The pull-up exercise is a very impressive and, at the same time, very elusive bodyweight move for beginners. It is almost impossible to achieve for some that they have resigned from working on it and just accepted the fact that it's not meant for them. But the reverse is true; it is actually very achievable for everyone if you follow a step-by-step progression of this movement. It will just take time. Let's take a closer look at this bodyweight exercise.
A Pull-up exercise is a bodyweight movement where one hangs from a bar and pulls oneself up until ones' chin is over the bar. A practitioner can do it with a forward grip where the forearms are pronated, alternatively, in a reverse grip. The reverse grip version is also known as Chin-ups.
What are the muscles used in the Pull-up exercise?
Unknown to many, the pull-up
movement doesn't only involve the arm muscles. According to "the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" article, which studied 7 muscles that are activated during the pull-up exercise, that the
- External Oblique and Erector Spinae muscles
are working to provide core stability during the movement. That is on top of the forearm-arm-shoulder complex muscles, namely;
- Pectoralis Major
- Lower Trapezius
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Biceps Brachii
In addition, there are more muscles in the finger-forearm-arm complex that are activated when performing the pull-up. These are;
- Finger Flexor muscles
These muscles will need to be systematically trained to avoid overstraining the other muscles that may compensate in order to perform the movement.
This is where the 3-phase pull-up training will come in. No matter which level you are in your pull-up training, you will be able to slot yourself into one of these phases.
The Pull-up preparation phase
This phase will not look anything like the pull-up exercise yet. It will consist of 3 preparatory hanging drills to strengthen your grip and shoulder muscles and develop your awareness in the shoulder blade area. This will give you a good foundation before you tackle the real pull-up exercise.
How to do the Passive hang
- grab the bar with your palms facing forward. This is called the prorated grip. Gradually hang loose on the bar, leaving any tension out. You should be fully relaxed, and you only need to grip the bar enough so that your fingers will not slide off.
If you don't have enough strength to hang on to the bar and the bar is too high for you, you can place a box or bench under the bar to rest your feet. This will take out some of your weight, and you will be able to hang longer.
Make sure you fully relax while hanging, and your shoulders should be touching or almost touching your ears. This indicates that you are fully relaxed at this point. One good way to relax is to take slow and deep breaths to release the tension of your body. Aim to hang for 60 seconds. If a bar is accessible to you, you can hang more frequently in a day.
How to do the Active hang
- is another way to hang by engaging your shoulder muscles that pull the shoulder blades down towards your hips, also known as Scapular Depression. The main difference compared to the passive hang is you will actively pull down the whole time without trying to bend your elbow.
Your neck will look long, and your shoulders will shrug down with this hang. It will be a lot more tiring than the passive hang. If your shoulders are quite unstable or in pain, this type of hanging might be a good place to start rather than the passive hang as the engaged muscles will protect the shoulder joint.
You can then slowly shift towards passive hanging once you are getting more comfortable with your shoulders. A good aim is 30 seconds for this type of hang.
How to do the Scapular pull-ups or Hanging Shrugs
- This is the first step for your pull-up movement, so it is very important to understand this part. It is basically a combination of passive and active hang done one after another.
Start in a passive hang and pull yourself up to an active hang, but keep your elbows straight. Then lower back down to the passive hang and repeat the movement. Try to do this movement at a slow tempo, especially if your shoulders are feeling some discomfort.
You want to make sure that you have spent enough time doing the passive and active hang before attempting this drill, as this might cause some discomfort on your shoulders, especially if your shoulders are very tight or unstable. Aim to do 10-15 reps of this hanging shrugs at a comfortable intensity to show that you already have enough strength built to progress to the next level.
At the early stage of your program, you can use hanging as a stand-alone exercise, or you can use them as a warm-up or a finisher drill. If you're going to use hanging as a warm-up, make sure that you do it without causing your forearm muscles to fatigue, as this will affect your strength for your main workout.
You may hang as much as you can after your main training; this will be good for you to stretch the muscles that have been worked out.
Follow the progressions of the exercise.
One common question is, how do I start with pull-ups when I can't even do one? This is an easy one to answer if you understand the progressions of this exercise. It's like how to become an accountant, and I'm still 4? Just follow the right progression, it is pretty straightforward, but it will take some time and effort.
Here is how you will do it.
