The source of many a humiliating grade-school gym memory, the pull-up is actually a great whole-body workout. Here’s how to get your chin over the bar – with confidence.
Who hasn’t admired the rare gym-goer who can knock out a set of pull-ups with gravity-defying ease? Because, let’s face it, there’s no other exercise that says “I am a fitness god” quite like the pull-up. But if you’re like most folks, the exercise conjures up images of military-style boot camp or gym-class hardships. You might think you could never get your chin over that bar, even with a drill sergeant yelling at you. But with a gradual, progressive program, you can.
Start with exercises designed to strengthen muscles through your shoulders and back, such as pushups, lat pull-downs and upright rows. These will give you a strong foundation and prepare you to take on the next steps: assisted pull-ups, resistance-band pull-ups and negative (or eccentric) pull-ups. With patience and dedication, all of this will eventually lead to the day when you do your first full-fledged pull-up, to the cheers — or envy — of those around you.
Muscles in Motion
The terms “chin-up” and “pull-up” are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. You use an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) to do a pull-up and an underhand grip (palms facing toward you) to do a chin-up. With either grip, you’re using muscles in your back, lats, shoulders, chest and core, but you can alter the roles these muscles play by changing your grip from overhand to underhand or wide to narrow. With an underhand or narrow grip, for example, your biceps get more action, while a wide overhand grip will challenge your rear deltoids (shoulders) and your lats. You can also try a parallel grip (palms facing one another), a mixed under-overhand grip, or even a towel grip, with a towel thrown over the bar (this is an advanced variation).
Aside from getting sweet bragging rights at your gym, why would you want to do one of these, anyway?
- Pull-ups make you seriously strong. Forget the bench press — pull-ups are one of the most effective measures of your strength-to-body-weight ratio.
- Pull-ups are efficient fitness multitaskers. Your back and arms are prime targets, but you also get lots of core work as your midsection tries to stabilize your body swinging freely in space.
Think you could never do a pull-up? Put that negative thinking aside! Instead, gather your commitment and patience, and start doing the following step-by-step exercises regularly. You’ll be looking out over that bar before you know it.
The Easy Way Up
Modify the standard lat pull-down exercise by standing instead of sitting. Stand facing the weight stack, and grab the handle with your hands about shoulder-width apart or a little wider. Standing in a very slight squat, pull the handle or bar down to your chest. Slowly return the bar to the start position. Aim for two to three sets of eight to 10 reps, two or three times a week. Once you can comfortably handle about 50 to 60 percent of your body weight, try Phase 2: assisted pull-ups.
Phase 2: Ask for assistance.
If your gym has an assisted pull-up machine (often called a Gravitron), take advantage of it, using the lowest weight setting you can to complete reps. If not, there are a couple of other solutions.
- Solution 1: You can use a low bar in a squat rack or Smith machine, with a bench or step by it. Grab the bar with your desired grip and place your heels on the bench in front of you. (Adjust the difficulty of the pull-up by resting more or less of your lower legs on the bench.) Let your body sink down until your arms are nearly straight and your body makes an “L” shape. This is your starting position. Now pull yourself up, keeping your chin and neck neutral. Try not to use your legs to help you.
- Solution 2: Get assistance from a rubber exercise band or tube. This option closely mimics the biomechanics involved in a true body-weight pull-up, and offers a “training wheels” solution for building confidence during the motion. Secure a 4-foot length of tubing in a loop around the top of a pull-up bar so the band hangs down in a “U” shape. Place one knee through the band (stand on a bench or box if necessary), which will act as a counterweight and give you a boost during the exercise. Use a band for each leg at first; you can remove one of the bands as you get stronger.
For both of these exercises, start with two to three sets of five to eight reps about twice a week. Once you can do five solid assisted reps without much help from your prop of choice, you’re ready to try Phase 3: negative (or eccentric) pull-ups.
Phase 3: Get negative.
A negative (or eccentric) pull-up eliminates the positive (or concentric) portion of the rep, which is the hardest part, and allows you to just focus on slowly resisting gravity on the way down. (For more information on the benefits of eccentric training, check out “Put the Weight Down! ” in the October 2006 archives.)
To assume the start position, place your hands on the bar (stand on a bench or box if necessary) and hop directly to the top position of a pull-up, arms fully bent and chin over the bar. Next, lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Try for a slow three or four count per negative. Incorporate a few negatives, using sets of one to two reps, into a couple of workouts per week. While working on these, also add one or two sets of standing lat pull-downs (from Phase 1) or assisted pull-ups (from Phase 2) once or twice a week. Once you can do four or five good, slow negative reps, you’re ready for Phase 4: partner pull-ups.
Phase 4: Partner up.
Start by standing on a bench or box under a pull-up bar. Grab the bar and slowly transfer your weight to your hands, straightening your arms until you’re hanging from the bar. Bend your knees to 90 degrees, and ask your workout buddy to place his hands under your shins. He can apply gentle upward assistance to help you get started and throughout the movement as needed. (Often, just a little boost at the bottom is all it takes.) You might get only one or two funky-looking reps in the beginning, so aim for three sets of one or two reps, a couple of times a week, supplemented with standing lat pull-downs (from Phase 1). You’ll likely find it’s easier to add sets than reps — in other words, it’s easier to do five sets of one rep with a bit of rest in between than to do one set of five consecutive reps. Over time, your partner will need to provide less and less assistance. When it feels like he isn’t really helping much, try Phase 5: completing one on your own.
Phase 5: Your first pull-up!
As with the partner pull-up, grab the bar and slowly transfer your weight until you’re hanging with your arms nearly straight. Keeping your muscles tight throughout your abs, back and arms, pull your body upward until your chin clears the bar. Congratulations! You just did a pull-up.
Get a Grip
There are plenty of ways to grip the bar - here are just a handful of options.
Words of Advice
Give your joints time to adapt. Don’t jump into doing pull-ups every day, or you run the risk of developing an overuse injury. Start with two or three times a week at most, and be sensible: If you notice any joint irritation, especially in your wrists or elbows, back off and rest a bit.
Make sure your set-up is safe and stable. Having to call the ambulance because you fell off a tippy stool or ripped the overhead bar out of the local subway train will definitely diminish your cool factor. Use equipment that is safe, stable and designed to hold your weight.
You don’t have to reach for the stars. If a high pull-up bar feels scary, or you can’t find a safe way to climb up to it, use a Smith machine bar or a barbell placed in a power cage. Set the bar just above your head, position your hands shoulder-width apart, lower your body down, and bend your knees 90 degrees so that you’re just off the floor. This gives you the range you need without the fear of falling.
If overhand pull-ups bother your shoulders, try a different grip. Chin-ups (underhand grip) or parallel-grip pull-ups (palms facing each other) tend to place less stress on the shoulder joint.
If you’re above your healthy weight, consider including a weight-loss component in your program. Lighter people have an easier time with body-weight exercises because they have a better strength-to-mass ratio, so this also may be the time to lose those extra pounds.
Be patient. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have immediate success. Be content that you’re building your base strength — and soon, that bar will be yours.