The Definitive Pull-Up Guide

T

he Pull-Up. For some people, its viewed as humble bodyweight movement that can be performed effortlessly after an all night alcohol bender right before you pass out. For others, it is viewed as an elusive movement reserved for the athletically inclined or gifted.

Whichever camp you’re in, this guide has something for you. The purpose is to cover everything you would need to get started learning pull-ups, refine you’re your current pull-up training, and advice on how to bring them to the next level. This includes common questions, movement technique, video, and detailed insights from someone who has been coaching this stuff for over 15 years.

First, lets get on the same page on what a pull-up is. The Pull-Up is an upper-body compound exercise that primarily works you back and biceps. But we already know that, right? What it is not is the Urban Dictionary term for “a threat. synonymous to ‘drop your location’ or ‘wanna fight’!

So when I say perform a pull-ups, please, please, don’t go get  in a fight because some guy on the internet said you should. Got it?

This short video shows what proper pull-up form looks like when stringing together multiple together. We can observe that in its most simple form is that one hangs from a bar, pulls so that their chin is over the bar, and then that lower themselves down.

This article is organized into various sections. Take a look at the table of contents to see what you’d like to learn more about.

Common Pull Up Questions

What is a Pull-Up?

The Pull-Up and its many variations are cornerstone movements to many strength programs. They are utilized by athletes in most sports and is a go-to movement for non-sport specific fitness and movement training. Its prevalence within disparate disciplines is well earned. It is a terrific movement that builds upper body strength and is infinitesimally customizable to the level and goals of the individual. Additionally, it utilizes simple and essentially free equipment. Every gym and many parks have pull-up bars. Pull-Up bars and gymnastics rings are also not expensive and light weight and great for home use. The flexibility and minimal equipment needs of pull-ups make it all the more accessible as a movement that can easily be included in most exercise programs. It doesn’t matter if you pay $300/month for an all access Equinox membership in Manhattan or refuse or can’t pay for a gym membership and use a local park or something you’ve rigged up at home. Its available to anyone with the inclination to learn.

So, what is a pull-up?

A pull-up is a upper-body compound strength exercise. Compound simply means there are multiple primary muscle groups used to complete the movement. Opposed to an isolation movement where there is just one muscle group acting as the primary mover.

It is performed by hanging from an apparatus, using your body to pull ones self up, and then lowering back to a hang.

The pull-up has different meanings and purposes to different types of training modalities.

  • General Purpose Fitness. The pull-up is often used to by athletes as tool to increase strength and power for their sport. With that said, it is hugely popular for people looking to improve their health, wellness, and fitness. It is (or should be) a movement practiced at-least weekly in a any fitness or strength program. Personally, I fall into this camp. I no longer compete in any sport but have pull-ups as part of my weekly routine.
  • Powerlifting and Strength Development. For powerlifters, the pull-up and chin-up is an accessory movement to their sport specific training. It is used to help increase max weights for Squat, Deadlift, and Bench. It primarily does this by developing muscle mass and strength across the upper body. Mainly the upper-back. Generally weighted chins are preferred for this group
  • CrossFit. In CrossFit, the pull-up is primarily an expression of power output across multiple time domains. In CrossFit, the pull-up is used as an expression of power, strength, stamina, and endurance. You’ll see weighted 1RMs. Weighted 5×5’s. And high rep sets using kipping or butterfly pull-ups. CrossFit is well knowing for using kipping pull-ups since one can perform more reps faster with less fatigue.
  • Bodybuilding. Bodybuilders utilize the pull-up to to optimize for shape that will maximize for points in a bodybuilding show. This generally will mean using it to gain thickness in the lats and upper-back.
  • Sport. Athletes of many sports will use the pull-up for general fitness to help improve performance in their primary sport.

As you can see, the Pull-Up is truly a cross disciplinary movement. When a movement is utilized by across sports and exercise modalities it often means its a valuable tool used for exercise prescription.

If progressed properly the pull-up can be the best movement for building upper-body pulling strength.

Can’t do a pull-up

Unable to do a strict pull-up yet? Your not alone! Many adults can’t do a pull-up. The usual reasons are disinterest, lack of effort, thoughts of it being out of reach or unattainable, and in some cases there are real physical limitations that prohibit the ability to perform the movement.

The good news though is that for those who are hoping to perform a pull-up is that it is an attainable movement for most people. What is required is sustained effort, the right equipment, and a good program to guide you. For some, it is just a matter of a few weeks of training. For others, it may be months or years.

If you can’t do a pull-up, I’ve put to together a program specific for beginners. You can check out the pull-up program to see if that interests you.

Where most people fail at pull-ups once they get started on the journey is not following a logical progression scheme. Progressing a bodyweight exercises is unlike stretching or weightlifting.

