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. Mark recommends the pull up bar from Trapezerigging and rightly so. I have their new Elite version and just love it. I even use my USA (universal strength system) on it with no issues. I just anchor the base with some 50lb plates

    Robert wrote on April 11th, 2012
  2. Just got some 15lbs dumb bells to work out the back muscles. Should make pull ups a lot easier.

    Miguel wrote on April 11th, 2012
  3. Pull ups are great and I agree that anyone who is doing push ups should be doing pull ups as well. When I first decided to stop being a softie I was doing only push ups, for probably the first year or so. This was good, but when I finally got a pull up bar several months ago I found I couldn’t do even a single one! Heck, I couldn’t even move myself one centimeter with an overhand grip due to having no back muscles. I don’t follow a routine (I only do them as the mood strikes me, same as with push ups), but I find that I can manage around 10 even using the overhand position and my strength has improved tremendously all over.

    I feel much better and more confident about myself now, and before starting pull ups I was never able to give my father a challenge in arm wrestling, I’ve actually beaten him once now (first time in my life). There’s also just something really fun about being able to monkey around and pull yourself up on top of everyday things, even if they aren’t a pull up bar. It’s also a good way to impress and inspire your friends as (sadly) most adults in this day and age can NOT lift their own weight.

    Ronald wrote on April 11th, 2012
  4. You can also use rubber tubing tied into a foothold for assisted pullups.

    Linda wrote on April 11th, 2012
  5. I currently workout 3 times a week at a boot camp class that does complete body workouts as a circuit training. I want to do more pull ups and pushups the other days but am worried about over training. Can I do extra pullups the 2 or 3 times a week with the boot cam

    Tony wrote on April 11th, 2012
  6. Wow, I had a dream last night that I was at the base gym and did a pull-up with 50 lbs. tied to me. LOL!

    It does remind me that in all this bodyweight training that I’ve been doing, I have neglected my pullups. That should become my new goal.

    Deanna wrote on April 11th, 2012
  7. I am currently using an assisted pull-up machine simply because one is available to me. I will be looking at trying these other methods when the machine isn’t available. :) Thank you!

    Jenn wrote on April 11th, 2012
  8. As a 125 pound woman, I am pound to say that I can do 13 pull-ups, and used most of the techniques described in this article to get there. A few years ago, I couldn’t even do 1 press-up…let alone a pull-up…

    Tora wrote on April 11th, 2012
  9. I’m 55 year old female…never done pull-ups, I am overweight but could I slowly build up you think to be able to do several?

    Pamela wrote on April 11th, 2012
  10. Hi I am a 55 year old female…can you teach an old dog new tricks. Can you work up to this at my age and being overweight. Looks like a great work out.

    Pamela wrote on April 11th, 2012
  11. Thank you! I am beginning and this is JUST what I need!!

    Ron wrote on April 11th, 2012
  12. Holy Cow did you hit the nail on the head on this one. I workout and I am in very good shape and everyone is always like “what machines do you use” I say the only 2 pieces of equiptment absolutely needed for total fitness are the ground and a pull-up bar. For some weird inexplicable reason the later is frequently absent from many gyms.

    Rob wrote on April 11th, 2012
  13. You can also slide under your dining table and grip the edge for a beginner solution, although you could only use an overhand grip. I saw this in an Cirque de Soleil workout article years ago. I’ve yet to try it, I hate to say.

    Linda Foss wrote on April 11th, 2012
  14. Does Al Kavadlo system replace the Mark’s primal Blueprint Fitness pullup protocol?

    palo wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as the say.

      Mark Sisson wrote on April 11th, 2012
  15. I’m female, 56, in great shape thanks to P90X and now P90X2. My husband just installed a pullup bar in my workout room. I sooo want to do pullups, but cannot yet. One thing is, that the inside of my right elbow hurts a lot when I try to do pullups.. Any suggestions anyone?

    Tracey wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • I had that one. Then it progressed the forearm pain. Then one day, I couldn’t move my arm from a 90 degree angle. Not that it hurt when moved, it just didn’t move. Then it started hurting, a lot. A week of drugs, ice, and rest later, and lots of painful stretching, it went back to normal. If I type for too long or do high reps, it starts to come back, signaling me to back off.

