The coveted pull up. The king of all exercises.
The exercise that when you finally achieve it, you feel unstoppable.
But why does such a seemingly simple exercise seem to be so challenging? And why is it that so many people struggle?
WHY THE PULL UP?
The pull up measures your strength to weight ratio better than almost any other exercise. That’s because you’re pulling your entire body weight from a dead hang (we’re talking strict pull ups here, not the kipping kind). It takes serious strength in your trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, teres major… and the list goes on and on.
Basically, you need serious strength in your back, shoulders, forearms, abs, and almost every upper body muscle.
And all of those muscles have to work together to make one movement.
So it takes someone with some beefy muscles to make it happen, right? And if you want to get a pull up, you better just get jacked, right?
Sometimes the people who struggle with pull-ups the most are the biggest fellas in the gym. The hulk-look-alikes that could easily bench 400 pounds. But the second they jump onto a bar, they can barely lift themselves up 6 inches. While a 5 foot, 100-pound woman could jump on the bar and bust out 15 in a row.
It’s not always about how big your muscles are. A bigger does not always mean better for the pull ups.
WHY ARE THEY SO HARD?
Pull-ups are a challenging exercise because it’s a balance of physics. It’s all about how much energy you have to use to pull a certain amount of weight over a certain distance at certain angles. And those numbers are different for everyone.
The way your elbows bend, the length of your arms and your total body mass will all change the amount of energy it takes for you to get to the top.
Now does that mean you need to become a science whizz to hit your first pull up? No, but it does mean that when you master the pull up is going to be different than your workout buddy.
Just think about it – if you’ve got long ass arms and your buddy next to you has short stubby ones, he’s got a much shorter distance to pull himself. And that shorter distance means he needs much less effort, energy and strength to get his chest up to the bar. Let’s say you weigh the same amount and have the same bone and muscle structure. The only difference is your monkey arms and his stubby ones. If he only has to pull ½ meter to get up to the bar, he needs about 490 Joules of energy. If your monkey arms are covering a full meter to get up to the top, you need twice the amount of energy.
That means you need more muscle and strength to hit your pull up. Even if you weigh the same.
BUT WHAT ABOUT FOR WOMEN?
Pulls ups are harder for women. But this doesn’t mean they can’t do just as many as a man.
But don’t tell the researchers at the University of Dayton about that. They did a study and found that women can’t do a pull up.
Seriously. Those were their findings. They took 17 women and introduced them to strength training. Started them on a 3x per week strength training program and guided them through for 3 months. At the end of those 3 months, none of those women could do a pull up.
Their conclusion? No woman can do a pull up.
If that isn’t a wildly flawed study and conclusion, I don’t know what is. Just because those 17 women couldn’t doesn’t mean the rest of their gender can’t. And obviously the researchers haven’t ever stepped foot into a gym where real women workout.
Sure, it is harder for women to get their pull ups, but it is by no means impossible.
Awhile ago, the Marine Corp was about to initiate a new physical activity requirement that all men and women had to be able to do 3 pull ups in order to pass their physical fitness test. But before they put it into practice, they tested it. And they found that over half the woman would have failed this 3 pull up requirement.
But not every woman failed. And when given the time to train for this new requirement, the second time around, over half of the women passed.
Proves the point that it is possible. And that plenty of women can and will do pull ups.
But why is it so much harder for women?
The difference is that women tend to carry more weight in the legs and hips and less strength in their upper body. In fact, when studied with MRIs, women have about 40% less upper body strength than men. It’s just their biologic makeup.
But any person can challenge their genetics with some focused training. And no, training for pull-ups isn’t going to make women’s arms as big as their male counterparts. Women’s testosterone levels are much lower so their muscles will be smaller, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get their chest up to the bar.
Point is, plenty of folks struggle with pulls ups, men and women alike. But everyone is capable of getting one. You just have to train for it and train for it some more.
Here are the 5 steps to finally master that pull up:
1. LEARN THE PROPER FORM
The pull up is far more important than just getting your chest up to the bar. Just like a rounded back is going to hurt you on a deadlift, bad form on a pull up is going to have some negative effects too. I know that many gyms use kipping pull ups in their workouts, but I am a firm believer that you must be able to master the strict pull up before even considering one with momentum in it. Using the proper form will make sure the appropriate muscles are engaged and that you aren’t doing damage to your rotator cuffs.
Begin from a dead hang with arms fully extended, hands about shoulder width apart, palms facing out, elbows straight, chest up, shoulders back and tight, eyes trained on the bar above. Your hand should be in a hook grip around the bar to give you the most torque. Brace your trunk by squeezing your glutes and pulling your ribcage down. Keep your legs and feet together as if you were holding a hollow hold for the entire movement.
