Pull-ups are one of my favorite exercises and a critical movement we teach our coaching clients!
Today, we’ll teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about pull-ups:
It’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!
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What Are the Benefits of Doing Pull-Ups? What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work?
Pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do.
#1) Pull-ups work every muscle in your upper body. Pull-ups are what we call a “compound exercise,” meaning they work out several muscle groups at once.
The muscles in your back, arms, and even abs all grow stronger from doing pull-ups.
Yep! You engage your abs as you stabilize your body while hoisting yourself up.
#2) Pull-ups are a great indicator of overall strength. Since it’s just you against the force of gravity, if you can do a pull-up or chin-up, you have a greater strength-to-bodyweight ratio.
With push-ups, some of your body’s weight is supported by your feet.
Not so with pull-ups. It’s just you and the bar.
#3) Pull-ups will help you improve your posture.By building strength in your PULL muscles, we strengthen and tighten your back muscles.
This will naturally cause you to pull your shoulder blades back and down into proper position, providing you a better posture.
#4) Pull-ups improve grip strength. Grip strength is another indicator of overallhealth. In fact, a strong grip has been correlated with lower mortality rates.
Pull-ups are a great way to improve your grip since your hands and fingers have to support your body’s weight during the movement.
If you’re looking for a stronger handshake, regularly doing pull-ups will go a long way towards that goal.
Whatever allows you to get to at least 5 reps a set.
Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm), it’s time to pick up a heavier dumbbell.
This will allow you to get stronger and stronger.
When you can lift a 25-pound (10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next level.
Level 2 Pull-Up Workout: Inverted Bodyweight Rows
Bodyweight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups – they work the same muscles, and have you lifting your own bodyweight, just at a different angle.
Our goal here will be to work towards a lower and lower angle, increasing the difficulty of the movement.
So at first, we’ll do rows with the bar higher up:
Then we’ll progress to getting the bar lower:
As soon as you’re doing bodyweight rows where your body is at a 45-degree angle or lower, you can progress to the next level.
Level 3 Pull-Up Workout: Assisted Pull-Ups
At this point, you are going to start actually doing pull-ups…with a little bit of assistance.
We’ve got a few options for you.
#1) Assisted Pull-ups with Chair
Either one foot or two on the chair, depending on your needs. Your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.
#2) Assisted Pull-ups with an Exercise Band
You can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength, or a variety pack for easy progression.
Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.
#3) Assisted Pull-Ups with a Partner
Have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep. Have them use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.
Once you’re comfortable doing a form of assisted pull-ups, and can do about 10 repetitions, it’s time to advance to the next level.
This is probably the TOUGHEST level before getting your pull-ups. If you get stuck on “assisted pull-ups” and “assisted chin-ups”, you’re not alone. This is where most people get stuck.
We work hand-in-hand with people like you to get them their first pull-up in our Online Coaching Program. If you don’t know how to fit these movements into your workouts, or you just want somebody to give you the exact workout to follow every day, we got you!
Level 4 Pull-Up Workout: Negative Pull-Ups
Our next level on our path for a pull-up is what we call “negative pull-ups.”
Grab onto the bar with an overhand grip
Jump so your chest is touching
Slowly lower yourself under control until you’re at the bottom of the movement.
As you continue to lower yourself down, you’ll build strength, eventually creating enough muscle so you can pull yourself up.
If you want more specific instructions on any of these levels or movements, check out our guide “Get Your First Pull-up” for more.
Pull-Ups vs. Chin-Ups (What’s the Difference?)
You may hear the term “pull-up” and “chin-up” used interchangeably.
However, there is a difference, so definitions are in order:
A PULL-UP is when your hands are facing away from you.
This will work your back and biceps.
A CHIN-UP is when your hands are facing towards you.
Although this also works your back, it has more emphasis on your biceps.
Are chin-ups easier than pull-ups?
Yes, chin-ups are generally easier to perform than pull-ups. The wider grip of a pull-up isolates your lats, which means you get less assistance from your biceps.
Mistake #1: You don’t extend low enough or pull high enough.
Full extension and a full range of motion are major problems for many people training pull-ups and chin-ups. Most people I see in the gym are doing half pull-ups. Either not pulling high enough, not dropping low enough, or both! It’s not a full rep, and it’s robbing your body of effective work.
With each repetition you want your body to be in a straight line at the bottom – keep your elbows extended and your shoulder relaxed slightly up to your ears. Full range of motion for the win! Better to do a few proper pull-ups than more half-rep ones.
Mistake #2: You don’t engage your shoulders at the start. Another problem I see with people is not setting their shoulders properly when they start their pull-ups, which can put unnecessary strain on your joints/tendons/muscles. It can also be the difference between being able to get your first pull-up or chin-up and flailing around on the bar!
Imagine pinching a pen in between your shoulder blades, then do the pull-up. In other words, pull your shoulders down and back before you bend your elbows to pull up. This puts us in a far more efficient position. By not using our back and shoulder muscles fully, over the long run we’ll be weaker and at a higher risk for injury.
