Written by Michele Vieux & George Economou
It’s a sad thing, but most Americans grow up without ever knowing how wonderful a thing the pull-up can be. Unless you’ve spent time in the military, prison, or in youth gymnastics, there’s a good chance you could have gone through life without ever having been exposed to the pull-up.
What is a Pull-Up?
The basic pull-up is a simple movement.
Step 1: From a reliable bar of your choice, hang with your arms fully locked out and extended (arms and legs should be in-line with your torso).
Step 2: Pull your shoulder blades and elbows both back and down until your chin passes over the top edge of the bar.
Step 3: Lower your body back down to the starting position.
The pull-up can be done as a “strict” (no swinging) rep or as a “kipping” (swinging) rep. Today, our main focus is the strict pull-up, which you should really master first before even thinking about kipping. More on why below.
Pull-Up vs Chin-Up
You’ll frequently hear these terms used interchangeably but the pull-up and chin-up are different movements.
We’ll get to all the different grip positions a little later on but the main difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is your hand position. Pull-ups use a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) while chin-ups use a supinated grip (palms facing toward you).
Because of the difference in the grip, the major muscles worked are also slightly different. Both work your lats and back but the chin-up also puts a major focus on the biceps, which is why most people can achieve their first chin-up before their first pull-up and can usually continue to do more chin-ups than pull-ups as they advance in their training.
What Muscles do Pull-Ups Work?
Regardless of whether you’re looking to be a CrossFit athlete, an Olympic or powerlifter, want to excel in any sport requiring upper body strength, or want to improve your health and fitness or posture, the pull-up should be a part of your plan.
From a strength perspective, mastering the pull-up does for the upper body what the deadlift and back squat do for the lower body. Aesthetically, the right addition of pull-ups will make your upper back look like Michelangelo himself sculpted it.
When you work pull-ups into your training, you are guaranteeing to hit all the muscles of the upper back including the lats, scaps, and traps.
Of course, you are using your shoulders (and biceps if you’re doing the chin-up version) and you are even using your abdominal and hip muscles, especially if you are doing the kipping version.
Why do Pull-Ups?
Aside from the strength improvements and looking better naked, there are other advantages to working with the pull-up. Assuming you start a program with good shoulder health, the pull-up further promotes shoulder function by improving the way your muscles fire and sequence in order to perform the exercise.
That said, the strength requirements to do just a single, strict pull-up keep it out of reach for heavier folks and those with a low strength base. And for these people, it may seem tempting to want to jump straight into a more efficient movement (like the kipping pull-up), especially for CrossFit workout, but THAT IS A MISTAKE. In the same way that the pull-up can promote shoulder health, a movement like the kipping pull-up WILL DESTROY a weak shoulder. Not can, but WILL.
We recommend that most people shouldn’t be kipping at all – even with healthy shoulders as this movement creates a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on the joint. With that being said, if you aspire to be a competitive CrossFitter or you just can’t help yourself in a group workout setting, we recommend you be able to do at least five strict pull-ups before learning the kipping pull-up.
How to Do the Perfect Pull-Up: Proper Pull-Up Form
We already discussed how to perform a pull-up above but, like everything, there is a right and a wrong way to do them. Here are the most important points of performance to keep in mind.\
1. Start From a Straight Arm Hang
You MUST start from a straight-arm hang! Training in the full range of motion (ROM) is of the utmost importance for injury prevention – including tendonitis – of the elbow and shoulder.
2. Do a Scapular Pull-Up
The initial movement should start with a scapular pull-up (shoulder blades back and down). This protects the shoulder and prevents you from pulling with your upper traps.
3. Use Your Lats – Not Your Traps
Do not pull with your upper traps! We go through life overusing these guys as it is which leads to posture problems, pain and injury. The pull-up is the perfect way to detrain this muscle but it all starts with awareness and then the scap pull-up. Really focus on using the lat muscles (beneath your shoulder blades toward the outside) to initiate the actual pull and try to keep them ‘on’ the entire rep.
Please recheck those traps in your chin-over-bar position as well – if they are in your ears, try focusing on driving your elbows behind you. Or, use assistance until you are able to perform the rep perfectly.
4. Your Chin Must Clear the Bar
Your chin must clear the bar at the top of the pull, and NOT by you straining your neck to get there. Again, training full range of motion (ROM) is of the utmost importance for injury prevention, and in this case, building strength!
No matter which version of the pull-up you are doing, these points of performance must be followed for your own safety, injury prevention and strength gains! Plus, if you ever plan to compete and pull-ups come up in a workout, you need to be able to perform the full ROM so you won’t be ‘no-repped’.
Pull-Up Training (Training to do a Pull-Up)
Now that you know how to do the perfect pull-up, we want to help you get your first one! We put together this 3-week training guide to help you get your first pull up.
What can I do Besides Pull-Ups?
In CrossFit, you will find many instances where you need to be able to perform pull-ups. Like we mentioned above, we recommend that you substitute some sort of strict pull-ups instead of kipping until you can do at least five, unbroken strict pull-ups.
