The pull up is quite possibly the ultimate measure of strength. It’s also one of the greatest muscle building exercises in existence, which is precisely why it’s been called the upper body squat. Lat pulldowns can’t even come close to comparing. Whenever you move your body through space the level of neuromuscular activation is dramatically higher.
People all too often ask, “How much can ya bench?” A more appropriate question would be “How many pull ups can you do?” The pull up measures your strength to weight ratio better than almost any other exercise known to man. You are pulling up nearly one hundred percent of your bodyweight, in the exact manner the human body was designed to work. It’s one of the most natural exercises you can do. While not everyone can squat or deadlift due to lower back or knee problems, pretty much everyone can do pull ups. Or should be able to do pull ups…
To this day I am still haunted by the image I witnessed in a local park a few years ago when I was there training. A man my age was there with his wife and his son. He was shooting some hoops, watching his kid play, and basically just enjoying the beautiful July weather. At one point he wandered over to the pull up bar and got on it. He then proceeded to twist and squirm and strain for the next 10-15 seconds as he attempted and failed to do one pull up. ONE PULL UP! Now mind you, this guy was not obese. He had the average adult male physique- 5’9”, 165 pounds with a 38 inch waist, ten inch arms and “a chest like a wet blanket,” as Frank Rizzo of The Jerky Boys would say.
The second hand embarrassment was enough to make me want to dig a hole and jump in it.
“Look at the man you married, honey. I can’t do a single pull up. But don’t worry, I can keep you safe.”
“Hey buddy, watch how strong daddy is. Don’t you want to grow up to be just like me?”
To paraphrase Matt Rhodes, a man who can’t do pull ups is a woman. Or some other form of living being, because the women at my gym can do ten or more. But you can’t call yourself a man if you can’t do pull ups. It’s as simple as that.
Below are the top 10 ways to improve your pull ups.
1) Don’t go to failure- This is the biggest problem I see with pull ups. Everyone goes to failure on every set. That’s because it’s so easy to do. As soon as a single rep does not look exactly like the previous one and you can’t get as high, the set is over. If your speed slows down noticeably the set is over. You would never continue a set of squats if you could no longer lock out the weight. If you got all the way up on rep five but were only able to get up ¾ of the way on rep six you wouldn’t proceed to do four more reps of partials until the set ended with the weight crashing down on you and crippling you. But that’s exactly how people finish their sets of pull ups. The form gets worse and worse and worse, and they keep going and going and going, climbing up the invisible ladder, swinging and kipping. When you do this you get no stronger. And most of the time you get weaker. The negative effect of training to failure is seen more on chin ups than any other exercise. No one knows why this is, but trust me, that’s how it is.
2) Lose excess body fat- If you are carrying excess body fat your ability to do pull ups will be greatly reduced. Extra body fat is good for lifting more weight in certain exercises that require greater leverage like the squat and deadlift. But that’s all it’s good for. Other than that it’s unhealthy and unsightly.
3) Start in the proper position- All too often people start in the dead hang position with their scapula elevated and their shoulders touching their ears. This is dangerous and incorrect. When you do this all of the tension is placed on your tendons and ligaments instead of your muscles. When you get on the bar you want to pull your shoulder blades down and lock your shoulders into their sockets. This is a far safer position and ensures that the stress will be placed directly on the muscles and not the tendons and ligaments.
4) Maintain a slight elbow bend throughout the set- This goes hand in hand with the above tip. Before starting your set you want to bend your elbows ever so slightly. This bend should barely be noticeable, but it will have a huge impact on your elbow health. Do not start with your elbows completely locked. This, again, places all of the stress on the tendons and ligaments instead of on the muscles. On each successive rep you should lower yourself until your arms are nearly straight, stopping just shy of lockout. But don’t use this as an excuse to cheat. Just shy of lockout means that your elbows are “99% locked out;” you just don’t want that complete extension.
5) Initiate with the lats- When you start to pull, be sure that you fire your lats first; not your biceps. If you have trouble feeling your lats, as many newbies do, have someone poke or slap your lats a few times before you start pulling. Even having a partner keep his hands in contact with your lats throughout the set may help. It may also look a little strange to other members of your gym.
6) Drive your elbows down- To get the most out of your lats when you chin you should think about driving your elbows down and back. Don’t simply pull with your biceps.
7) Pull your chin to the bar- I used to be a stickler for having people pull their chest to the bar. I still instruct beginners to do that, knowing full well that they won’t be able to, but that it will at least instill the importance of getting high. You only need your chin to clear the bar. That last few inches does very little for you lats and instead focuses the stress on the smaller, weaker muscles of your upper/middle back. The pull up should be used to target the lats, first and foremost. Don’t waste energy struggling with that last few inches at the top. Get your chin over while keeping your back arched and then lower yourself. Use other rowing exercises to target those smaller upper back muscles and use the pul up to smoke your lats completely.
8] Use a variety of grips- There are countless ways to pull your body up. You can do chin ups with your palms facing you at a number of different grip widths. You can also do chin ups with your palms facing each other, or pull ups with your palms facing away at multiple grip widths. You can pull up on bars, rings, fat bars, ropes, towels, suspension straps, beams, Eagle Loops, and even baseballs or softballs hanging from a chain. The variations are endless. Use as many different chin ups as possible to avoid burnout or overuse injuries.
9) Use a variety of rep ranges- To do a lot of pull ups you need strength and you need endurance. Strength is built with low reps. You can do low reps with a weighted vest or dip belt or you can simply perform more difficult variations of pull ups. Endurance is built with high reps. This is where the use of bands comes in handy. Having a few different levels of band tension will allow you to vary your rep range greatly. This will help you boost your chin up numbers a lot faster. Some days you train in the range of 1-5 reps for maximal strength. Some day you train in the range of 6-12, and others you train in the range of 15-30, with a band, to improve your endurance.
10) Strengthen your grip- The stronger your grip is the easier pull ups will feel. I suggest getting a Captains of Crush Gripper and using it a few times per week. You can also add in some more specific grip work at the gym like fat bar holds, hexagon dumbbell holds, as well as various pinching and crushing exercises.
Start using these top 10 ways to improve your pull ups today and drop me a line to let me know how they’re working out for you.