Bodyweight movement progressions require getting strong at an easier movement and then using that new strength to be able to perform a new movement. You follow that paradigm until you work your way up to the bodyweight movement that interests you. If you’re just going to the gym and doing band pull-ups and assisted pull-ups you’re already setup for failure unless you are very close to your first pull-up already.

There are many many different progression options to pick from. The pull-up progression that I offer is broken out into 6 different movements ranging from easiest to hardest. Here are 6 movements I suggest to work you’re way up to your first pull-up:

  1. Body Row at a 45 degrees angle.
  2. 30 Degree Knee Bend Leg Assisted Pull-Up
  3. Straight Leg Assisted Pull-Up
  4. 18″ Elevated Straight Leg Assisted Pull-Up
  5. 20 seconds Elevated Leg Assisted Pull-Up Hold with a controlled 5 second descent at a 12-18″ elevation
  6. 8 seconds Pull-Up Hold with a 5 second descent

Once someone is able to do step 6 well-enough they are very close to a pull-up or already have it. There are of course thousands of different programs and progressions to pick from. If you’re looking for some other options I would suggest looking up the Armstrong program.

Imagine this. There is a room of 10 painters. The instructor says to paint a boat. Each artist will paint a boat but each will have their own creative take on it. Some boats will be better than others but likely most people will know its a painting of a boat at the end of the day. But for the non-artist, the small details like brush stroke and composition is often missed simply because novices lack the knowledge to know the difference.

Designing exercise progressions is the same type of deal. Each trainer will have their own take and they are all largely the same. They will all use same fundamental exercise science principles. But each training will use different movements, reps, volume, and other things. Just like each painter used different colors, strokes, and techniques.

Just pick a program that looks good to you and you know that you can follow. Ultimately, that is more important that picking ‘the best’ program.

How to do a pull-up

In its most basic form, the pull-up movement is broken into the following four sections.

  1. The beginning of the pull-up starts from hanging from a apparatus. The apparatus usually being a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings. Although, it can be anything that you can hang from your hands.
  2. Starting from a hanging position the person pulls their body in a vertical direction. They do this until the chin is above the apparatus.
  3. The person holds for a moment with the chin over the apparatus.
  4. The person then lowers themselves downward until they are back in a hanging position. Once they are back at the bottom with arms fully extended it is the completion of one rep.

Here is a video of me completing multiple strict pull-ups.

Overall Pull-Up Progression

The pull-up has the potential to be the bedrock of a upper-body pulling routine. There are three reasons why the pull-up is often not utilized as often as it could be or utilized at all:

  1. It can be viewed as intimidating not knowing how to do your first pull-up. Perhaps the pull-up equipment is in the weight room where the ‘intimidating’ people are. Or Perhaps someone doesn’t have a pull-up yet and they are embarrassed. If you fall into this camp, not to worry! Being more informed and taking the mystique out around pull-ups is the first step to break past that mental plateau.
  2. Another reason is not knowing how to progress to your first pull-up. If this is you, you’re in luck. There are many many ways to progress to get your first pull-up.
  3. The last reason is not knowing what to aspire to. This is for those who can currently knock out 5-10 reps of strict pull-ups. Did you stop because pull-ups are no longer challenging? I have some tough news for you. The next major progression will be one arm pull-ups.

What I’ve observed is that there are two main groups of people in terms of pull-up ability.

  1. Ability to do 0-10 two arm strict pull-ups.
  2. 10+ two arm strict pull-ups.

Both these groups will fall into steps 1-3 in the following diagram.

Pull-Up Foundational Movement Progressions

In terms of the pull-up,  there are two foundational movement categories.

  1. Pull-Ups and Pull-Up variations with two arms.
  2. One Arm Pull-Ups and and One Arm Pull-Up variations.

Unfortunately, most people stick to the two arm variations without ever working one-arm training into their exercise program.

There are multiple reasons why one-arm training is neglected. Here are a few:

  1. Its a exceptionally difficult to aspire to.
  2. The progressions on how to attain a one-arm pull-up are sparse.
  3. Most people don’t even know the movement exists!

I am a huge advocate for making the one arm pull-up the goal that individuals strive for. This is true even if its reasonable to assume that the person will never achieve it. This is because even the one-arm pull-up variations are superior to doing endless two-arm pull-ups.

Do pull ups work?

This one of those amorphous and ambiguous questions that is difficult to answer. Do pull ups work? Well, it depends what the definition of  ‘work’ is in this context.

  • Do pull ups work to cure my need for acceptance from my peer group that I want oh so badly? Not likely. And if does, you should probably brand out and find some new friends.
  • Do pull ups work to increase the strength and muscle mass in my back and biceps? Likely.

The root of this question really stems from, what are pull ups good for? Thats a better question. So lets dig in.

