Everyone who lifts weights eventually wants to master the pull-up. Why? Not only is it a good physical skill to have, it both looks cool and is one of the best displays of relative strength, also referred to as your strength to weight ratio.
Before we continue, here’s a quick disclaimer. This is in no way the ultimate guide to pull-ups. This is an introduction to the pull up, my rationale for how I develop them in my clients, and providing a template for what I consider appropriate pull-up development. Now that that’s out of the way…
One of the most important considerations in the gym is training at a level that is appropriate for you.
Doing too much too fast, or pushing yourself in ways your body is not ready to handle, will do nothing but land you in the waiting room of your favorite physical therapist or orthopedist. The problem is, many people advance to pull-ups too quickly and don’t allow their body the time to develop appropriate strength and stability.
When it comes to training and exercise selection, many people choose exercises that are beyond their ability and suffer through poor workouts. The result of this is nagging aches and pains, decreased exercise performance, and, most importantly, a lack of gains.
Kipping – this guide doesn’t cover it. As a side note, you should not perform kipping pull-ups until you can demonstrate at least 5 good dead hang pullups. See above for training beyond your physical abilities. Just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you’re doing it safely or appropriately.
Why Pull-ups are Hard
The shoulder complex is, as the name suggests, NOT simple. The shoulder complex, or girdle, involves 4 joints and 17 muscles. Not only that, but the muscles of your forearm, as well as your trunk and hip, are involved in a pull-up. To make things more complicated, all of these muscles and joints have to coordinate and move together in a specific way to optimize strength and avoid impingement.
Balance in the strength and coordination of the muscles around the shoulder is critical to maintaining these positions and completing the lift.
Proper Pull-up Execution
Proper execution of the pull-up follows a simple sequence. To begin, grab the bar shoulder width apart with your palms facing forward and squeeze tight, then straighten your legs and squeeze them together with your heels slightly in front of your hips.
From here, you need to pack your shoulders. Imagine pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
Next, focus on pulling your elbows down to your sides, not pulling your chin up over the bar. Shifting focus to the elbows allows for a stronger and more consistent pull with less risk of over-extending your neck.
Remember to keep your lower body tense with your feet pointed to help avoid swing and to keep your abdominals properly engaged. Welcome to the strict pull-up.
Building the Foundation
As a general principle, how you develop appropriate stability for your pull-up is the same as other lifts. Your first job is to develop the muscles closer to the middle of the body (proximal) first, followed by working out towards your fingers and toes (distal).
This means that core development is first, followed by your scapula, shoulder, and finally your arms. Don’t think you have to work everything individually, though. Complex multi-joint movements, such as rows, develop all the parts together.
Other exercises that are very helpful for developing the foundation for your pull-ups are hollow holds, planks, and hanging from the bar. Hangs should be done with multiple grips – shoulder width, wide, and narrow, both palms facing away and towards, as well as mixed grips – while maintaining a packed shoulder and the same position described in the previous section.
Your goal should be able to work up to a strict 60 second hang in all positions. You may also work hangs from the top of the bar, jumping up and holding the top position with proper tension. There are a lot of different ways to implement these exercises and work them into your program, be creative!
Taking Off the Brakes
The analogy for taking off the brakes is something I picked up from Alwyn Cosgrove. When it comes to the gym, a lot of people believe that the only way to make more progress is to push harder. Is that really true though?
Think about a car with the brakes on. Pushing harder on the gas pedal will only stress the engine and cause you to run out of gas faster. In this case, taking the brake off will be more beneficial than pushing harder on the gas pedal.
Carrying this analogy over to your pullups, your external rotation/rotator cuff strength could be the problem. Your pectorals and lats are very powerful internal rotators of your shoulder. If your external rotation is weaker than they need to be to maintain balance around the shoulder joint, your body may resist your efforts to increase strength in the lift as a safety precaution to prevent further imbalance.
Our technology-based life, along with an emphasis on pec and lat development in traditional training programs, commonly lead to such an imbalance. Stretching these muscles, along with performing face pulls, banded external rotation at 0 and 90 degrees, and band pull aparts will help alleviate this.
One more thing that could be putting the brakes on your pull-up strength is your glutes. Your lats and glutes work together, diagonally, to stabilize and support your lower back; a connection that is known as the posterior oblique sling.
The same principle we just discussed applies here too. If this support system is weak your body will resist attempts at increasing strength in order to protect you. Train to increase strength in lunges, step ups, and weighted hip thrusts.
Getting Your First Rep
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into making a strong stable shoulder. If your mechanics are off, or if you lack balance around the shoulder, you’ll just end up wearing yourself down instead of building yourself up.
This is the reason for starting with pulling horizontally instead of vertically. Not only is a horizontal row easier to perform in terms of strength and coordination, it also develops the middle back better, which creates balance around the shoulder girdle.
My favorite horizontal pulling exercises, from simple to complex, are recline rows, chest supported rows, seated rows, Kroc rows, and bent over rows. Developing the vertical pull starts with hangs, lat pulldowns, banded pull-ups, and negatives. One exercise that is ubiquitously awesome is the face pull. Do them, all the time, forever.
Once You’ve Gotten Your First Rep
Don’t forget the basics but train pull-ups in this order – chin-up at shoulder width, chin-up outside of shoulders, mixed grip, pull-up at shoulder width, pull-up outside of shoulders, and finally pull-ups using various grip tools – towels, blocks, balls, etc.
Starting with the “easiest” variation, perform 6 sets, with 2 mins rest between sets, completing half of your current max reps per set. If you only have 1 rep, just do 1 per set.
Once you can complete 6 sets of 6 reps, keeping your legs stationary and not flailing like a monkey jacked up on pre-workout, move on to next difficulty. Every level beyond chin-ups at shoulder width are to be done as 3 reps per set to start with the same goal of 6×6.
For mixed grip pull-ups, alternate hands each set.
- Develop core, then scapulae, then shoulder/arms
- Work hangs, planks, and hollow until you can hold each for 60 seconds, properly
- Work horizontal rowing and other regressed exercises until you get your first rep
- Once you have your first rep, follow the protocol listed above
Always row, even when you have pull-ups. Maintaining balance in shoulder complex is important, even when you’re strong and fit.
If you want to know even more about how to develop your pull-up (because yeah, there’s still more) – drop a line or send me an e-mail.
I knew nothing of the science behind the moves but have become addicted to the face pulls and benefits (as well as compliments) they bring. Definitely going to give this some effort to attempt better pull ups. Certain the results will parallel the efforts put in.
What exactly is a ‘face pull’?
A face pull is an exercise, performed either using a cable with the double rope attachment or a band. Set the cable/band at or slightly above eye height and pull towards your face, keeping your elbows at or slightly above shoulder height. Works retraction and external rotation simultaneously.
Why the progression order (chip up to mixed to pull up)? I have found that chin ups are much harder for me than pull ups (I feel a lot more strain in my bicep) although I can do one or two more reps of pull ups than chin ups (I can do 5 pullups).
This could be because I’m a crossfitter and have only really trained pull ups? We do a lot of rows in our programming (generally Pendlay).
Should I still start with chin ups and work this progression to account for possible muscle imbalance within the shoulder complex?
The progression order is the way it is due to leverage. You have greater leverage in the chin-up vs the pull-up and this allows you to get over the bar more easily. Having only really practiced pull-ups and overhand rows, it makes sense that you would find pull-ups easier. Definitely start working the chin-ups in, your pull-ups will thank you.
Thank you so much for sating my curiosity! I’m going to get to working on this progression. 🙂