Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
11 Apr

The Importance of Pull-up Bar Training

This is a guest post from Al Kavadlo of

If you’re like me, part of the appeal of Primal living is the simplicity of it all. Modern society has a funny way of making things more complicated than they need to be. In studying the intricacies of healthy eating and proper exercise, we often get lost in the details and miss the big picture. You don’t need to know about antioxidants in order to know that blueberries are good for you. Likewise, you don’t need a degree in anatomy or kinesiology in order to implement a safe and effective fitness program. Unfortunately, much of the fitness industry is designed to make you feel like being healthy is a complicated and difficult objective. Modern gyms are equipped with lots of expensive, high-tech machinery in order to give the illusion that complicated exercise contraptions are more effective than timeless bodyweight movements requiring only minimal equipment. The irony is that many of these facilities, in spite of having three different types of elliptical trainers, dozens of different selectorized strength training stations and (my favorite in terms of the dollars-to-dumbness ratio) the vibrating power plate, lack the one piece of fitness equipment that I actually deem essential: the humble pull-up bar.

Pull-ups work your entire upper body, especially the muscles of your back, as well as your abs and your biceps. Thanks to pull-ups, I haven’t felt the need for crunches or bicep curls in years and I don’t expect to ever again. In spite of this, my abs and biceps are strong and well developed. Pull-up bar training is essential for the simple reason that gravity only works in one direction. If all you do for your upper body is push-ups and other floor work, you may develop a muscular imbalance, which can lead to poor posture, shoulder pain or worse. You need to pull against resistance as well to avoid these pitfalls.

Whether or not you are strong enough to do a pull-up, a pull-up bar is still the best piece of fitness equipment you could ever own. If you aren’t ready for pull-ups yet, there are three primary exercises that you can do on an overhead bar to help you get there: flex hangs, negative pull-ups and dead hangs.

Flex Hangs

A flex hang involves holding yourself at the top of a pull-up with your chin over the bar. It is best to start by using an underhand (chin-up) grip. Use a bench or a partner to help you get in position and then simply try to stay up. Think about squeezing every muscle in your entire body. If you can hold this position for even a second on your initial attempt, you are off to a good start.

Negative Pull-ups

Once you can hold the flex hang for several seconds, you’re ready to start working on negative pull-ups, which just means lowering yourself down slowly from the top position. In the beginning, it might be very difficult to perform a controlled negative, but with time you will be able to make your negative last for ten seconds or longer. Once you can do this, a full pull-up will be within reach.

Dead Hangs

If you are not strong enough to do a flex hang or a negative yet, your first objective is simply to get a feel for hanging from the bar. This will build grip strength and work your muscles isometrically. With some practice, you should be able to work to a flex hang fairly quickly. Even once you can perform flex hangs and controlled negatives, it is still helpful to practice dead hangs at the end of your training session when your arms have gotten too fatigued to do more negatives. When performing a dead hang, think about keeping your chest up and pulling your shoulder blades down in order to fully engage your back muscles.

Australian Pull-ups

The Australian pull-up (also known as a horizontal pull-up or bodyweight row) is another great exercise for anyone who is working their way up to a standard pull-up. The Australian involves getting “down under” a bar that is a little above waist height, with your feet resting on the ground. Keep a straight line from your heels to the back of your head as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your chest to the bar. Novices may choose to bend their knees and push gently with their heels in order to give their arms assistance if needed. When you get a little more comfortable with this exercise you can angle your heels to the floor with your feet pointed up and your legs straight. Just like the dead hang, be sure that you are not shrugging your shoulders up when performing Australians. You want to pull your shoulder blades down and back – never up. This is the case for all pull-ups. Start getting in the habit of doing this right away – it’s the most common error I see people make when performing these moves.

Pull-ups and Beyond

When you’re ready to go for the full Monty, it’s generally best to start with an underhand (chin-up) grip. Chin-ups put more emphasis on your biceps, while an overhand grip will recruit your back musculature to a greater degree. Though the muscles of your back can potentially become bigger, stronger muscles than the biceps, deconditioned individuals are more likely to have some bicep strength from everyday activities, while their back muscles will be nowhere near their full potential. With practice and patience, the disparity in difficulty between different hand positions should begin to even out. It can also be worthwhile to practice a neutral grip pull-up, which involves gripping two parallel bars with your palms facing each other. This can be a nice intermediate step between the underhand and overhand grips. The neutral grip may also be less stressful on the shoulder joints of people who’ve had injuries to that area.