  • Pull ups are good for developing strength, muscle mass, and stamina in muscles that are involved in upper-body pulling. Pull-ups are also a basic bodyweight movement. And like most basic bodyweight movements, there will be diminishing returns. If you can do 15 strict pull-ups, there won’t be much gain by doing more unless you specifically need it for stamina. If you’re at 15 strict pull ups then its better to focus on more difficult pulling movements ( L Pull ups, no leg rope climbs, ect) or start working on weighted pull-ups.
  • Pull ups are good for shoulder health and stability.
  • Pull ups are good for progressing towards other movements. They act as a good base of upper-body strength for things like muscle ups, levers, and one arm pull-ups.

Why Include Pull-Ups in your training?

This is an important question. The teleological reasoning that helps justify pull-ups in a exercise program. Exercising is time consuming and requires discomfort to progress. We should exercise diligence when making long-term training decisions. And one of those decisions is to understand why pull-ups are important so you can decide if you want to commit the time and discomfort to gain and maintain the ability.

In the next section we’ll discuss specific benefits of pull-ups. But before we do that, lets consider strength training more broadly. Lets imagine a standard barbel back squat linear progressions.

  1. On week 1, you squat 5 sets of 5 for 45lb.
  2. On week 2, you squat 5 sets of 5 for 50lb.
  3. For the next 20 weeks, you continue adding 5/lb/week.

By the end of 20 weeks the person will be squatting 150lb for a 5×5. This is how much beginner and intermediate barbell strength training programs operate.

Now, lets use the same thought experiment for pull-ups.

  1. On week 1, you do 5 sets of 5 reps of pull-ups.
  2. On week 2, you do 5 sets of 6 reps of pull-ups.
  3. For the next 20 weeks, you continue to add 1 rep per set.

By the time its over, you’ll be doing 5 sets of 26 body weight pull-ups.

First off, don’t do that. It won’t work.

Second, lets say we did do something like that. What is the end result? Higher and higher reps of bodyweight pull-ups?

We can do better than that. Take a look at the following table.

Physiological OutcomeReps Per Set
Strength1-5
Hypterophy6-15
Endurance16+

What this tells us is if we simply add more and more reps, then the movement becomes more of an endurance focus. What this shows us that when it comes to bodyweight movement progressions, we need a different way to progress than with barbell training. That is the secret sauce of pull-up progressions. Knowing when to ‘graduate’ away from a movement when it begins to get too easy and then move to the next one.

For example, lets say you want to get your first strict pull-up. There are many ways to do it but one may look like like this if you have a pull-up assistance machine available to you.

  1. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 60 lb of resistance.
  2. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 50 lb of resistance.
  3. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 40 lb of resistance.
  4. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 30 lb of resistance.
  5. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 20 lb of resistance.
  6. Ability to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 10 lb of resistance.

By step 6, you’ll be close or already have the ability to do a strict pull up without assistance.

Now lets get back to the original question. Why Include Pull-Ups in your training?

The reason to do them is because it leads to the single best upper-body pulling movement there is. The One Arm Pull-Up. There are certainly generic reasons why you want to train pull-ups like strength, power, muscle mass, and other having a V shape tapered back. But those are the results of training.

If you fall into the camp of focusing on the end results of working out, check out one of my favorite articles.  By Product. Not the product.

Still, I know most people don’t think learning to do a one arm pull up is enough reason to commit. Take a look at the following section about the top benefits pull-ups to see if any resonate with you.

Top Pull-Up Benefits

The pull-up is one of my favorite movements to train and develop. But don’t let my favoritism sway you. Here are a few of the major movement specific reasons that will compel you to start training pull-ups or deepen your perspective.

  1. Arm and Back Strength. This is an obvious benefit of pull-ups.  The more pull-ups you can do or more weight added the stronger you’ll be. Specifically, the stronger you are with this movement the more upper body pulling strength you have. Additionally, you’ll also develop more scapular strength. That pulling and scapular strength have carry over to other movements such as the Planche, Front Lever, and Back Lever.
  2. Aesthetics. This is what brings most people into working out. They want to look damn sexy. Personally, I try to stay away from the ‘workout to look a certain way’ mentality. I find that using exercise as a means to aid in vanity is not a long-term strategy. Sure, it works for a few months or years but once you get into that long-term comfortable relationship the first thing to is exercise. If this topic interests you, check out my fitness motivation post.
  3. Pre-requisite for One Arm Pull-Up. For most people, the One Arm Pull-Up isn’t even on the radar as something they are striving so. It is my belief that it should be. Even if you never accomplish a one arm pull-up, working the assisted training for them has utility.
  4. It’s a Functional Movement. Being able to pull yourself up onto something is something we are evolved to do. We evolved from tree swinging apes who laugh at us for reading and writing articles on the internet about how to do something as simple as a pull-up when they do it all-day-everyday.
  5. Grip Strength. Did you know there is a correlation between a weak grip strength and mortality?  “Each 11-pound decrease in grip strength over the course of the study was linked to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause.” In addition to a stronger grip strength being associated with longer lifespans, it also carries over to other movements such as rope climbs and muscle ups.
  6. Do them anywhere. Seriously. This sounds like contrived fitness advice but its important. Access to training and time for training are hugely important for making increasing fitness. Pull-ups can be done at home, traveling, the park, or the gym.
  7. Cross Functional. This is different than functional fitness. Functional fitness comes from ideas in evolutionary fitness. In evolutionary fitness is the idea that our lifestyle habits should be influenced around how homo sapiens evolved. For example, we evolved to walk and sprint so we should do some walking and sprinting everyday. Cross functional is when when there is transference in utility from one movement to another. In the case of the pull-up, if you improve your pulling strength, other attributes develop as well . One example is that the stronger your pulling ability, the stronger your pushing ability. You could theoretically go from 0 to 20 strict pull-ups in three months and improve your push ups without ever doing any. Neat! Also, depending on your sport, there may be cross-over sport performance benefits for sports like rock climbing, jiu-jitsu, and many more.

