***this article addresses pull ups, but there’s no reason it can’t be used for chin ups too (elbows forward, palms neutral or supine)***
The pull-up is one of the hallmarks of physical fitness, hauling your body up through space with nothing but your arms and grim determination, yet it remains elusive to even the most dedicated fitness freaks.
I’ve seen plenty people jump on the lat pulldown machine, and hoist their bodyweight in cold iron, but still can’t get their chin above the bar. On the flip side, there are people who struggle on the machines, but can happily spend the day repping out pull ups.
Why? Is there some pull up gene?
Nope, just those who train specifically, and those who don’t.
Think about the leg press and the squat - we all know someone who can leg press a tonne, but can’t squat a tin of beans. Initially we’d think the two should be linked - both require and build strong legs, that move through a similar motion (bend at the knees/hips, and extend against resistance), but we quickly find that this isn’t the case.
In reality, because the squat is a free weight exercise and the leg press is a fixed weight/pattern (machine), they are actually quite different. Being a free weight exercise, the squat requires a greater number of parts and muscles to work together to move even a light weight while remaining balanced, whereas the leg press just requires you stick your feet up and push - no balance or multiple muscle coordination required.
This is why training solely on the leg press has a poor carryover to the squat - while it has some good qualities, it’s just not specific enough to the demands of the squat movement.
This is the same when it comes to the pull-up and lat pulldown machine - while the arms and back are important for getting our chin over the bar, they need to coordinate with the other muscles involved in pulling off the perfect pull-up.
How do we work these muscles and practice coordinating them effectively? By using exercises that are more SPECIFIC to the demands of the goal.
We won’t learn Spanish by taking Chinese lessons.
Breaking it down, the pull-up is us going from a dead hang (holding on with our hands), pulling our elbows toward our hips while keep our body tight, until our chin is over the bar (or your chest touches the bar if you’re super hardcore). So what we need are exercises that have us holding onto the bar (carrying our full bodyweight), keeping our bodies tight while in the air (no support from the chair or some knee rest), and getting stronger throughout the pull-up movement (both full range and partial range to build strength in weak areas).
By utilising such exercises, we are sure to work all the muscles involved in the pull-up, and teach them to work together for maximum efficiency to make the bar our b*tch.
Before we leap into the exercise pool, we should also consider the other two secret ingredients - FREQUENCY and PROGRESSION.
(FREQUENCY) The pull-up is a skill, just like any other movement, so the more we practice the parts and whole movement, the quicker we’ll be able to master the move. Ideally, we’d be able to practice multiple times a week (3-4 pull-up workouts a week for best results), but if we can only manage once or twice it’s not the end of the world - it’ll just take longer to master.
(PROGRESSION) Always be aiming to do more than the previous week - whether it’s a harder movement (e.g. paused negatives instead of negatives), more total reps, or more sets. This is the only way to tell our body it needs to grow or become more coordinated, by challenging it to do so! It goes without saying that we can’t just go through the motions or take it easy - this will get us nowhere - we must be working hard and pushing ourselves each set for change to happen.
So without further ado, let’s get to work.
I’ve noted these down in a progressively difficult order, so you have a few options of where to go once you’ve mastered each one. This doesn’t mean you should only focus on one exercise at a time - by including a variety of easier/more difficult exercises into your training you will reap the benefits of each movement - just make sure you’re challenging yourself and making PROGRESS!
- Dead Hangs
Just hold onto the bar with arms extended, lift your feet off the floor and hand for as long as you can. This primarily works your grip - we won’t be able to do any pull-ups if we can’t hold onto the bar long enough to complete the movement - but if we pull our shoulders down and squeeze our scapula (shoulder blades) together, this also gives us time in a solid braced position. This braced position is better for achieving a pull-up, as our back muscles are already slightly contracted which is a stronger position to pull from (compared to fully extended and loose).