The horizontal pulling phase or the ring rows
The Ring row is one of the key ingredients for the pull-up, especially if you are coming in with a lot to work on your strength, which is generally the case. These drills will develop your pulling strength gradually without overstraining your shoulders. It doesn't matter how weak a person is; they will always have a variation for doing Ring rows.
These ring row variations are very good to develop the muscles of your upper back, especially in between the shoulder blades that normally won't get enough work when you go straight towards doing pull-ups.
There is only 1 real variation here, but to understand it better, we will break it apart according to the intensity. You just have to understand the basic mechanics of the movement, which is, the more upright your body is, the easier the rowing exercise will be.
You can adjust the angle of your body in 2 ways; the first one is by adjusting the ring height; if you lower the ring, your body will be less upright, and it will be harder.
The second way is to move your feet in reference to where the ring is. Moving your feet backwards is easier, and moving your feet forwards will make it harder for you to do the rows.
How to do the Upright row
- the real beginner movement where you will end up feeling nothing at the end of the pull, but if you are starting with a very low strength level, then this will be a good start. Grab the ring and carefully lean backwards until your body will be at an incline angle. Pull the ring to your chest and think of driving your elbows backwards as you do it.
You should be almost upright at the top of your pull; if not, adjust your feet accordingly. Then slowly go back down. If this is too easy, then you can proceed to the next progression.
How to do the Incline row
- this is where most people will start. This drill is exactly the same as the previous one except that your feet are more in front this time. Or you can also lower the rings to achieve the same angle. If you find it too easy, then move your feet a few inches forward or a few inches back if it is too hard. Your body will be at an incline angle at the top of the movement.
How to do the ground row
- The hardest of the three. Once you have built a good amount of pulling strength with the ring rows, you can proceed to do the assisted pull-ups, or you can continue with your progressions with the ring rows doing this variation. The same starting position as the previous drills, except that the ring is a lot lower.
Your body will be close to horizontal at the bottom of the movement, and your shoulders will be almost touching the floor.
How many repetitions do you need to do with the Ring rows?
Aim to do 10 to 15 repetitions for 3 to 5 sets for these exercises, especially for the upright and incline row, to make sure you have built enough foundation before you proceed to the next level. Though this is not a hard and fixed rule, it is a safer one to follow.
What if you don't have Gymnastic Rings?
In case you don't have access to rings, you can find a low bar in your local Calisthenics area and work on incline pull-ups AKA Australian pull-ups; the only drawback here is, as the bar's height is fixed, you will end up with a limited option to regress the level of the exercise.
This will be a challenge for real beginners with a low level of strength.
The Vertical Pulling phase
Now we proceed to the assisted pull-ups variation. Once you have spent enough time with the ring rows and have made good progress, at least towards incline rows. You can proceed with the assisted pull-ups.
This is where your movement will look like the real pull-up exercise. Here are the most common variations I teach my students to achieve their first pull-up in our Calisthenics Classes.
It is listed from easiest to the hardest variations with small steps of increment in intensity, but you can skip some of the variations if you're progressing well with your strength gains.
The assisted pull-ups variations
This is a pull-up variation where you can use your feet either by placing them on a strong elastic rubber or placing your feet on a box to assist you with your pull-up. The best way is to do it on a stall bar, as you will have options with which bar to use to accommodate your height.
I would go for the feet on a box vs using the rubber as the rubber will be limited to a certain level of assistance. The assistance will also change as the rubber shortens or lengthens. If you're using your feet on a solid surface, you can micro-adjust the assistance of your legs while doing the exercise, which makes it more convenient and will allow you to log in more repetitions which is necessary for beginners.
How to do the Basic assisted pull-up
Start hanging on a bar with your feet on a box/bar or a stable surface. Make sure that if you stand up on the bar, your chin will be over the bar and not below it. Start the movement by pulling your shoulder blades down (scapular pull-ups), then pull yourself up by bending your elbows until your chin is over the bar.
Think of bringing your elbows down to the back when you're pulling up and keep your shoulders down, not hunched. Slowly go down with control until you end up hanging fully in a passive hang position. Then repeat the movement.
Try to follow a more vertical line with your body when you travel upwards, ending with your chin directly over the bar and not diagonally back where your chin is far away from the bar. You are pushing too much with your feet if you end up travelling backwards.