What muscles do pull ups work

The pull-up and chin-up are both upper body compound strength movements. What that means is they both work multiple muscle groups in the upper-body. The next question is then as follows: What exact muscles are worked and which muscles are worked more than others?

This study attached EKG meters to individuals performing both the pull-up and chin-up. They ranked muscle groups from most used to least. Are you interested what do pull ups work? Well, here ya go!

  1. Latissimus dorsi (117-130%)
  2. Biceps brachii (78-96%)
  3. Infraspinatus (71-79%)
  4. Lower trapezius (45-56%)
  5. Pectoralis major (44-57%)
  6. Erector spinae (39-41%)
  7. External oblique (31-35%)

Wow, those are some weird anatomy terms! Basically, it works you’re back and biceps.

Additionally, they also found:

The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up.

What this tells us is that the chin-up works the biceps and chest more. Where the pull-up works the upper-back more.

Pull-Up vs. Chin-Up

The pull-up and chin-up are often use interchangeably but that wouldn’t be correct. Even though they are both extremely similar they are different movements. The chin-up is considered the easier of the two movements because it is able to recruit a larger portion of the lats and biceps. For this reason a person will often get a chin-up before they get a pull-up.

As a personal note, I favor strength development as a priority in my training and advice giving in training and writing. For that reason, I mostly train the chin-up. I find it is more intuitive and I can pull with more force. This ultimately translates into doing heavier weighted chin-ups and more importantly, translates to the one-arm pull-up better.

The key difference between the two is the had position. The pull-up uses a pronated grip. This is when your palms are facing away.

(PICTURE COMING SOON)

The chin-up uses the supinated grip. Which is palms facing you. To help you remember, think of holding a bowl of soup. You have to have your palms facing up. Soup = Supinated. There, you’ll never forget.

(PICTURE COMING SOON)

What is a negative chin-up or pull-up?

A negative pull-up or chin-up is the lowering portion of a pull-up. To get this down, lets do a little exercise science lesson while we are here. There are three types of muscular contractions used in strength training:

  • Eccentric. This is when your muscle is lengthening under tension. Lets use a bicep curl as an example. Eccentric is when the weight is lowering down and making the muscle long.
  • Concentric:  Still rolling with the bicep curl example. This is when the muscle moves up and makes the muscle shorter.
  • Isometric.  Now imaging that on the way up or down you just stopped moving. The muscle is not moving longer or shorter, but it is still under tension and not moving. The portion of the movement where it is not moving is called an isometric contraction.

Look at you! Getting smart and and strong at the same time. Aren’t we fancy?

Now, back to what a negative pull-up is. By now, you already know that the top part of a pull-up is when your chin is over the bar. Right?!? The negative (or the eccentric contraction) is the lowering down. Here is a quick diagram to hammer down the point:

negative pull up

Also, here is a video to really hammer home the point.

Tempo & Speed

Imagine you jump up and do a pull-up and you go up and down a rep as fast as possible.

Now, imagine you jump up and do a pull-up where it takes 2 seconds on the way up, you hold your chin over the bar for 3 seconds, and then lower yourself for 3 seconds.

They are both pull-ups but the training response is different. The fast pull-up will make you quick and speedy. The slow pull-up will make you a little stronger and better control of the movement. What tempo training

What tempo training allows for is controlling TUT (Time Under Tension) at the different portions of a body weight movement. The purpose of this section won’t go into detail about why one would use a certain tempo but instead how to follow pull-up tempo training when its assigned.

For exampe, if a 3 sets of 5 pull-ups are assigned to you, the tempo might look something like this:

3-X-1-0

or

3X10

Weird! I know. Here is how to interpret this cryptic puzzle from your trainer or favorite fitness guru.

