Do you want to know how to do pull-ups properly? Unsure of the correct technique? Struggling to see any improvements in your back from doing this movement? If you answered yes to any of these questions then this is the article for you.
There are many debates throughout the world of fitness. But the question “what’s the hardest bodyweight exercise to do”? Isn’t one of them. If you have never done them before, then even band assisted pull-ups can be a nightmare.
Pull-ups place a huge demand on nearly the entire upper body, and if you have ever attempted to knock out a few reps in the gym or your local park, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. Many will say pull-ups is only second to the king of exercises “the deadlift” when it comes to back development. And I would struggle to argue against this.
Most people I ask, even those who are capable of banging out multiple reps and some even with extra weight added, will always tell me it’s one of their favourite and worst exercises at the same time due to the stress it places on their hands, arms back and shoulders.
At the risk of rambling on here. I can tell you now, there is no greater feeling for my clients who are unable to do even do a single rep at first, who then managed to pull themselves up unassisted for the very first time.
The pull up is a fantastic exercise for working the middle of your back, lats and core. The problem is, it’s very rare people actually work and engage these muscles properly due to either extremely poor form, adding to much extra weight too soon or trying to bang out as many reps in a set as they can.
I’m going to look at everything from weighted pull-ups to exactly how to do pull-ups properly and actually build the muscles this monster of an exercise was intended for.
I’m also going to show anyone who is a complete beginner, what to do in order to achieve your very first pull up in good form.
Table Of Contents
- Bar Hangs While Depressing And Retracting Your Scapulae
- Negative Reps To Learn Or Relearn The Pull-Up
- Dead Stop Paused Reps
How To Execute The Pull-Up In Proper Form
Does being able to do 15 t0 20 reps mean you’re good at pull-up? Pulling your own body weight up like that, loads of time, surely means you have perfected this movement right? How about being able to add a load of extra weight. This surely makes you the king of the pull-up?
Okay, for a select few, this may be the case, but for most people, I see doing the pull-up, their form is very questionable.
I can’t be the only one who sees people banging out rep after rep, or hanging an extra 40 lbs to their waste, yet have zero back development. Now I know the pull-up won’t be entirely responsible for building your back, but surely someone with the ability to do multiple reps or add more weight should have a pretty strong and developed back?
The Hang (Set Up Phase)
If your elbows are the first joint to move, then straight from the off, you are doing them wrong.
The focus of a pull up is to target both the upper back, mid back and lats. Now you can’t get away from the arms and forearms playing their part, but that’s all they should be doing is playing a part as secondary muscles to the big prime movers of the back.
Here lies the problem with most peoples technique. The elbows are the first joints moved, and this instantly prevents the major back muscles being engaged properly.
The very first thing you should be doing before even thinking about bending your arms is making sure your shoulders are depressed and scapulae squeezed together. Once this is done at the beginning of the movement whilst in full extension of the arms, you can then think about starting the pulling motion.
By controlling the scapulae in this manner, will ensure you are getting the full engagement of the major back muscles during the whole exercise rather than just pumping up your arms and forearms.
The other issue with pulling your elbows first is the incomplete range of motion that will occur. Yes by stopping short at the bottom and not going into a fully stretched position will allow you to pump more reps out, but will massively hinder your back development. Remember we are using this exercise to build a strong and muscular back and not to feed our egos.
See how his arms are fully stretched and shoulder blades depressed ready to start the pulling motion.
The Pull (Understanding How To Perfect The Top Half Of The Movement)
So you now know how to set up for the pulling phase of the pull-up, and with practice, you will easily be able to perfect this and make sure your major back muscles are fully engaged from the get-go.
But now comes the next problem that many people run into. The top half of the pull-up. This again is a vital part of the movement and something most get wrong.
As well as being one of the toughest exercises to do in the correct form, it’s also one of those exercises that many people struggle to maintain form throughout the movement. What I mean by this is, when I do see someone who has perfected the setup phase, they then struggle to hold that form and it all goes a little pear-shaped at the top.
The most common mistake I see is people trying to get their face and top of the chest right over the bar even though the lats are only involved fully for around 20% of each repetition.
Don’t get wrong, you probably are strong, in order to be able to do this, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean your back is.
Trying to get your face and top of the chest over and on top of the bar means your shoulders will end up near your ears, and not engaged in the position we talked about above. It’s great being able to start the pull up correctly, but we also have to work on maintaining that good shoulder position at the top of the repetition to make sure the back stays fully active throughout.
So many people struggle with this part of the rep, but there are a few indicators that will tell you if you are not maintaining correct form both at the bottom and the top of the rep.
- If you feel discomfort in your shoulders during the pull-up, chances are you are doing them wrong and have not kept your shoulder blades depressed.
- If you can pull your face right over the bar, you have lost control of your scapulae and are doing them wrong.
- If you feel mostly sore around the outside of your shoulder blades and arms the next morning after doing pull-ups, then you probably didn’t engage your lats properly lower down on your back.
I know it must feel nice, being able to brag to your friends about doing 20 pull-ups in one hit, but are you doing this exercise to train your ego or your back? If it’s your ego, then carry on as you are. However, if it’s your back then practice the correct form and don’t worry about having to drop 10 or 12 reps off your set. It’s much more impressive having thick and wide back then doing 20 pull-ups badly.
See how his scapulae stay squeezed together and depressed and his chest and part of his face remain under the bar.
Below is a full tutorial video demonstrating what I have spoken about so far in this article.
