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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Thank you.

    Brian Kozmo wrote on April 17th, 2012
  7. 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
  8. I am doing research for my blog and i just want to say ty for providing specific data and explaining few types of pull ups

    Mark wrote on June 5th, 2012
  9. I love pull-ups, they are great for building muscle, getting toned and losing weight. Thanks for sharing

    Dave wrote on July 3rd, 2012
  10. This chin up craze has gotten out of hand. I was in Golden Gate Park staring at some Oriental Garden, and, as often happens in these Zen moments, I popped a rock hard boner that sproinged flew straight out of my open fly and stood at attention at about a 60 degree angle. Some chin up nuts jogged by and stopped to do some chin ups on the damn thing. They started yelling at me as it began drooping and I had to close my eyes and think of Loni Andersom real hard so they could finish their work out. This happens at least five times a week.

    Heywood Ja Blome wrote on December 2nd, 2012
  11. Nice article. The thing about pull-ups is that they are so natural to the way humans and animals work. Pulling and pushing is involved in every activity we do.

    And as you pointed out, the fact that it’s a compound exercise and works many muscles just makes it the king of all upper body exercises.

    John wrote on February 25th, 2013
  12. Is there any tips you can give me on the flex hang as I have been trying to do these for 5 months now and still cannot keep my chin above the bar for even half a second. It is becoming very frustrating not seeing any progress.
    P.S. I am not overweight just very weak.

    barry wrote on May 19th, 2013
  13. Pull ups can be done by staying at home. its importance lies in the fact that a person remains fit and its muscles becomes strong enough to bear pains ..
    Iron Gym Total Upper Body is bestest among all .. It can also be installed within few minutes and at door way.. without being harm to the door way or anyone else

    Doris J. Sears wrote on November 28th, 2014

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