  • The first number is the eccentric portion of the movement. So in this case, it is the lowering portion of the movement. In this case, the programming calls for 3 seconds on the way down. You get your chin over the bar and the moment you start moving down it begins counting towards the eccentric contraction.
  • The second is the time between the concentric and eccentric portion of the movement. For the pull-up, this is simple the bottom. Also known as the active or passive hang. In this case there is an X instead of a number. What this means is to be there with no hold. Bounce out as fast as possible. If there was a 3 there it would mean hangout at the bottom for 3 seconds.
  • The third number is the concentric portion of the movement. This is the upward portion of the pull-up. Still borrowing from the same example we are looking for a 1 second accent. We can consider this a controlled but fast accent. Opposed to a X which would be aggressive and as quick as possible. Or a 10 which would be ever so slow and controlled.
  • The last number of the movement is the hold at the top. This is the time between going up and going back down. In the example, there is a 0. So this means you don’t hangout at the top. You go up and then you move right into your eccentric contraction on the way down.

You’ll find many different tempos used in different programs and movements but this is the framework used for all of tempo training.

 

Breaking down each step of the Pull Up

There are many variations and types of the pull ups. When considering the standard strict pull up there will either bebe either four or five components (or sections) that constitute one rep of a proper pull up.

There are other types of pull-ups that don’t follow these steps same steps. For example, a negative pull up only has steps 3, 4, and 5. A frenchie pull-up has about 10.

Take a look at this picture below. It outlines each step of a standard pull up or chin up.

pull-up-steps

Resting Bottom (passive hang)

This possition is also called the starting possition of the pull-up, passive hang, or just hanging.

The first component is simply the resting position in any grip of you choosing on any apparatus of your choosing. In the resting position the only thing that is flexing is your grip. Your shoulders and your lower back should feel loose. They shouldn’t be contracting.

This is easier to see with a video. In the following video you can see me performing what are called scapular shrugs or scapular pull ups. At the bottom of the scapular movement I am in the resting possition. Then as I engage my lats and my scapula that my entire body becomes elevated. Then as I depress my scapula my entire body lowers itself.

The bottom of this scapular shrug is the resting/hanging

{VIDEO – Passive Hang & Scapular Shrugs – COMING SOON}

Something to consider is that when you do consecutive pull ups in row that this passive hang possition might not be relevant. For example, in the video at the begining of this post you’ll see that as I get setup for the first pull up that I begin with a passive hang. Then as I complete the first rep and move the second I don’t deacctivate my muscularure. I stay active. This is pefectly fine and normal. The thing you’ll need to be carefull of this to make sure that you still exten your elbows all the way at the bottom to perform complete reps.

Isometric contraction at bottom (active hang)

This possition is also knowing as an acive hang.

An isometric contraction is when a muscle is flexing but it isn’t moving. In the case of the isometirc contraction at the bottom of the pull-up it will be either under a second or non-existent. I go over this portion of the pull-up in great detail because it I believe its overlooked. As nuanced as it may be I find it an important concept to be aware of and to fold into your pull up practice.

In the above in the resting bottom section there is a video that shows scapular shrugs. The active hang is the top of the scapular shrug. It is when you are actively contracing your upperback musculature (mostly your rhomboid and trapezius ) to that your scapula is elevated.

Here is a video of what an active hang looks like. No need to watch the entire thing. Its quite boring once you get the idea.

{Video – Active hang – COMING SOON}

While doing this scapular shrug, you really aren’t moving very far. Maybe an inch or two. It is the first upward elevation from the pull-up. Also, jumping up grab the pull-bar doesn’t count as upward movement in the pull-up you little rascal.

When performing a pull-up scapular activation is often neglected or skipped. Hordes of fitness minded enthusiasts go from the passive hang to concentric contraction as the first upward movement. The idea of missing out on building scapular strength on every pull-up is a loathsome proposition. But before going into why thats abhorrent I’m going to take a momement to digress.

Lets have a little reality check and step back for a moment. If you’re reading this you’re likely in a place in your life where you’re researching how to do a pull-ups. You’re probablly an adult. And you’ve probablly never done pull-ups, your struggle with performing more than a few, or you haven’t been able to do them since you were running around the school yard as a kid full of youthfull vigor and a svelt frame. To be honest, if you fall into one of these camps, you’ve likely dropped ball somewhere along the line in terms of mainting a robust and healthy physical constituion as an adult. Decisions were made. Competing life priorirties meant that physical fitness was neglected. And thats OK. For many people, working out is falls into squarely into the camp of delayed gratification. The idea that you do things now that you don’t like doing but later on quality of life is improved. Similar to saving money. Sucks now but, you know, compounding interest and all and blah blah financial advice.

The reason I say this is that the pull-up is just a starting point in terms of upper-body pulling strength. It is dead fucking simple movement. The goal isn’t to just do pull-ups. The goal is to use pull-ups as a foundation to other pulling movements. Movements like Muscle Ups, L sit pull ups, legless rope climbs, and even one arm pull-ups. Scapular strenght is very help later on if you want to perform more complex upper body movements like these.