- Bodyweight Rows
Can be done with a bar in the rack or using TRX ropes/gymnastic rings, the movement is the same. Set the bar or ropes to a position that you can hold onto, lean back keeping your body tight and shoulder blades squeezed together, and pull yourself up to the bar/handles. Imagine holding a plank, with just your arms moving. The closer you are to the floor the harder this will be, but don’t feel you need to jump in at the deep end - as long as you’re leaning back somewhat (not just swaying while standing) and the reps are challenging, this is the exercise working. Just remember to progress as able - increasing either reps, sets or the angle that you’re leaning. These work the back and arms, but the focus on keeping your body rigid also gets us time in a strong braced position, working some of the smaller muscles needed for a successful pull-up.
Jump up or use a box to get into the top/end position of a pull-up (chin over bar), then lower yourself slowly to the bottom movement. Aim to lower yourself over 4-5 seconds, but if you can go slower this will work the muscles for longer. By lowering ourselves in a slow and controlled manner, we can work the specific muscles used for our pull-up with an eccentric contraction. The eccentric (lengthening) muscle contraction is able to handle more resistance than a concentric (shortening) muscle contraction, so despite not being able to do a full pull-up (yet) we can still work the movement in a super specific way for excellent carry over.
- Paused Negatives
These are performed like negatives, but about halfway down you pause and hold your position for 1-3 seconds. This adds a little extra challenge for the pull-up muscles to handle, stimulating them to get stronger in this position.
- Jumping Pull-Ups
Here we’re using our legs for a boost into a pull up, jumping up grabbing the bar and using some of the momentum to complete the movement. It can be hard to gauge how much power you’re using in the jump, but with some experimenting you’ll soon get a feel for how much jump you need to get the reps in - jump up from a box/step if necessary.
- Partial ROM Pull-Ups
Here we use a box or something else solid to stand on, at a height that lets us perform the top part of the pull up. Depending on how far along you are, this will vary from 75% of the full movement to just the top few inches of the movement. Try to perform without any jumping momentum, so the partial pull is done using pure pull-up muscles. Make a note (mental or physical) of what height you’re at/what sort of angle your elbows are at from the start of the partial movement, and try to increase the distance a little each week. If you’re limited by box heights, use the same box and start from a slight squat position to increase the distance you’re pulling up.
- Assisted Pull-Ups
For these we move through the full pull up range of motion, but we have some assistance to do so. This could be a resistance band wrapped around the bar and our foot, a box/step that we can place our foot on and help push us through the movement, or a person to spot us. The emphasis should be on our arms/back doing the majority of the work with the band/leg/person only helping a little - this is not a leg exercise. By moving through the full range of motion we’re able to get our body used to the forces (albeit, slightly less) and angles required for the full pull-up. By building up reps and relying less and less on the assistance, we move closer to a full, unassisted pull-up.
3 EXAMPLE WORKOUTS
As we’re building strength the optimal rest between all sets is 2-5 mins, but shorter rest times are acceptable if you’re in a rush.
Example 1. Hanging On
Dead hangs - 3 sets of 1 rep (hold as long as possible)
Bodyweight Rows - 3 sets of as many reps as possible
Negatives - 2 sets of 3 reps (aim for 4 second descent)
Example 2. Jump Start
Negatives - 4 sets of 3 reps (aim for 5 second descent)
Bodyweight Rows - 5 sets of as many reps as possible
Jumping Pull-Ups - 4 sets of 1 rep
Partial ROM Pull-Ups - 4 sets of 2 reps
Example 3. Gettin’ Close
Dead Hangs - 5 sets of 1 rep (hold as long as possible)
Paused Negatives - 5 sets of 1 rep (pause for 3 seconds)
Bodyweight Rows - 5 sets of as many reps as possible
Jumping Pull-Ups - 5 sets of 1 rep
Partial ROM Pull-Ups - 5 sets of 2 reps
Assisted Pull-Ups - 3 sets of 1 rep
***These are a good place to begin, but by no means the only options - as pull-ups are a bodyweight exercise everyone will be at slightly different levels from the start - so feel free to experiment and adapt the exercises and reps to find what works best for you. Just be sure to progress the workouts (more sets, reps, time or trying harder exercises) to keep moving forward and nail the pull up like a champ.***