Once you get the hang of full overhand pull-ups, there are still many challenges ahead, including the muscle-up, which involves pulling (and then pushing) your entire upper body up and over the bar, as well as the elusive one arm pull-up. In fact, there is much more that can be done a pull-up bar than just pull-ups. The bar can be used for dips, hanging leg raises and countless other variations on these moves.

For more information, pick up a copy of my new book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Training.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Bookmarked this page! Thank you so much for the pull-up info, especially the variations for beginners. I’ve been thinking I will never be able to do a pull-up but now I feel there is hope, and soon! I am going to head upstairs to our pull-up bar in the door and try a flex hang, otherwise I will just do the dead hang. Feeling motivated!!

    kris C wrote on April 11th, 2012
  2. Thanks for this!

    Devi wrote on April 11th, 2012
  3. I love doing pullups, but need to use a band to help me. Can you suggest any websites where these are available? I don’t even know what they’re called?


    LD wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • The company Rubberbanditz makes top notch bands.

      liberty1776 wrote on April 11th, 2012
  4. anyone else be shocked to see this man shirtless at their child’s playtoy!

    Mom wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • Well, I tell yah. I was just watching the video, and my 9 year old comes up behind me and says, “Wow, Mommy. HE’S HOT.”

      So… Nothing freakin’ shocks me anymore. And yes, he’s hot.

      Joy Beer wrote on April 11th, 2012
  5. What a great way for people who are out of shape to work up to doing pull-ups!

    rarebird wrote on April 11th, 2012
  6. I recently purchased a pull-up bar (the type that is removable) from the local CVS, of all places.

    Money well spent.

    I can do a few reps of each grip, and wasn’t increasing, but I think that the negatives at the end of my workout are going to help tremendously. Plus, I’m sure that my form is completely out of whack when I am trying to get one more rep normally, while I can concentrate on tight form on the negatives….and I think that might help as much as anything because I am not cheating my ass off :)

    JDM wrote on April 11th, 2012
  7. The former owner of our house installed a pullup bar in pur bedroom doorway, but it is so close to the top of the frame that it’s not terribly good for a real pullup. Flex hangs, yeah. Chair assisted pullups where you don’t go all the way up, Ok. But if anyone in the house actually got to the point where they were able to lift themselves where their top of their head got more than 2 inches above the bar top – thunk. And the door jamb bars damage our old door frame molding, I had to return the one I got.

    My new favorite work out tool for body weight lifting is the dance pole. Yes, the kind strippers use. :-) I’ve been taking classes since January, and it requires (and develops) so much upper body and core strength, even when you’re just starting. Plus it’s great support for stretching. A lot of the training moves are pullup-esque, but you hold the “bar” in front of you in a baseball bat grip. Instead of needing a chair for my leg assisted pullups on the bar, I can start in a squat, reach up for the pole and pull myself up.

    Hm, I wonder if a Primal Pole blog should be forthcoming… ?

    Kat wrote on April 11th, 2012
  8. Pull-ups are great no doubt, but don’t forget about the almighty chin-up. I only recently incorporated pull-ups into my routine, so my top set is only +35lbs on a dip belt, but chins are getting beastly. I’m up to 4 @ +70lbs on a dip belt! Truly, deads, squats, chins, pull-ups, calf raises and benchpresses is all it takes to become a beast. Throw in some shoulder presses if you have time.

    ChocoTaco369 wrote on April 11th, 2012
  9. Thank you for this article. I have been trying to do a pull up for 2 years (don’t laugh) and obviously I am not doing the correct exercises to get there. I am 5’5″, 120 lbs and can hang for at least 40 seconds so I am now going to work on the negatives. Do you have a guideline for how often/how many a day I should do?

    Sarah wrote on April 11th, 2012
  10. This is great! So many people fear the pull-up and don’t think they will ever get the strength to do them. We did a blog post a couple months ago titled “In order to do pull-ups, you must do pull-ups!” No amount of lat machine work will ever get you there :)

    Heather wrote on April 11th, 2012
  11. I live in a suburban home. My workouts tend to be in my basement (which has a standard height ceiling). Is there any type of pull up bar system that I can purchase. I have had success with the eating part of primal “living” and really need to incorporate the pull up bar training.

    B wrote on April 11th, 2012
  12. Thanks for this useful blog, Al and Mark. I was just discussing pull ups with fitness pals and I just made a pdf of your fine routine to send over to them. I will also print it for my workout binder. Outstanding information!!