By skipping the active hang contraction it in your pull-up training you’ll have limitations down the line doing these more interesting movements. This is not limited to pulling movements. Even straight arm movements like ring push ups and handbalancing require some of this oh so sexy scapular muscle.

You can skip the active hang contraction in your pull-ups but let it be know that you’ve been warned. There is a downstream impact of skipping that we are trying to circumnavigate by having stalwart musuature around your scapular and thoracic girdle.

Concentric contraction (going up)

This is the portion of the pull-up where you are moving up. Its also the portion of the pull-up that alligns with its namesake.

This is considered the part of the pull up where the primary movers (largest muscle groups involved ) are concentricly contracting. The primary movers being the Latissimus Dorsi and Biceps Brachii.

So what is a concenric contraction? A concentric contraction is simpy the portion of the movment where the muscle fibers of the primary movers are shortening. For example, lets imagine the biceps while you are hanging from the bar. Your bicep muscle fibers are fully extended. They are as long as they can be. As you pull your self up your elbow begins to bend and that shortens the length of the fibers. That concetric contraction ends when you stop moving up. Once you’re at the top, if you stay there in a holding position, then you’ll be doing an isometric contraction. Once you start moving down (and if is controlled) you’ll be performing an eccentric contraction. More on that later.

In the following video we can observe that the concentric contraction can be done at different speeds. The different speeds are used to fascitate different physiological responses. On one end of the spectrum we have as fast as possibe. This means the concentric contraction is perfomed as quickly as you possible can. This trains your primary movers to for speec and explosivness. Great for some athletes where that is a desirable attribute. On the other end of th spectrum we have 10+ seconds. Training in this time range will help with control, strength, and stamina. With that said, I generally program 1-2 second for a general fitness population.

{Contraction speeds VIDEO – X– 1 second — 2 second — 3 seconds — 10 seconds – COMING SOON}

Isometric Contraction (Hold at top)

The isometric contraction at the top is also known as a pull-up hold or lock-off. It is the time spent when you have your chin over the bar and are holding yourself above the bar in a static position.

Not every pull-up will have an isometric contraction. What constitutes a proper pulll-up rep is simply getting your chin over the bar. Not getting your chin over the bar and then holding yourself there.

Earlier we went over what an isometric contraction is on the Isometric contraction at bottom section. You can refer back to that for what an isometric contraction is but essentially is is when you are flexing under load with the muscle fibers are not moving.

Once your chin is above the bar, you have two options:

  1. Immediately starting moving down.
  2. 2. Hold for a few seconds in a static possition and then move down.

There are different times in which you would do one over the other. For instance, if you are earlier in your pull-up strength capacity you want to spend as much Time Under Tension (TUT). This TUT is the total time in which your muscle fibers are contracting while engaged in the pull-up movement pattern. The TUT is a good measure of work capacity for the pull-up for beginners.

The reason this important more for beginners is because that is the quickest way to progress. As you advance, there is less focus on total time and more focus on intensity. Intensity measured by various attributes like speed, weight, work capacity, or more complex movement patterns like the one-arm pull-up.

Eccentric Contraction (Going down)

This is also called a negative pull-up. It is the portion of the pull-up where you are lowering yourself back down to an active hang or passive hang.

The negative pull-up can be either be done in a controlled way or non-contolled way.

When not controlled, you just drop from your chin over the bar to the passive or active hang. Think of this as a free fall. Its fast and you are catching yourself at the bottom. There aren’t too many situations in which you’ll want to do this. In fact, if you aren’t controlling yourself on the way down, you’re missing out on the primary physiological benifits of a negative pull-up. Which is the eccentric contraction.

When you go slow on the way down rather than dropping off the bar you’re building more strength. This is why the eccentric portion is the most important part for strength building.

As you lower yourself, your muscle fibers in your primary movers (lats and biceps) are lengthening. This contraction where muscles are lengthening can handle about 1.75x more load than the concentric contraction on the way up. Since it can handle more load the fibers get damanged more. The more damage, the stronger you get.

This is why so often you’ll hear coaches say to “controll” and “slow” on the way down. Because you’ll get stronger faster.

In the case of damage, I’m simply referring to the microtears you get when you strength train. Did you know that when you get sore, its due to these micro tears? There is a fine line between too much and too litttle when it comes to how much trainng volume you should expose your body too.

Pull-Up Equipment

The Pull-Up can be performed on many different types of apparatuses. You can get creative and perform them on anything that you can hang from.  Ledges, towels, branches, rocks, or the tusks of a full grown elephant as it tries to shake you off while you’re getting your workout on.

Outside of a standard pull-up bar as an apparatus, the  gymnastic rings are the second most popular apparatus in which to perform pull-ups. Anything beyond gymnastics rings rings or a pull-up bar and we are getting into the arena of unconventional or speciality equipment for pull-ups. For example, rock climbers have all sorts of speciality holds to perform pull-ups from that help with pinching and grip strength.