      JAlanKatz wrote on April 11th, 2012
  16. Slowly working on pull-ups myself, with a bar installed in a doorframe.

    What’s also helping a lot, is a step-stool underneath, but in front, so that I’m on an angle below the bar, and pulling up with my chin over the bar. Similar to an Australian pull-up, just not on the floor.

    I understand the frustration being a woman and attempting pull-ups, but goddammit, WE CAN DO IT!

    pat wrote on April 11th, 2012
  17. Pull-ups are fantastic. For those who are not year able to do a pull-up, consider the Pull-Up Revolution from Lifeline USA. Really a great tool for building pull-up strength and can be used for a bunch of other bodyweight movements as well. It attaches to any horizontal bar. Sorry to be such a salesman, no affiliation, just want to share something that I found works.

    Brad G. wrote on April 11th, 2012
  18. Knees to elbows, toes to bar, weighted pullups, skin the cats, all kinds of stuff can be done on a pullup bar! Great article. PULLUPS!

    Craig F 40/6'3"/220 lbs wrote on April 11th, 2012
  19. I own the e-book by Al.. It’s great and informative.
    Thanks Al and Mark..

    Joy wrote on April 11th, 2012
  20. Big ups to BROOKLYN!

    Hell yes, Al.

    Don’t forget pull ups with a weighted vest or with rings!

    James wrote on April 11th, 2012
  21. I can definitely attest to the value of performing pull-ups. They are so underrated, but really work your whole back; I find it to be a great exercise for sports training.

    Zach man wrote on April 11th, 2012
  22. Is there any way to minimise chest involvement? Both pullups and chins hit my chest so effectively that it blows up out of all proportion and I end up looking like I could wear a bra. As a man this is non optimal. Shame because they work my biceps and last like no other… Is there a way to take chest out of the equation?

    Rich wrote on April 11th, 2012
  23. Still the best upper body strengthening exercise there is in my opinion.

    AndyV wrote on April 11th, 2012
  24. Yay! I’m so glad I now know how to work up to a pull-up since I am SO not there yet! I wonder what other body weight exercises I could do in “play” with my daughter to work up to the “regular” ones.

    Dawn wrote on April 11th, 2012
  25. I agree that pull-ups and their variations are amazing exercises, particularly for a healthy back.

    However, I just had a personal experience that was not outright positive. Couple of months ago I challenged myself to do a pull-up. I approached it very slowly with just dead hangs several times a day, maybe 10 seconds each. I knew that I had had back pain once in a while I wanted not to overdo it. A few weeks later I started having pain in the thoracic area of the back with slight numbness in my left hand and leg during the night.

    I went to a neurologist and it turned out that I have a digenerative disc deasease with herniation in the thoracic spine. Apperently, dead hangs made it worse. How it works? When the discs have been previosly chronically6 damaged and “dried out” in some way, the pull power of a dead hang makes the outer lining of the disc more susceptible to further damage and herniation.

    So what I learned is this: if the back is already weak, better not do dead hangs or pull-ups and work on slowly regenerating the discs- swimming, pilates, walking, etc. Only after years of this regenerative work can I think of a pull up and only if my doctor allows.

    For me poor posture, years of sitting jobs and excess weight led to this back problem. I guess I should also work on those too. Not sure if I ever do a pull up after this. But I hope that those of you with healthy backs enjoy it!

    I did not kno

    Pov wrote on April 11th, 2012
  26. Love the article as the pull up is a staple in my training and a ton of my clients set the pull up as a performance goal. For advanced pull up training I like to use explosive pull-ups where you explode up above the bar, actually let go, then catch yourself on the way down. You can even progress this advanced movement to clapping your hands before catching the bar. For my clients who are working their way to completing their first body weight pull-up – we do train a lot of negatives and also include the good old hanging hold. But we emphasize squeezing the butt and retracting the scapula.

    Thanks for the post!