    Scott wrote on April 11th, 2012
  13. I wish I had taken up the exercise of daily dead hangs years ago. If one has a desk job and uses one’s arm all day long to move the mouse (and do keyboarding), it’s important to keep the upper body and shoulders in great shape. I ended up (at age 62) getting a frozen shoulder problem. After prolonged research, I stumbled across Dr. John Kirsch, M.D.’s book, “Shoulder Pain?”. His book advocates bar hanging to keep a shoulder healthy and for repairing various shoulder conditions including mine. In just one month of bar hanging, I have had enormous recovery. It’s an amazing exercise. His book shows via X-rays and CT scans how this all works.

    Roleigh Martin wrote on April 11th, 2012
  14. Great post, Al! You inspired me to do pullups last year. In Jan 2011, I couldn’t do a single pullup. Through perserverance and practice, I did flex hangs, negatives, australians and within a few months could knock-out 10 perfect form pullups.

    My workout routine involves pullups and chinups 3-4 times a week. I do reverse pyramids, starting with sets of 15, then 12,10,8,6,5,4,3,2 for 65 total. If I go at it til failure, I can get about 25-30, but doing the pyramid gets me 65! I walk for 2 minutes between each set.

    Otzi wrote on April 11th, 2012
  15. It is my ultimate physical goal. I am ludicrously bad at this exercise.
    Can you say more about the power plate, Mark? I bought into it, and it does makes my muscles sore. It’s just that I hate doing it, even for 10 minutes,
    yours, K

    kapo wrote on April 11th, 2012
  16. Stupid question, but in the flex hang, you say to do an underhand grip. Is the picture an overhand grip?

    Frugal Portland wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • The video shows both underhand and overhand.

      Victor wrote on April 11th, 2012
  17. I bought a wall-mounted chin-up bar from Amazon, and mounted it above the door to my garage. Every time I go in or out of the garage, I rip off a few. I am 57, and at first could do only 3 good ones, but by now am up to 10. I also love the feeling of just hanging from the thing – very primal, and you can feel the spine stretch and relax.

    perelmanfan wrote on April 11th, 2012
  18. I’m following a Rippetoe barbell regime, slightly modified to replace the bench press with dips and chins. I do various combinations of the following 2 to 3 times a week.

    (1) Squat
    (2) Deadlift
    (3) Overhead Press
    (4) Power Cleans
    (5) Dips
    (6) Chins

    The barbell lifts are good way to improve upper body strength for chins and dips. The barbell can be loaded incrementally whereas you need to be able lift your own bodyweight to chin or dip.

    mikeinmadrid wrote on April 11th, 2012
  19. What are your thoughts on Crossfit’s use of the kipping pull-up?

    JAlanKatz wrote on April 11th, 2012
  20. A $100 exercise. We are primates after all. It’s sad to think how digital man has lost the ability to pull his own weight.

    Bill McKinney wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • no mate..we are not all primates….

      zef wrote on August 30th, 2012
  21. My wife and I have been faithfully doing PBF twice a week since the beginning of February. Doing a pull-up is also one of our fitness goals for this year. The Pull-up progression has been by far the most challenging and the one where we see the smallest amount of progress. My wife has started doing lat pull-downs as a way to make some progress, but I’ve been stubbornly hanging in there with the leg-assist variety.

    After reading this, though, I think I’m going to change the PBF progression for pull-ups to include Dead Hangs and Flex Hangs instead of the leg assists. And maybe I’ll incorporate some lat pull-downs for myself, too.

    Great stuff and very inspirational. Loving the mix-and-match free-form approach that Primal Fitness encourages!

    Jeff Herron wrote on April 11th, 2012
  22. A timely post as I’ve recently been thinking about buying a pull-up bar for inside the apartment. I’m thinking of going for the Iron Gym Xtreme, but any other suggestions are welcome!

    Michael Wilson wrote on April 11th, 2012
  23. Something I have done recently was invest in a doorway pullup bar and my strength has gone up in bounds. Would recommend to anyone to build up strength and confidence at home. Great article!

    Suhail wrote on April 11th, 2012
  24. A timely post as I’ve recently been thinking about buying a pull-up bar for inside the apartment. I’m thinking of going for the Iron Gym Xtreme, but any other suggestions are welcome!