The type of apparatus used for pull-ups informs the characteristics of the movement your performing. For example, if you’re performing a pull-up from dynamic apparatus like a gymnastics rings then you’ll need to account for swing and stabilization much more than a fixed pull-up. Another big factor is grip. There is wide grip, shoulder width, close grip, hammer grip, staggered grip, and a many more. Additionally, there are “no grip” variations. These include false grip and using only a few finders. Each of these help develop grip and forearm strength more than a conventional grip.

With all those considerations in mind, the scope of this article will focus on the pull-up bar and gymnastics rings since that is what I recommend for general fitness trainees.

Straight Metal Pull Up Bar

The pull-up bar is the primary piece of equipment you’ll need. The great the about this movement is how accessible it is.  Every gym worth is salt has a pull-up bar. Many parks have them. And they are easy and cheap to install at home.

There are three main things you need to check for.

  1. The width should be 1.25″ inches. Preferably some sort of steel pipe without any cushions or rubber.
  2. The height of the bar should be so that if you are fully extended that you’re feet don’t touch the ground.
  3. The bar should be straight. If it isn’t straight, you should have a damm good reason why it isn’t. Otherwise we are just getting fancy. You’ll see lots of speciality shapes at most commercial gyms. I suggest just sticking to the straight bar.

If you decide to go with getting a pull-up bar at home, I would suggest not going with the doorway pull up bars. They tend not to be tall enough, are unstable, have rubber grips, and the configuration of the grips usually don’t allow for a shoulder width pull-ups. Below would be an ideal setup. Do you notice how gleeful our person is? That could be you. Don’t you want to be gleeful? Then make sure you get setup properly.

pull-up-bar-setup

Gymnastic Rings

If you were stuck on tropical island and had a choice of bringing two pieces of workout equipment, they should be the following:

  • A barbell with weights.
  • Gymnastic rings.

Ido Portal says it best.

The scapula craves complexity; the hips intensity.

Gymnastic rings allow for any amount of complexity while under various loads and durations. Gymnastic rings are the most valuable and underrated piece of workout equipment available. They can be used for a plethora of wonderful movements, including pull ups or chin-ups.

Performing the chin/pull up on the rings is a little more difficult than a static bar. The primary reason for this is because you need to account for sway. As you begin pulling up there will be a tendency towards the body wanting to swing forward and then back. To minimize this sway you need to hold a firmer hollow body position while working more stabilizer muscles than a static bar.

Here is a video of a few different forms of pull-ups on the gymnastic rings.

Exercise Bands

The use of exercise bands for pull-ups is grossly over used and should only be used in a few situations for training pull/chin ups.

Exercise bands are just big rubber bands used for exercise, rehab, prehab, and to launch water balloons at your neighbors house . Exercise bands come in different shapes and sizes. The general idea is that that thicker and wider the band is, the more force that needs to be applied to make the band stretch.

They are often used (too often) to assist with pull-ups. Only to find months laster down the road that the trainee hasn’t made much progress on their pull-up training.

Exercise bands are at best moderately terrible for helping someone develop the strength needed to get their first few pull-ups. There is a time and place for them but they are often used as the only way to develop pull-ups by trainers who probably can’t do a pull-up or ever taught someone how to do one.

In this sketch, you’ll see that on the left, the band will assist the person the most while at the bottom. Then while at the top, the band will assist the least. When progressing towards being strong enough to a strict chin/pull up without a band there are two parts of the movement that are optimal for strength building.

  1. Being strong in the starting position is essential because it is the hardest portion of the pull-up. When  a band is used, it reduces that amount of strength built at the ‘engagement’ portion of the pull-up. When you begin attempting your first pull-up, you’ll find it difficult to start the movement in a strict manner. What often happens is people will kick their legs to get lift off then pull their way all the way up. Not good.
  2. The second issue is the eccentric contraction on the way down. Eccentric contractions when controlled cause the most damage to the muscle tissue when compared to concentric or isometric. This is damage is a good thing because the damage is actually you getting stronger once the fibers heal within a few days. The band makes it so that the lower you get, the more resistance is given , and thus the less damage that occurs to the muscle fiber.

These sorts of considerations aren’t generally made by most trainers. This is why you see so many people performing band assisted pull-ups for years on end. The reason trainers prescribe bands is loosely covered in my article called Survivorship Bias in Fitness. The essential idea is that people who end up teaching fitness to other people do so because they are inherently fit and athletic them selves. So they self select into jobs or careers where they teach fitness because it has low barriers to entry and they already have ‘what it takes’. The problem with this cycle is that these people are generally terrible as teaching beginners and novices because they had a different athletic struggle than the people they teach. So there is this disconnect. The trainer is ‘fit’ but has trouble empathizing and understanding how to progress their clients because the path they took is different than the ones their clients take.

