat bar with a pronated grip, making sure that the distance between your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

3. Pull the bar toward your hip crease. Engage your lats and draw your shoulder blades together.

Why You Should Invest in a Pull-Up Bar

A pull-up bar is one of the most fundamental pieces of fitness equipment that you can own. This tool is not just for pull-ups; it can also be used to perform other exercises, such as dead hangs, chinups and negatives. Before choosing a pull-up bar, there are many factors you have to consider, including the weight capacity of the bar and where you plan to install it.

Types of Pull-Up Bars

The right pull-up bar can be your best ally to improve your pull-up strength. Some of the types of pull-up bars you can choose from include:29

Doorway pull-up bar — This is the cheapest and most basic type of pull-up bar. You can easily attach this on your doorframe, and remove it whenever it's not in use.

Free-standing pull-up bar — This type of bar is perfect if you have more space to work with, as it can be set up inside your home or outdoors — no need to drill holes into your wall or ceiling. It also has a higher weight capacity than a doorway pull-up bar.

Wall-mounted pull-up bar — This type of pull-up bar provides better stability and safety than doorway bars. It's usually installed as a permanent fixture, so it's not portable unlike the aforementioned types.

If you don't want to buy a pull-up bar, you can opt to make one yourself. When making a homemade pull-up bar, make sure that you match its size and height with your workout space. You should also choose a bar that's strong enough to carry your weight and support vigorous movements.30

Pull-Up Bar Workouts

As mentioned above, pull-up bars are not just great for performing pull-ups. They can be used for the following exercises, too:31,32

Hanging knee raise

Hanging leg raise

Hanging reverse shoulder shrugs

Windshield wipers

Inverse ladder

Toes to bar

Other Pull-Up Equipment

Aside from pull-up bars, you can use the following equipment to perform a pull-up:33,34,35

Pull-up assist band — This is a large rubber band that you can wrap around a pull-up bar, with the other end wrapped on your knee or foot. It helps propel you up during the lifting phase of your workout.

Assisted pull-up machine — This machine helps take off some of your weight during a pull-up through the use of counterbalance weights.

Pull-up and dip station — This is basically a machine that has a pull-up bar and dip handles, allowing you to perform different workouts using just one equipment.

Should You Do Pull-Ups Every Day?

Pull-ups should not be done on a daily basis. Strength-training exercises like this can create small tears in your muscles, which make the muscles stronger and more defined as they heal. But if you do pull-ups every day, these tiny tears will not be able to heal, eventually leading to injuries. You should perform pull-ups for just three days a week, for around 20 minutes.36

If you're wondering how many pull-ups you should be able to do during these routines, you should consider your age, weight, height and fitness level. For reference, a male recruit in the Marines should be able to do at least three pull-ups, whereas 14-year-old boys in school may be able to do up to 10.37

Pull-Up Workout for Beginners

As a beginner, your goal should be to build as much pulling strength as you can through continuous training. For your first routine, try to perform as many as pull-ups as you can — take note of the number, as this now counts as your current personal record. On your next pull-up routine, take half of your personal record and try to do four times that number.

For instance, if your previous record is 10 reps, try to do four sets of five reps on your next pull-up day. Once you've increased your pull-up record, consider adding other pull-up types into your routine to improve your performance.38

Don't forget to perform other exercises that help increase pull-up strength such as the negatives, assisted pull-ups and straight-arm pulldowns. For the assisted pull-ups, you can use an assisted pull-up machine, a pull-up band or a chair.

Safety Tips to Keep in Mind When Doing a Pull-Up

Pull-ups are one of the most efficient ways to help improve your upper body strength, but you can only enjoy their benefits if they're done properly. If performed incorrectly, this beneficial workout can become a cause of injury.

Before you begin, talk with your doctor to determine if you're fit enough to do pull-ups, especially if you've had an injury on your shoulder. You should also double-check the sturdiness of your pull-up equipment before using them to make sure that it's safe. Avoid overworking your muscles, since this can cause injuries. In case you feel a sharp pain, muscle numbness or muscle spasms, stop working out and consult a physician.39

Have You Tried Doing Pull-Ups?

If you've been avoiding pull-ups because you feel like you won't be able to lift your entire body up while hanging on a bar, then it's time that you give it a try. This fundamental workout is proven to be one of the most effective bodyweight exercises. While you may find it hard to do at first, you'll eventually be able to crank out many pull-ups with continuous training and commitment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Pull-Ups

Q: Can women do pull-ups?

A: Although bodyweight exercises like pull-ups may be harder for women to do, it's still absolutely possible for women to perform this exercise, especially with ample practice and the right pull-up techniques.40

Q: Do pull-ups work the chest muscles?

A: Yes, pull-ups engage the muscles in your chest, particularly the pectoralis major and minor.41

Q: Do pull-ups work your abs?

A: Pull-ups work the muscles in your core, which includes your abs.42