    Michael Wilson wrote on April 11th, 2012
  25. Good article. I have a set of Rings in my office that I use to do what you describe. The Rings give you that added dimension of instability. Also, they enable safe pronation and supination of the arms whereas a bar can sometimes lock you in, so to speak. I’m a Pilates Instructor, as well, and I disagree with the assertion that bodyweight exercises trump all other methods of safe muscular development. Exercises like pull-ups work the superficial muscles while Pilates(which does incorporate/leverage bodyweight at times) works on the deeper stabilizing muscles around the joints. I’m a walking example. I thought I was “strong” until I started doing Pilates and Pilates-type exercises. I’m not as “big” anymore but I feel more balanced and healthy. I’m not advertising Pilates, per se. Just adding to the discussion around how to be in the best shape of your life. I’m happy to contribute an article or two on Pilates if you think your community would benefit. Some Pilates exercises require equipment that is “high tech and expensive” while other exercises can be done with a mat and/or a few cheap props. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this article.

    Glenn Grabowski wrote on April 11th, 2012
  26. I do pullups too….w/o looking like a trendy fool.

    Dieb wrote on April 11th, 2012
  27. I love Al Kavadlo! He looks so badass but has such a bubbly personality.

    Kris Singleton wrote on April 11th, 2012
  28. Pull-ups are great! I put a bar in my yard at 12 inches higher than I can reach, so everytime I use it I get some jumping exercise. I have been working on horizontal hangs and windshield wipers. They are tough! I also installed a thicker bar which makes things even harder, but better. Great article, thanks again.

    Chris wrote on April 11th, 2012
  29. I love this cuz it’s cheap and simple! In fact I have one of those door frame bars I walk under everday. I wanted to start using but was discourage due to my lack of arm strength. But now I have a whole new perspective 😉

    Do you recommend any exercise equivalent for lower body?

    mong00se wrote on April 11th, 2012
  30. You’ve got some crazy pull-up skills going on there Al! :) I hope to be as crazy skilled as you some day!

    About a month ago I added two pull-up routines per week to my workout schedule, and I can already notice a ton of body changes. I never realized how much the core is worked, especially with chin ups.

    Thanks for the tips my friend!


    Lean Muscle Matt wrote on April 11th, 2012
  31. Thanks for the info I’ll definitely try this. Although I follow the Primal diet my exercise is not very “primal”. I mainly do HIIT and weight training with little cardio (I consider walking my dog cardio) but I’m following a bodybuilding plan because I want to have a lean muscular body. The problem is I’m about go nuts trying to count the sets/reps and get the movements right. Since I’m a female it is very hard to gain muscles. I can’t get out of the gym in less than an hour and a half and I do weight training 5 days a week. It is obvious that this kind of an exercise routine is unsustainable in the long term.

    Pinar wrote on April 11th, 2012
  32. I’m strong enough to do pull ups, even with a weighted vest on, but they just kill my shoulders and elbows (chronic tendinitis).

    db wrote on April 11th, 2012
  33. I have been training to do a pullup for a while, and I was making some progress with the assisted pull-up machine at the gym, but I’ve gotten stuck. I’ve got the classic strong-biceps, pathetic mid-back syndrome. My pecs and traps are so tight they almost don’t let my lats and rhomboids activate at all. It’s not so great when you’re trying to lift your bodyweight AND fight the antagonistic muscles (I literally feel them stretch at the top). So discouraging. I am the poster child for why it is easier to avoid muscle imbalances than fix them.

    Kat wrote on April 11th, 2012
  34. Great article. I’ve since left the gym after starting bodyweight exercises. I just don’t enjoy going to the gym anymore.

    I may just go only for deadlifts and on rainy days, but I’ll be using my local park’s pull-up bars for my main regimen. What’s your opinion on weighted pull-ups after I’m able to do 20 bodyweight pull-ups?

    hypnotik wrote on April 11th, 2012
  35. A pull up bar was one of the first pieces of fitness equipment I purchased when I decided I was done with the gym. That and my powerblock dumbells! Love them to bits!

    Linds wrote on April 11th, 2012
  36. Hi,
    I had been told recently that one should never move to a complete hang position after a pullup, but rather stop with arms slightly bent. Apparently keeping arms bent reduces stress on shoulders. Is this true…?

    Andy wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • Yes; I believe that’s what was stated in Convict Conditioning.

      hypnotik wrote on April 12th, 2012
  37. Pullups, handstand pushups, and riding my mtn bike up big hills—I love the simplicity of summer!

    Graham wrote on April 11th, 2012

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