In case you can't do a good form with this movement, this might mean that it's too early for you to be on this level, and you may have to spend more time with the ring row variation. Aim to do 3 sets of 15 reps on this level.
How to do the Assisted pull up plus lock-off
This will be the same as the basic version, except that you will do a lock-off when you are at the top position by lifting your feet off the bar. Hold the lock-off position for at least a second and increase your holding time to around 10 seconds. Place your feet back on the bar and slowly go down. This will increase your strength in the top position, which can be very weak for beginners.
Work for up to 10 reps with this movement; unless you are holding the top for 10 seconds, you will be good enough to do around 5 repetitions.
How to do the Assisted pull up plus negative
If you have heard of jumping to a negative pull-up, this will be quite similar, but without the jump, and instead, you will do an assisted pull-up. Once you are at the top, you lift your feet off and slowly lower yourself down all the way to the passive hanging position. Replace your feet to the bar, then perform an assisted pull-up to do the next rep. Work on controlling the downward movement to around 7-10 seconds eventually.
If this version is too hard for you to do consecutive reps, then you can rest in between repetitions and gradually decrease your resting time until you can manage to do a few consecutive reps. This variation can give you quite a bit of soreness, so start with a few reps and not more than 10 reps in total for the session, then gradually progress from there.
If you have done the negative pull-ups for a 6-week training block, you should be ready to attempt to do the real pull-up movement.
The pull-up exercise
Start hanging passively under the bar, then shrug down your shoulders. Then pull yourself up by bending your elbows until your chin is over the bar, then slowly come down to repeat the movement.
If it is your first time doing a pull-up, it will be good enough to do 1 rep a few times and slowly increase your repetitions. Don't get too excited about trying out too many pull-ups at this stage, as it might overstrain your shoulders or elbows.
Log in more volume on the lower level like the basic assisted pull-up version and focus on the quality of the movement. This will increase your strength endurance and will increase your pull-up reps soon.
What about the grip or hand placement?
You have 3 basic options here for a start, the prorated grip(palms facing front), the neutral(palms facing each other), and the supinated grip(palms facing back), which you can apply to all the drills. You can start with different grips starting from your basic hanging exercises.
Here is my general recommendation for the grip.
If you're using the gymnastic rings, you can work more on the neutral grip as this will transfer to either grip in terms of strength development in the arms.
If you are using a regular pull-up bar, you only have the option to do a pronated or supinated grip. I would work more on the pronated grip as this will be more natural in our natural ability to hang on to something.
The main difference between the neutral, supinated, and pronated grip is that in a supinated grip, the Biceps muscles will be working more. This grip can be stronger initially for some beginners.
The prorated grip will work mainly on the brachioradialis muscle, which is a longish muscle that pops out when you pull something with your palms facing down. The neutral grip works evenly on both muscles.
If you can spare more time and energy, then you can explore the supinated more. Be aware that the supinated grip, if done too much, may cause Golfer's elbow, which is an inflammation of the tendon on the inside of the elbows. This doesn't mean that you don't work with a supinated grip; you just need to be more careful with the progression and spend more time in each level rather than rushing to progress.
Pull up vs Chin up
I would go for pull-ups (with a pronated grip) as it is more functional when you are going to other sports like climbing or obstacle racing. You will normally climb a ladder or a wall with a pronated forearm position, so it makes sense to work on this type of grip more.
Doing pull-ups is also safer for your elbows, as chin-ups can sometimes inflame your elbows. You still need to do chin-ups, as you want to increase the tendon's tensile strength. You just have to make sure that you don't increase either the volume or intensity too much or too soon, as this will be a good recipe for injury.
How long will it take to achieve your first pull-up?
This will vary a lot depending on the starting level of the practitioner. We have to take into account their age, past experience in sports and exercise, gender, genetics, and more. I would say this ranges from 1 month to 2 years which is a very wide range.
Unfortunately, this is the case; let's look at, for example, an 18-year-old boy who is quite lean but just didn't do much upper body exercise in the past but has been doing some running here and there. It might just take him a month to get to his first pull-up.
But take a 20 kg overweight 55-year-old lady who has never been into a fitness regimen before. It may take her a very long time to achieve the first one as she will be a bit more fragile and can get easily injured if she rushes through the progression.
If you need help feel free to contact us anytime and you can always join us in our Calisthenics classes if you happen to be based in Singapore.