Familiarizing yourself with a quick and easy (yet effective) way to scale your pull-up will give you the workout you came to do and, maybe most importantly, give you confidence knowing how much strength you are gaining by gauging how much help you are giving yourself!
The first thing people usually ask when pull-ups come up in the workout and they don’t have them is, “Can I use a band?” Sure, you can use a band, but do you want to get pull-ups or not? There are other – much better – modifications that will allow you to adjust your assistance based on your abilities and get you to that first rep faster…the band cannot do that.
The “negative” is a great version for building base strength and can be modified in a variety of ways. The basic movement is the same now matter how you modify so if you can’t quite muster the strength to do them without assistance, grab a partner or box or create a lower bar for yourself on a squat rack so that your feet are on the floor.
The biggest difference between the negative and the pull-up is that you start with your chin over the bar instead of pulling yourself to that position so that you are only focusing on lowering yourself – the eccentric portion.
No matter what the movement, increased time under tension (TUT) equals increased, and much more rapid, strength gains. The pull-up is no different which is why we prescribe negatives both to those wanting to achieve their first rep as well as masters of the move who are trying to increase their pulling strength.
To complete a negative pull-up, start with your chin over the bar, lower your body down in a controlled descent until your arms are fully locked out.
Check out this video demo of the pull-up negative.
So many people fail with this movement for two reasons. First, they do not start with their chin over the bar, but rather jump 6-10 inches to try and get into position. The second way people mess this movement up is by not completing the FULL RANGE OF MOTION. Many folks will either start the movement with their chin below the bar, or fail to control the descent to a full lockout. If this is happening to you – use one of the modifications until you can do the reps without!
If you are working toward strict pull-ups, here is a great modification to throw into your strength portion or as supplemental work.
Try this modification when pull-ups come up in your strength OR conditioning workout.
This is a great modification for the conditioning portion of the workout, especially if there is a high volume of kipping pull-ups programmed and/or if you just did strict pull-ups (or another kind of pulling) in your strength work that same day.
H2 – Pull-Up Grips: Your Hand Position
The many variations of pull-ups available to train with gives you a huge bang for your buck: pronated grip (palms facing away) and supinated grip (palms facing towards aka chin-ups) are the two most popular but there are so many more that offer A TON of training stimulus, literally in the palms of your hands.
Check out the complete list in “Pull-Up Exercises” below for ideas of how to mix up your training!
H2 – Pull-Up Grips: Protecting Your Hands
Speaking of grips…another type of grip you might consider using if you are performing a high volume of pull-ups are Victory Grips.
They slip on over your fingers and fasten with a strap to your wrists and are designed to protect your hands from friction, blisters and tearing.
Yes, those awful things can happen if you don’t take proper care of your hands! Make sure you take all the preventative measures you can so that you aren’t taken out of training for a week while they heal.
Plus, nobody likes to shake hands with the gross, bloody kid.
There is very little equipment necessary to do pull-ups – all you need is a bar and if you don’t have a ‘traditional’ pull-up bar, there are many ways to improvise. Gymnastics rings are a great piece of equipment to use instead. See that tree over there? It has a perfect branch for you to hang from. Stuck working out with the equipment your parents have in their pull-up-barless basement? What about that I-beam, could you hang from that?
Of course, having an actual pull-up bar has it’s benefits as well and there are so many different types to choose from to fit your needs and goals whether that be to achieve your first rep or to mix up your grip angles to target muscles differently.
The ‘standard’ bar is one that is straight across and that you can easily grasp your hands completely around and you will always find a few of these – usually as a part of the rig – at any CrossFit Gym. These will typically be set up so that you can hang freely without your feet touching the floor.
Globo gyms tend to, more often than CrossFit gyms have pull-up bars that are attached to a piece of gym machinery like a cable machine. These bars typically aren’t straight across, but instead have various hand positions and angles for wide grip and neutral grip reps.
How to do Pull-Ups at the Gym
Mix it up! Use all the different hand positions and angles! It’s easy to mix pull-ups into your routine either before or after you workout as a little supplemental work or even by “super-setting” them in with another movement you planned for the day. You can really mix them in any way you want!
Pro tip: Before you start your sets, make sure you have everything set up as far as equipment for modifications, or a box to stand on so you can reach the bar, etc. Practice a rep or two and make sure you are good to go so you don’t waste time during your workout doing that.
Another pull-up apparatus you might come across in a globo gym is an assisted pull-up machine.
For most of these, you are able to adjust how much assistance (in pounds) you receive from the machine. Once you’ve chosen how much weight you want the machine to take off of you, you then kneel on the pads and complete your pull-up reps. Although you are getting something from using this type of machine, we think there are ways to receive assistance with your pull-ups that will get you to where you want to be faster. If you’re having trouble doing a regular pull up on the bar, try using a chair assist.
How to do Pull-Ups at Home
Pull-ups take very little equipment to do and there is no reason you can’t do them at home, whether or not you have your own bar. Look around you, think about the various grip options there are to do pull-ups. What is in your house or yard that you could use?