I harp on trainers all the time about the prescriptions they give to their clients. Not because I don’t think they aren’t trying to earnestly change someones life. The problem is that being a trainer is usually a transient job. Something that is easy to get into, easy money, but not something that is treated as a profession with a solid base of experience and  on going education. The net result is that many trainers simply aren’t setup for success to successfully impact real change on their clients. In the case of pull-ups, you’ll see trainers prescribe band pull ups for months simply because they haven’t put enough time into learning better progressions.

And thats why we see so hordes of people doing assisted pull-ups with exercise bands! Not to say that there isn’t a time and place for them. But if you’re reading this and you’ve been on the band for a few months without a pull-up then you should change your progression.

pull-up-resistance-band

Pull-Up bands are a popular way to do perform assisted pull-ups to help work up to a non-assisted pull-up. You’ll find that they are a go-to for most trainers and other pull-up training programs. Though pull-up bands are popular, I don’t prescribe them often.

The reason is because the strength resistance curve doesn’t match well with an actual strict pull-up. With a non-assisted pull-up the hardest part of the pull-up is at the bottom. When using a band, that is when we get the most assistance. This extra assistance from the band at the bottom reduces both concentric and eccentric tension at the most important part of the pull-up. The result is poor transference of strength to a non-assisted pull-up.

Pull Up Tips

Grip Strength

Grip strength is a real factor with pull-ups and it shouldn’t be overlooked. If you’re having trouble holding on to the bar our grip strength is limiting the number of pull-ups you can do then follow this progression. There are three stages. When you can complete a stage then you move to the next stage. You can complete the exercises for the stage either before, during, or after your workout. Feel free to start at a stage with sufficient difficulty.

  • Stage 1: In this stage you are unable to hang from a pull-up bar. To assist, we’ll setup a box under a pull-up bar. This will allow you to hang from the bar but with your feet touching the box. This allows you to apply as much or as little pressure as possible.  In this stage you’ll complete 3 sets of 60 seconds of hanging. It is important to use as little assistance as possible with your legs. This is best accomplished by arranging the box so that when your hanging you are on your toes or there is a very slight bend in the knees.
  • Stage 2: In this stage you are able to hang but not for 3 sets of 60 seconds. In this stage the goal is to increase your grip strength but holding onto the bar longer and longer. This exercise prescription is simple for this one. Each workout you’ll do three sets of max holds up to 60 seconds. Once you can do three sets of 60 seconds then you just need to maintain that if you only plan to do two are pull-ups. If you intend to learn one arm pull ups then this would be a good time to move to stage 3.
  • Stage 3: In this stage you are working towards a 45 second one arm hang for each hand. Do you want to do a one-arm pull-up? Well, you need to have enough grip strength to hold yourself with one hand! The difficult part when starting to hang from one hand is not only grip strength but also fighting rotation. If your hanging from your right hand, your left shoulder will want to rotate inwards to be more. When starting to learn to hang from one hand you can start by gripping with one full-hand and touching one finger to the bar with the other. That will help assist you to resit the rotation. After a few sessions it will no longer be necessary to assist with the other hand and you’ll be able to hang with one arm and also resist the rotation. It is recommend to follow the same exercise prescription as stage 2. Three sets of max effort hangs with a max of 45 seconds per hand.

Hand Position

There are many variations for pull up grip. Each variation has a different purpose and training impact. In this section we’ll explore the various different types of grips.

First to consider is the type of apparatus in which to a fix the hands to. The type of apparatus will dictate what type of pull-up variations are available to you. Most common apparatus is going to be the pull-up bar. A pull-up bar will generally have a 1-1.5 Inch (2.5 cm – 3.8 cm) diameter. The second most common is going to be gymnastics rings.

Pull-Up Grip

(COMING SOON)

Chin-Up Grip

(COMING SOON)

Mixed Grip

(COMING SOON)

Different Pull-Up Variations

The traditional pull-up on a fixed bar is a closed-chain body-weight movement. What this means is that the body is anchored to a fixed object. In this case, the hand is anchored to the apparatus. The closed-chain definition can also be extended to gymnastics rings and other apparatuses to do pull-ups from. You’ll find that most gymnastics strength movements are closed-chain.

There are many different types of pull-ups. Each type is used to elicit a different response for a different goal. There is no better or worse when using a different type of pull-up variation. What is important is why you are using that variation at a certain point in your training.

There are a few categories in which a pull-up can be varied.

  1. Type of Grip (Pronated, Supinated, Mixed Grip)
  2. Apparatus (Straight Bar, Hammer Grip, Bent Bar, Gymnastic Rings)
  3. Body Position (Straight body, bent legs, L-Sit, Body Row)
  4. Pulling Direction (Up/Down, Around the works, Typewriter)

Each category can be mixed with other categories to make for hundreds of different variations. For example, a mixed-grip L-sit pull-up on the gymnastic rings. To see some more examples, please see the pull-up video movement library.