The pull-up is one of the most coveted upper body exercises by beginners. Even experienced lifters itch to get that perfect form.
Not only does the pull-up look extremely cool, but it also gives lifters an impressive back muscle sculpture. In essence, pull-ups are an upper-body movement that works with your own body weight. You could incorporate it into a split-back day or circuit training workouts.
Aside from breaking down the whole pull-up process into simplified steps, you will also know more about pull-up benefits, muscles worked, and variations. We also got some pull-up alternatives lined up for you in case you are not yet ready for strict pull-ups.
This Ultimate Guide Will Cover:
- How To Do A Pull-Up
- 5 Benefits of Pull-Ups
- Common Pull-Up Mistakes To Avoid
- Pull-up Muscles Worked
- Pull-up vs Chin Up
- Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, & Programs
- Pull-up Variations
- Pull-up Alternative Exercises
- Wrap Up
- FAQs About Pull-up
How To Do A Pull-Up
What You’ll Need:
- Bar: Any sturdy bar taller than you can pass as a Pull-Up Bar. In a commercial gym, you can find them in squat bars or power cages.
- Power Tower: It is an all-in-one equipment that not only allows you to perform perfect pull-up but a full-body workout.
- Freestanding bar: This type of bar is designed specifically for pull-ups and its many variations. This is a good alternative to a complete power cage if pull-ups will be one of the main exercises in your program.
- Monkey bars: You can conveniently find them in play parks or outdoor recreational spaces.
- Doorway bar: You can purchase a cheap doorway bar to be attached in between your door panels for convenient at-home pull-ups.
- Towel around a strong beam: You will find this exercise under pull-up variations, which we will tackle in a later section.
- Sturdy tree branch: If your neighborhood is rich in huge trees, you could take this as an opportunity to work on your pull-ups with no equipment at all. Just make sure that it can carry your own body weight to avoid injuries.
- Weight belt or a Weighted Vest – Optional, but if you want to challenge your performance, you can start adding weights as it gets easier.
Step 1: Grip The Bar Shoulder-Width
With your hands facing forward (overhand grip), grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. You could either perform a dead hang with your feet hanging and your full body in a hollow hold position, or your knees bent with your ankles crossed at the back. Inhale at the bottom before pulling.
Step 2: Pull Yourself Up
Exhale as you ascend. Aim for your chin to be above the bar. Remember to recruit your glutes, along with your lats, shoulder blades, spine, and lower traps. Keep your eyes forward and your head neutral in place the entire time.
Step 3: Pause At The Top
When you reach the top of the bar, fully bend your elbows and squeeze your working muscles for more strength and performance gains. Pause for at least one second at the top before going down the bar slowly.
Step 4: Control Lowering Your Upper Body
Inhale as you descend. Control the eccentric phase of the movement by going down slowly. Resist the urge to let go or jump to the ground after every repetition. Instead, aim to perform the targeted reps and sets according to your program for a proper progression.
5 Benefits Of Pull-Ups
1. Full Body Workout
Pull-ups recruit multiple muscles simultaneously, specifically the back, arms, and core. A compound movement is always considered time-efficient, especially when you are hitting an RPE between 7 and 10. Along with having an efficient exercise under your belt, you also get to work on your full-body coordination.
2. Excellent Strength Indicator
Doing pull-ups is not the ONLY indicator of one’s strength, but being able to perform them flawlessly is definitely one way to tell that you can work against the power of gravity using your own weight. This indicates a greater strength-to-body ratio and incorporates more engagement from the stabilizing muscles compared with training on machines alone.
3. Improves Posture
Together with strengthening and tightening the back muscles, pull-ups recruit greater spine retraction, which straightens the spine and improves the body’s ability to heal itself. In a practical sense, you will walk taller, look taller, and have a better gait about you.
4. Better Grip Strength
Pulling up your own weight is not an easy feat, especially when your body mass is greater than your upper body strength. Over time, this results in better grip strength. Good to know, a stronger grip often equates to lower mortality rates and better assists with your back during the actual pulling motion. So if you want to live longer, better start on those pull-ups.
5. Carryover To Other Lifts
All working muscles involved in pull-ups are major muscles worked in other compound exercises, such as squats and deadlifts. In addition, you gain greater core strength, muscle definition, and overall strength for weighted exercises.
Common Pull-Up Mistakes to Avoid
No Control of the Movement
Rushing the motion not only cuts your range by half or even a quarter but jeopardizes your form quickly, causing you to fatigue faster than usual. The whole movement should be performed in a slow and controlled manner with more emphasis on your lats rather than your biceps.