Mistake #3: You’re doing too hard a variation. Whether it’s lack of strength or too much body mass, you should choose a variation that allows you to have great form while getting stronger. Use a box, an assisted band, or an assisted pull-up machine to start at a low weight and build up your strength.
Solution: Always do proper pull-ups and chin-ups. Get your chin over the bar from a hang with every rep, and maintain good form. If you find yourself committing the mistakes on this list, make your variation easier.
Mistake #4: Not engaging your shoulders at the top. Many people will get a good extension at the bottom of their chin-up and start with great form. But then as they perform the movement, they’ll find their shoulders in a poor position at the top.
A classic sign this is happening is if the chest/neck doesn’t touch the bar, or the body curls inward significantly at the top.
Is your shoulder elevated to the ears or rolled forward? Are you shrugging your shoulders as you’re struggling to get above the bar?
Solution: Make your variation easier by working on an assisted chin-up and maintaining a strong shoulder position at the top.
Keep your shoulders down and back and engaged through the movement.
A chin over the bar is a chin-up – we aren’t trying to take away your chin-up if you aren’t getting your chest to the bar. But consider this a progression to even better form so you can eventually work on harder skills like pull-up variations or the legendary muscle-up.
Mistake #5: You use violent kipping motions to do your pull-ups or chin-ups. We know CrossFitters use the kip to get more pull-ups in a short amount of time.
NOW, it is the humble opinion of our team that you should only be kipping AFTER you are capable of doing perfectly functional and safe pull-ups and chin-ups (in fact, many CrossFit gyms require qualifying strict pull-ups before you can kip).
Solution: Build strength and good position (the foundation!) before you worry about speed. You want to know how to drive a car before you learn how to race it!
In summary, don’t sacrifice good form for more pull-ups or chin-ups. You’ll create bad habits this way.
To check your form, simply record a video of yourself doing your pull-up variation and match it against the gifs and videos here.
If you want an expert to review your form, we can help! Through our spiffy app a Nerd Fitness Coach can evaluate your movement so you can perfect your technique!
Advanced Pull-Up Variations
Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups or chin-ups, it’s time to start thinking about upping the difficulty.
You have two options:
OPTION #1: Continue to get better at doing more reps – 3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15, 4 sets of 20, etc.
OPTION #2: Start doing other types of pull-ups.
Here are some advanced pull-up variations that you can start doing:
#1) Wide Grip Pull-Ups:
Grab the bar WAY out with both hands. With your grip further out, it’ll require even MORE strengthen from your back (remember our pull-up vs. chin-up discussion).
#2) Side to Side Pull-Ups:
#3) Ring Pull-Ups
Rings hanging from the ceiling are inherently less stable than a pull-up bar. Thus ring pull-ups engage your core more as you stabilize yourself during the movement.
If you’re trying to improve your grip strength, try utilizing a couple of towels for your pull-ups. You’ll build lots of strength in your hands as you grasp the towels during the movement.
#5) L-Sit Pull-ups
Raise your legs straight in front during your pull-up. This will challenge your core like you wouldn’t believe.
#6) Clapping Pull-Up
The trick here is to have enough power to explode above the bar so you can clap your hands. The next trick is to grab the bar in time to bring yourself back down.
Be careful here.
#7) One-Arm Pull-Ups
This is the most difficult pull-up variation you can do, what with the whole only using one arm business.
To keep yourself stable during the movement, keep your inactive arm close to your body while you pull.
If you start doing one-arm pull-ups, email us. Seriously.
That should get you started experimenting with pull-up variations to increase the difficulty.
The other way to “progressive overload” your pull-ups is to add weight to the exercise, which we’ll devote our next section to.
How to Do Weighted Pull-Ups
Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted pull-ups:
If you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:
Get a weight belt. I bought this one on Amazon and it’s worked out incredibly well for me. I’ve tried doing the whole “put weights in a backpack” thing, and it certainly works. But the angle of the weights hanging off your back is weird. With a weight belt, the weight hangs down between your legs (not a euphemism) so it feels more natural.
Add small amounts at a time. Most gyms will have 2.5 lb (roughly 1kg) weights; you might feel stupid putting on a big weight belt and only hanging a tiny weight off it, but you need to start somewhere.
Consistently add more weight. I’ll warm up with two sets of 5 pull-ups with no extra weight, and then do 3 sets of 5 weighted pull-ups. If I can complete all 3 sets of 5 reps (with my chin over the bar for every rep), I’ll make a note to add 2.5 or 5lbs (1 or 2kg) to my weight belt for the next time.
If you want any help scaling your workouts, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program. We’ll create you a plan that escalates in difficulty as you grow stronger! You’ll never have to worry about what exercises to do or how much. Instead, just follow the workout prescribed by your coach!
Including Pull-Ups in Your Workout
You now know how to do a pull-up, a chin-up, and tons of variations.
The only thing left to cover is WHEN to do pull-ups.