    Alby wrote on April 12th, 2012
  27. Guys, check out Bogdan VS. Hannibal youtube video, there are also other Eastern European dudes who kick some serious ass on the turn bar :) it is amazing

    FBD wrote on April 12th, 2012
  28. I like push up.Early morning exercise is good for health.So every one should keep in mind.

    bricorey wrote on April 12th, 2012
  29. Thanks, this could be just what I need (successful lifetime pull-ups = 0). For some reason I can’t access Mark’s pull-up videos. Now I will try starting with the dead hang – and hope I can progress from there.

    sueb wrote on April 12th, 2012
  30. It’s wrong to start pull-ups before you are strong enough. You wouldn’t go and bench press your bodyweight on a first attempt, so why would any untrained person think they can safely do a pull-up or a dead-hang or whatever?

    Progressive resistance training is the key. Use a barbell to do squats, deadlifts, presses at a weight you can easily manage. Progressively increase the weight. If you weigh 170lbs and you can bench press 140-150lbs then you can start to think about pull-ups, chins and dips. Not before.

    mikeinmadrid wrote on April 12th, 2012
  31. Two pull ups, that’s all i could muster. PATHETIC! this does explain why my back hurts since I’ve been doing only pushups for a year now.

    Thanks AL and Mark.

    Mohammad wrote on April 12th, 2012
  32. Al, I’m so inspired by your video. I now actually want to do pull ups, and believe I can build this 51 year old body up to it.

    lulu wrote on April 12th, 2012
  33. How often should one do pullups? daily, twice a week? I hear different advise. one says do set to failure every time you pass your pullup bar at home, others say not more than twice a week

    Noel wrote on April 13th, 2012
  34. Great job explaining! As a personal trainer, I find one of the hardest things to get newbies to do is set their shoulder blades (pull shoulder blades down), but it’s soooooo important!

    Sassy Celiactivist wrote on April 13th, 2012
  35. A couple of years ago I pushed way too hard with push ups, boxing, and related exercise associated with the martial arts school I attended and taught at. I did this too often, and ended up with tendinitis so bad I couldn’t lift my arms for weeks. Now it’s chronic (the tendons in my shoulders inflame easily). I also have permanent back and shoulder tension that gets so bad at times, my arms fall asleep. Long story short, pull ups are difficult for me to even begin to work up to for the damage I’ve done to myself in the past. There’s a very fine line between working out and injury. I despise it, get frustrated, and try constantly, but am afraid of injuring myself further. Any suggestions to work around this?

    Jen wrote on April 14th, 2012
  36. you dont need to buy anything. for pull ups, fold a towel over a door.

    for the “down under” pull ups, aka upside down push ups, body rows, just lie down under a table and grab the edge. for more resistance, find something to put your feet up on.

    pixel wrote on April 15th, 2012
  37. Just getting started on a new program: You are your own gym. First discovered it here, then bought the book/iphone app.
    Basic premise- do 30 minutes 4X a week of bodyweight exercises such as pullups.
    The killer- there are dozens of different exercises and variations, so it never gets old.
    Considering killing my gym membership for good.

    Legrand wrote on April 15th, 2012
  38. I started doing pullups about a year ago, using all these methods without much success. After several weeks, I still couldn’t do one from a dead hang. I then started using the pullup assist that we have at our gym at work. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a pull up bar, but has a counter-weighted bench you rest you knees on, essentially decreasing the weight you have to pull up. I only set it at 30 lbs (lifting 170-30=140), and did as many reps as I could. The biggest part was getting the movement down, building the muscle memory. It’s not as natural a movement as it might seem. Who would have thought that you’d use your abs in a pullup? After less than 2 weeks of that, I could do a pull up from a dead hang (without assist). After 2 more weeks I could do 5 in a row. I can do many more than that now. The pullup assist is a great machine, because it doesn’t act like your typical weight machine.

    Hermit wrote on April 17th, 2012
  39. Thank you.

    Brian Kozmo wrote on April 17th, 2012
  40. I see these door-jamb pull-up bars all the time at Ross/Marshall’s/TJMaxx for far lees than they would cost in regular retail stores. My 17-year-old has been using one for years and has a great V-shape physique.

    Scotty wrote on April 23rd, 2012

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2015 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!