Pull-Up Bar for Home
Ok, so you want a ‘real’ pull-up bar. There are many options for you – some that are inexpensive and some that you could drop thousands on. It all depends on your budget, and if you feel like completing a minor construction project in your backyard.
Door Pull-Up Bar
This is the most common home apparatus and usually holds up well on a solid frame. It can be used for strict pull-ups and toes to bar, scapular pull-ups, your static hangs and also your chin-over-bar holds. You can also use them for supplemental work and attach bands to them for things like banded triceps extensions. It cannot and should not be used for any kipping movement!
The list is truly endless based on your imagination and what type of “bar” you have to use. Like mentioned above – you can create one out of a lot of different things like branches and beams. But assuming you do have a bar, here are the most popular ones:
- Pronated: Palms facing away.
- Supinated: Palms facing you.
- Neutral: Palms facing each other.
- Fingertip: Fingertips only.
- Ring: Holding onto rings.
- Towel: Hanging from a towel that’s draped over the bar.
- Jailhouse: Wide grip, pulling to behind the neck.
- Mixed: One hand pronated, one supinated.
- Lean-Away: Lean to as horizontal as possible for the negative portion.
- Wide: Wider than normal grip
- Narrow: Closer than normal grip
- One-arm: Using only one arm
Any of these movements can also be modified if you don’t quite have them yet. You would just follow the same guidelines that are listed below and/or follow our 3-Week Pull-Up Guide for that particular version.
Ways to Increase Pull-Ups:
Pulling in all shapes and forms will increase posterior chain strength, which is crucial for strengthening the most important muscles involved in a pull-up – the latissimus dorsi, rear deltoids, rhomboids, as well as the biceps.
There are a multitude of methods and angles we can approach this from and here are some ideas that maybe you’ve overlooked!
Typically you’d use most of these in your strength or supplemental work for the day as you don’t want to move too quickly through these movements so that you don’t get sloppy and lose their benefits.
- Banded Face Pulls – 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions
- Bat Wings – 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions performed at a slow tempo (1115)
- Chinese Rows – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions performed at a 2111 tempo
- Single Arm Landmine Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
- Hand Over Hand Rope Pulls – 3 sets of 50-100 feet
- Banded Lat Pull Downs – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
- Tempo Ring Rows – 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions performed at 2112 tempo
- Double KB Bent Over Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
- Double KB Alternating Gorilla Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
- Single Arm KB Romanian Deadlift – 3 sets of 10-15 per side
Grease the Groove (GTG)
Another way is to grease the groove (GTG)! This comes from Pavel Tsatsouline and we’ve used this with great success with pistols, pull-ups and push-ups. Simply perform many sub-maximal efforts throughout the course of the day.
So, if you’re currently stuck at 5 strict pull-ups, GTG may look like this for you: for one week perform 3 x pull-ups every 90 minutes, and retest for a max effort set at the end of the week.
Let’s say you get in six sets a day, that’s 18 pull-ups a day, and 126 a week. When you retest and find out you can now do 8 pull-ups, the following week bump your number up to 5…that’s 210 in a week.
Increase your variety by throwing in a finisher like this once or twice a week.
Three sets of:
5 x Wide Grip Pronated Pull-ups
Rest 45 seconds
5 x Medium Grip Pronated Pull-ups
Rest 45 seconds
5 x Narrow Grip Pronated Pull-ups
Rest 45 seconds
5 x Medium Grip Supinated Pull-ups
Rest 45 seconds
Play around with reps, tempo, and variety of movement (from the list above) and this finisher will never get old.
Another way to increase your pull-up strength is to add some weight to your reps. Once you are able to do 3-5 unbroken reps, start slapping on the weight!
You can do this with a traditional dip belt, by holding a dumbbell between your legs, or by creating a weighted cape with a band. Anytime pull-ups are prescribed in a strength workout and you look at the rep range and think, “that’s easy”, then add weight.
What About Kipping Pull-Ups?
There are a couple of different versions of Kipping Pull-Ups that CrossFit athletes use – the “butterfly” kip is the most popular and most efficient and the “regular” kip is another version that is often used and can be transferred into movements – once it is mastered – like the bar muscle-up. But that’s for another guide. First…that first strict rep.
How Often Should I do Pull-Ups?
If you’ve been doing pull-ups for a while and your body is healthy, there is no reason you can’t do them on the daily, if you desire. You really should be doing them as much as your body allows with the goal of pulling twice as many reps as you push.
For example, if you bench pressed 5×3 then you should do AT LEAST (but really more) that many reps of a pulling exercise to counterbalance the muscles involved. Pulling = better posture. Pushing does not.
With that being said, if you are new to the pull-up game or are still working toward your first rep, you might need to space out your days with a rest day (from pulling) in between. So, you might only do your pull-up work every other day until you feel like you’re recovering enough to do them daily. Your body will let you know. Just listen to it or else you’ll actually slow your progress.
There it is – everything you need to know about pull-ups! Now it’s time to put what you learned into action. Our coaches have helped thousands of people achieve their first pull-ups and they put together this 3-Week Training Program that includes 4 days per week of warm-ups, pull-up progressions, and supplemental work and video instruction to help you get yours.