The pull-up might be the best measure of overall strength and fitness. As a simple measure of strength, it’s unmatched; you’re actually lifting and moving through space and time an entire human body. It targets almost every muscle in the upper body, and more than you’d think in the lower body. If you want to build muscle or lose body or just get fitter and stronger, there’s no getting around doing a pull-up or two or ten. If I had to choose one upper body exercise to do for the rest of my life, it would be the pull-up.
Pulling your entire weight is hard, though. The vast majority of average people walking around in this world are unable to do a single unassisted, high-quality pull-up. And half of those who think they’re doing pull-ups are doing them completely wrong, setting them up not just for suboptimal results but life altering injuries.
Today, I’m going to tell you why your pull-ups aren’t working and how you can improve them.
Proper Pull-Up Form: Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Here are some common mistakes people make when doing pull-ups.
Mistake: Using Momentum
The fix: Be strict.
This is about mastering the strict pull-up, not any of the other momentum-driven varieties. That means pulling your body with intention, avoiding momentum, and using only the strength of your upper body.
Mistake: Loose Body
The fix: Brace yourself.
As with most other exercises, maintaining a cohesive line running from head to toe is important. Tighten your glutes, brace your abs. You’ll find yourself forming a “hollow” body position, with a slight curvature running through your spine. These kinds of pull-ups are actually harder (no kicking or momentum allowed), but they’re more rewarding and get you much stronger, much faster.
Mistake: Chin Over Bar
The fix: Chest to bar.
A full pull-up occurs when your chin goes over the bar, but using “chin over bar” as a cue can sometimes lead to people leading with their chin or straining their neck to clear the bar. A better cue is “chest to bar.” Even if you don’t actually touch your chest to the bar, you won’t feel compelled to compromise your neutral head position just to get your chin up and over.
Mistake: Bent Elbows at the Bottom
The Fix: Locked elbows at the bottom.
Lock your elbows out entirely at the bottom of the pull-up. Not only does this makes the movement stricter, harder, and more beneficial, it also takes the strain off from and fully unloads the bicep tendon. If your elbows are still flexed at the bottom, your bicep tendon never gets a break from constant tension.
Mistake: Flared Elbows
The Fix: Drive elbows toward the floor.
As you ascend from the bottom, imagine driving your elbows into the ground. This is a great cue for engaging your lats and back muscles, rather than just pulling with the biceps.
Mistake: Training Only One Pull-up Grip
The Fix: Try different hand positions.
There are several different ways to position your hands during the exercise. Overhand grip (hands facing away from you) pull-ups are the classic form and probably the most difficult variety. Underhand grip (hands facing toward you) chin-ups may be the easiest and incorporate more of the biceps. Neutral grip (hands facing each other grabbing two parallel overhead bars) pull-ups are the gentlest on the shoulder capsule. If you have shoulder pain or mobility issues, neutral grip is worth a try.
How to Increase Your Max Rep Pull-ups
What if you can’t do more than one or two pull-ups?
All you need is one.
Grease the groove.
Every time you pass the pull-up bar, do a pull-up or two. Every single time. If you’re greasing the groove at the gym during a workout, just do pull-ups in between sets of other exercises. One or two here, one or two there. Keep each rep crisp. Don’t struggle. You should be resting long enough between grease the groove sets that you’re fresh every time. You’re building neuromuscular pathways that make the movement easier and more efficient.
Ladders are simple ways to build a lot of volume. If you can do 2 pull-ups, here’s how a pull-up ladder workout looks.
1 pull-up, rest 30 seconds, 2 pull-ups, rest 30 seconds, 1 pull-up, rest 30 seconds, 2 pull-ups, and so on.
If you can do 3 pull-ups:
1 pull-up, rest, 2 pull-ups, rest, 3 pull-ups, rest, 1 pull-up, and so on.
If you can only do 1 pull-up, just do sets of 1 with 30 second rests.
Continue the ladder until you feel failure approaching. Keep the reps crisp.
How to Do One Pull-up When You Can’t Do Any
What if you can’t do a single full pull-up?
Not to worry. There are ways to get there.
If you have access to an assisted pull-up machine, you can use that to build up to a full, unassisted pull-up. Attaching a resistance band to the bar and looping it underneath you to start pulling you up is another way.
Chair assisted pull-ups
You can also use a chair or stool to apply a counterbalance. Place the chair just in front of the pull-up bar, and lightly rest one foot on it as you do a pull-up. If you want more assistance, allow a bit more of your leg’s weight to rest on the chair. If you want less assistance, allow less weight to rest on it.
Jump up and grab the bar and do a pull-up, using the momentum from the jump. Gradually titrate down how hard and high you jump, giving yourself less of a boost each workout until you’re barely using any momentum, and then none at all.
Stand on a chair or bench and get yourself into the top position of a pull-up (chin over bar, chest touching ideally) and hold yourself up over the bar, slowly lowering yourself and accentuating the eccentric.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.