Then, keeping your belly tight and butt squeezed, start pulling yourself up. Imagine pushing your feet forward as you pull to keep your body into that hollowed position to keep your back muscles strong and your scapula retracted.
Focus on using your elbows for pulling rather than your hands. Drive your elbows back and down toward the floor and clear the bar with your chin. Lower yourself in a controlled manner and then repeat the process.
This is a strict pull up. Keeping your legs straight and your body hollowed requires a great amount of strength, but is the best way for engaging your muscles and protecting all of your joints.
2. LOWER YOUR BODY WEIGHT
Folks that have a good amount of strength but still can’t get above the bar might be struggling because their weight is higher than their strength. Yes, you can work on building your strength more, but you could get faster results by also decreasing your weight. Lowering your body fat will decrease how much weight those muscles have to pull. And having less to pull means it’s a bit easier to get above the bar. Sounds obvious, but of course, shedding body fat is much easier said than done.
3. INCREASE YOUR GRIP STRENGTH
Part of the reason people can’t get pull ups is because they can’t hang on to the bar. Their grip strength is too weak. You can improve your grip strength with tons of exercises, like farmer’s carries or heavy deadlifts, but you can also practice just by hanging from the bar without the pull up movement. This is called the dead hang. And although you’re just hanging there, you want to do it with the good, hollowed out form, not like a dead, floppy body. Once your grip strength increases, you’ll have more torque to pull yourself up.
4. VARY YOUR TRAINING
Too many people only practice pull-ups by using a band to assist them. And you know what this is going to get you good at? More banded pull-ups.
Bands are like drugs – they’re easy to get addicted to because you’re body doesn’t know how to wean off them. By always using bands for pull ups, your body never becomes familiar with the total weight of a dead hang. Bands can help you learn the movement pattern of the pull up, but they aren’t the most efficient way to build strength if it’s the only exercise you’re doing.
If you want to be able to do a true pull up without a band, you have to practice without the band (at least some of the time). And there are tons of different exercises to build your pull up strength that don’t require a band. Negative pull ups (when you jump up above the bar and slowly lower yourself down), rope climbs, or ring rows can all help build your pull up strength without bands. And because you can put your body in different angles, you can change the amount of weight you’ll be lifting.
The key is to keep consistent form in all of your exercises. Avoid kipping or swinging pull-ups or you’ll start training your body to get above the bar with incorrect form.
Practice makes perfect. And you aren’t going to get that pull up if you aren’t practicing. You can do exercises every day – like rows or jumping pull ups – to start building volume. The frequency will start building up and your muscles will soon start adapting to the pull up movement. You can practice all varieties of pull up grip holds and pull up modifications to maximize your total pull up strength. And soon enough, when your strength and grip increase and you’ve maybe shed a little excess fat, you’ll be able to hit that king of upper body exercises.
And finally master the pull up.
Now if you’re struggling with how to get started, here are 10 great exercises to build your pull up strength – of course we could give you hundreds that could help, but this is just a little taster. Start incorporating one or two of these at the end of your workouts, 4 times per week. Gradually increase your reps, decrease your amount of assistance or increase your length of time.
- Banded pull ups: But don’t pick the bands that make this easy. Make sure you give yourself a challenge. You should still be working hard to get your chest up to the bar, but just with a little extra help.
- Hollow body rocks: Lay on the floor with arms overhead, body tight and hollowed. Rock gently back and forth keeping your body tight.
- Bar Hangs: hang from the bar with your dead weight. Stay in a hollow position.
- Scapular Pulls: Holding onto the bar, pull your shoulder blades down and together. Then release and repeat.
- Negative pull ups: Jump up above the bar and slowly lower yourself down to floor or box. Aim to take10 seconds on the lowering down portion. Then jump back up and repeat.
- Partner spotted pull ups: Your spotter should assist from the waist, not the legs. And of course they should make you work for it!
- Bottoms up kettle bell swings: holding a kettle bell by the handle, swing it until the kettle bell is upside down. Hold it upside for 2 seconds then swing it back down. This helps build grip and forearm strength to help you hold on to the bar better.
- Farmer Carries: Grab two heavy kettle bells, hold them down to your sides but not touching you and walk forward without dropping them. Again, another grip builder.
- Pull Up Hold: Jump yourself up to the top position of the pull up. Hold yourself up as long as you can at the top.
- Rows: Either with dumbbells, rings, on a bar. Any method can help build your back strength.
Then just keep practicing!