Ways To Learn Or Relearn The Pull-Up Correctly
Below I’m going to show you some training methods you can implement into your back session to either help you do a pull-up for the very first time or to help you relearn the movement if you are someone who has been doing them already but in bad form.
Bar Hangs While Depressing And Retracting Your Scapulae
Whether you can pull yourself up or not, when learn or relearning to do pull-ups properly this should be the first thing you do.
- Place your hands on the bar slightly wider than shoulder width
- Make sure you do this in an overhand grip.
- With your arms fully stretched, raise your feet off the floor by bending at the knees
- Do not bend at the elbows at this stage
- From this stretched position you now want to depress and squeeze your shoulder blades together, pushing your chest up at the same time.
- Hold in this position for around 20 seconds.
- Repeat for 4 to 5 sets
Note: If you are unable to maintain this position for the full 20 seconds and either feel your grip go or your shoulders relax and raise back up, then simply hold for as long as you can and over the weeks the time will slowly build up.
Remember, we are not just hanging there for the sake of hanging. You must depress and squeeze your scapulae.
Negative Reps To Learn Or Relearn The Pull-Up
When you’re aiming to do your very first pull-up, doing negative reps is a fantastic technique to help you achieve this. These can be used in conjunction with bar hangs. I would, however, only start doing these once you can comfortably depress and squeeze your scapulae together. Negative reps will only be effective once this is achieved.
- Climb or jump up to the pull-up bar, making sure you are starting in the correct position as described above in the section The Pull (Understanding How To Perfect The Top Half Of The Movement)
- Slowly lower yourself down into the fully extended position at the bottom.
- Once at the bottom and in the fully extended position, make sure your shoulder blades are still depressed and hold for a further 3 to 4 seconds before you drop to the floor.
- Aim for 4 to 6 reps per set lowering as slow as you can on each one. We are not aiming to do static holds here so make sure you are still moving even if you are able to achieve a really slow pace.
- Complete 3 sets of negative reps.
Note – Even if you are already able to pull yourself up, doing negative reps will really allow you to focus on keeping your shoulders in the correct position.
Dead Stop Paused Reps
Okay, so this training technique isn’t so much a tool that can be used if you are a beginner aiming to achieve your first full pull-up, as it requires you to be able to do full reps in good form already.
What it can be used for, is to make the set really challenging again once you are already able to complete reps in good form.
The purpose of doing dead stop paused reps, is to take away the stretch reflex part of the rep. By doing this, any momentum you can gain during the movement is killed off. This will give you the perception that you are lifting much more weight throughout the pull-up.
Going from normal reps to these is usually a massive shock to the system and as long as you’re doing the movement in the correct form, this simple change of tempo will ignite a massive response from your lats.
All you do is pause at the bottom of the movement for around 2 seconds with your arms fully extended. This simple change will make a huge difference in the difficulty of the exercise.
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Best Assistance Lifts For The Pull-Up
Now, of course, the best way to improve at an exercise is by actually doing the exercise. However, these assistance lifts will help bring your pull-up a long at a much faster rate.
Straight Bar Lat Pull Down
There is no other exercise that replicates the pull up as much as the lat pull-down does. Make sure you use a straight bar and place your hands the same width apart as you would when doing pull-ups.
Rope Face Pulls
A fantastic exercise that will not only help improve your pull-up but also your posture. This exercise will really allow you to focus on retracting and squeezing your shoulder blades together, which as we know is a hugely important part of the pull-up.
Best Pull-Up Variations For Super-Charged Strength
Okay, so this next section is a bit of fun really. None of these should be the focus on your program for building strength, thickness and width of the back. Stick to the main and original pull up for that. However, these really help build your core, improve functional strength, and last but not least, can really help increase your overall grip strength. Also, some of these variations are just immensely difficult and will really challenge your upper body.
So if you are looking for something to add into the end of your workout to spice things up, that’s not only fun but extremely challenging as well, try some of these out.
Hanging Windshield Wipers
Have you ever done the basic windshield wiper exercise lying on the floor? If you have then you will know how incredibly tough it can be on the core So what’s the sensible thing to do? I know, make it even harder by hanging off a pull-up bar.
If you think you already have a strong core, then try this exercise out to really put it to the test.
This exercise is a real core blaster. You can also do this in an overhand wider pull-up grip but it makes a tough exercise even harder. Focus on doing the L-Sit with chin-ups first before moving onto an overhand grip. I would love to know how you get on with this one in the comments below.
The simple way to describe these are, when doing them, you move as a typewriter does. Once you have pulled your chest up to the bar using an overhand grip, you then move side to side from one arm to the other. Check out the video below for a great demo and tutorial. Oh, by the way, these are also extremely challenging. I would master the full and original pull-up before attempting these.
How To Do Pull-Ups Properly Key Takeaways
- The first joint you move should not be your elbows when doing pull-ups
- Make the pull-up a back dominant exercise by depressing and retracting the shoulder blades first
- Do not add any additional weight if you can not do at least 6 pull-ups in perfect form
- Doing a lot of reps badly will only train one thing, your ego. If you want to build your back then learn or relearn proper form
- Do bar hangs whilst depressing and retracting your shoulder blades and negative reps to relearn the pull-up
- Do dead stop paused reps to increase the difficulty of the movement further
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Hi, I’m David and I believe absolutely anyone can achieve the body of their dreams. I’m a qualified health and fitness coach and have been helping clients achieve their dream bodies for 15 years. Whether you are looking to get beach body ready, compete in a bodybuilding show or simply to improve your confidence and wellbeing, I can help.