Grip Too Wide
While wide-grip pull-ups are a proper variation to this exercise, it is not recommended for pull-up beginners or novice lifters. Doing so prevents a full range of motion and may cause injury to some muscles or joints like your shoulders or elbows. Instead, position your palms facing forward with your grip shoulder-width apart, and shoulder blades retracted properly, and bring your chin to bar level at the top of the movement.
Not Engaging The Shoulders
Not properly engaging the shoulders can strain your joints, especially your elbows. A cue to keep in mind is to imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades. This will help you put your shoulders down and back so they are appropriately prepared for the pull.
Incorrect Thumb Positioning
This may be a simple mistake, but you might be surprised how some lifters can still overlook this aspect. Never wrap your fingers around the bar. Achieve a full range by keeping your fingers neutral and your thumb aligning with the bar, not around it.
Repping To Failure
Be it articles, video tutorials, face-to-face training, fitness professionals will say the same thing about the pull-up: it should always be done in a controlled manner. Straining yourself to aim for an absurd amount of reps will only cause you to neglect your form.
Kipping is swinging your legs for momentum. You may often see CrossFitters “kip” to make the most of their pull-ups under timed workouts, but they are neither considered a proper form for strict pull-ups nor are they recommended for novice lifters. In fact, pull-up beginners and pregnant lifters are strongly advised to stir away from kipping until they can achieve the standard proper form.
Doing Partial Range of Motion
Whether you are a master of pull-ups or just starting with your pull-up journey, it may sound tempting to cut the motion in half and only stick with the satisfying burn. Make sure to aim for a full extension at the bottom of the movement. Your ears should be slightly above the shoulders, and your shoulder blades properly pushed down and back.
Pull-up Muscles Worked
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres Major
- Erector Spinae
The lats are activated throughout the whole exercise, assist the upper arm during the lift, and give that coveted V-taper on the back. In a similar fashion, the teres major functions like the lats but is a smaller muscle. Meanwhile, the delts work with the lats to fully extend the upper arm and bring the arm behind the body at the top of the movement.
The traps assist in the movement of the shoulder blades, the obliques, and “deep” core muscles stabilize the trunk, and the biceps bend the elbow at the concentric phase. Lastly, the erector spinae, or the muscles and tendons from the skills base to the hips, help with body positioning and posture.
Pull-Up vs Chin-Up
The major difference between a pull-up and a chin-up is the placement of the grip. With the pull-up, an overhand grip is utilized. Once you turn your hands in the opposite direction and use an underhand grip, this automatically transitions into chin-ups.
The pull-up targets the back more while chin-ups activate the back, biceps, and chest more. Both can be performed on a pull-up bar with weight plates for added challenge. If you are looking to target your back and biceps more, go for chin-ups. For more lat activation, incorporate the pull-up in your program.
Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, and Programs:
Each program is designed to help you achieve your desired fitness result, be it muscle mass, strength, or lifetime fitness.
To gain muscle mass, perform the pull-up for 7 to 10 reps for 4 to 5 sets. Rest for 60 seconds between each set. Incorporate this program into your workout twice a week. In total, you would be doing 28 to 50 pull-ups per session.
For General Fitness
Pull-ups take pride in both their effectiveness and efficiency since you can perform only a few reps and still gain plenty of benefits. For general lifters, you can aim for 12 to 15 reps of pull-ups for a few sets. Use your determined maximum reps before failure as a standard for your daily average pull-ups.
For Strength Training
To gain strength, we recommend performing three standard sets of 7 to 9 pull-ups per session. Incorporate two sessions per week to reap more benefits and maintain your upper body strength.
These variations will challenge your pull-up strength and further activate all working muscles during the lift.
The wider your grip, the more back strength is required to achieve the move with proper form. This variation targets the back, shoulders, and arms more and increases your core strength.
This variation results in a more explosive pull that recruits your working muscles while requiring greater strength overall. This also requires greater core control and stability.
By wrapping a towel over the pull-up bar, your grip exerts more effort to hold you up. This naturally results in bigger forearms while working your back and biceps simultaneously.
For a less challenging variation, opt for assisted pull-ups where you can step on a band to help you with the lift.
Not ready for an actual pull-up? Try out these Alternative Exercises instead and work on activating the right muscles.
Dead hangs effectively decompress the spine, improve your grip strength, and stretch your whole upper body. This also gives you time to improve your hollow hold and progress with the pull-up with a stronger core.
With a Lat Pulldown Machine, you can achieve isolated work on the lats, which are vital working muscles in pull-ups. This exercise also promotes good posture and spinal stability with every rep.
As discussed in our Inverted Row Guide, this exercise increases bodyweight strength and improves back muscle definitions while being scaled for beginners and experienced lifters. Inverted rows challenge your lats, shoulders, and chest without having to undergo a strict pull-up position.