The pull-up. An exercise that seems oh-so-simple to execute—just hang from a bar and pull, right? Exactly! Unfortunately the first attempt (and second, and third) is likely to result in more grimacing and groaning than upward movement. So just how much patience and practice does one pull-up require? First-time exercisers and regular gym goers alike struggle to perfect this simple exercise.
As it turns out, the pull-up is simple, but not easy. This fact is both unfortunate and uplifting: Those of us who can’t do a pull-up are not alone! Sure, it’s going to take some work, but with the right plan in place, you can go from hanging from the bar to hammering out rep after rep of the perfect pull-up.
The Proof Is in the Pull-Up
Before we get down to the business of practicing (and perfecting!) our form, let’s take a second to ponder the pull-up itself. For starters, one of the most puzzling parts about the pull-up might be explaining why—why do we care so much about performing a pull-up in the first place? Why not just focus on lat pulldowns?
The true difference between these two exercises isn’t which muscles are worked—both exercises target the same muscle groups (mainly the upper back, chest, shoulders, and biceps)—but how and how well they’re worked. Put simply, a pull-down trains maximal strength (how much weight you can pull down) while the pull-up improves relative strength (the ability to move one’s bodyweight through a plane of motion).
What’s more is that the thought of sitting at the lat pull-down machine isn’t nearly as captivating as obtaining cliffhanger status. (Master pull-uppers will have nothing to fear if they find themselves dangling from a ledge!)
Put simply, there’s a difference between moving weight on a weight stack (the lat pull-down) and moving our own bodyweight (the pull-up). That’s because our muscles and movements are connected. When the brain says so, the central nervous system and the kinetic chain spring into action. Think of these two things as individual nerves and joints that work together. The result: muscles fire, force is applied, and movement occurs.
When it comes to strength training, improving these outcomes can take two forms: closed kinetic or open chaiin exercises. Fans of exercise machines like the lat pull-down are performing an open chain exercise—moving an object toward or away from the body. In this case, the movement takes place around one joint, isolating one muscle group. On the other hand, individuals aiming to perfect the pull-up are attempting a closed chain exercise—moving their body to or from a fixed object. This type of movement involves multiple joints and muscle groups.
Here again, it’s not that either approach is wrong. Generally speaking, all exercise is good exercise.But depending on your goals, some kinds of exercise will serve you better than others. In most cases, closed kinetic chain exercise, like the pull-up, win out. We’re not just saying that either, it’s science. When research put two groups of adult exercisers through the paces, a group of open chain exercisers versus closed chained counterparts, the closed chain group made more improvement over the course of the six-week regimen
Up, Up, and Away
It’s true what they say: Practice really does make perfect. But practicing improper form is more likely to hinder pull-up performance than actually help, so anyone aiming to make their first pull-up a reality should begin by perfecting the proper form.
1. Get a Grip
Stand under the bar and grab it with both hands. Your palms should be facing away from you with hands shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar, get a boost from a bench, stool, or box.) Use a standard overhand grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar so that they almost meet the tips of your fingers.
2. Play Dead
A true pull-up begins in a dead hang. When you hang from the bar, your arms should be fully extended with your core engaged and shoulders back. Build strength by keeping form in mind as you pull—it’ll help you avoid swinging, kicking, and jumping, which means that you’ll be using your muscles, not momentum, to master the move.
3. Pull (Up)
Initiate the actual pull by squeezing the bar with your hands while engaging the muscles of your upper body and core. Imagine pulling your elbows down to your sides as your entire body travels toward the bar, squeezing your lats throughout and keeping your head slightly angled upwards(45 degrees) so as not to engage the traps. Resist the urge to strain your neck in an attempt to break the plane of the bar with your chin. Continue to pull until your chin clears the bar with ease, at which point the upward phase of the pull-up is complete.
4. Get Down
Congratulations! You nailed the up part of the pull-up. But you still have to get down. The trick is to return to the dead-hang slowly. Maintain a firm grip on the bar while allowing your arms to straighten as you lower. Once you return to the dead-hang, you can count your first rep.
Working Up to the Pull-Up
Knowing how to do a pull-up is one thing, but actually doing it will probably take some time (and practice and patience). Instead of walking away from the pull-up forever, use these exercises to work your way up to the perfect pull-up.
1. Suspended Row
Similar to a pull-up, the suspended row is a closed-chain exercise. In this case, however, you’ll be lying under a bar instead of hanging from it. Using a power rack or smith machine set the a barbell so that when you’re under the bar, lying faceup, it’s just out of reach. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms out, and thumbs around the bar. Anchor your heels into the ground. Now, pull your chest toward the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. You can also perform this row on a set of rings. In either case, if the movement is too challenging, adjusting the bar or rings so that your body is more vertical. As you build strength, you can set yourself up to be more horizontal.
2. Buddy Up
A workout buddy will help out by gripping your legs and gently pushing up, thereby reducing the amount of weight you need move up. Dead-hang from the bar per usual but cross your legs. This is where your friend steps in, holding your legs and pushing up. Ah… upward motion just got a little easier.
Most gyms have a couple of assisted pull-up machines, which serve the same purpose as your workout buddy—they support your body, thereby reducing the amount of weight you’ll have to pull. To get started, set the pin on the machine’s weight stack. (On most exercise machines, the pin’s placement determines the amount of weight you’ll be moving. Here, though, the pin’s placement indicates how much support you’ll get from the machine.) Once the weight is set, climb up onto the platform, kneel, and grip the bar as if you we’re performing the perfect pull-up. As the support arm sinks, the platform will move with you, the counterweight supporting you through the range of motion.
6. I’m With the Band
Giant rubber bands called flex bands can be used for a variety of assisted or mobility exercises. The band is looped around the top of the bar. As it hangs, step your foot through the bottom of the band. Grip the bar and notice that you’re getting up, allowing the band to help you. More effective than the assisted pull-up machine, the banded version is more akin to the actuall pull-up, engaging core and stabilizer muscles throughout the movement. (Be careful when stepping into and out of the band. There’s a chance that it could snap back with force.)
7. Go Negative
When it comes to perfecting the pull-up, the “up” part gets a whole lot of attention, but pulling is only one piece of the puzzle. Slowly lowering yourself from the bar—a “negative”—is a teriffic way to build the strength that will eventually help you pull yourself up. Grip the bar as you would for a pull-up and very slowly lower yourself to a dead hang, squeezing your back muscles and biceps and keeping your core engaged. You might not be able to pull-up, but you sure can get down. And that’s half of the pull-up battle.
article – joe vennare