It’s not a stretch to say that there’s a love/hate relationship with pull ups, although it likely leans towards hate in most cases, if only for one reason:
Pull ups are notoriously difficult.
They’re not necessarily tougher than any other exercise once you’re able to do a few of them, but the journey to that point can be brutal.
With other major exercises, you’re able to start with a low weight — low enough that anyone can crank out a set — and slowly increase the intensity as you go.
You can’t do that with pull ups, and that makes them a problem exercise.
Despite their initial difficulty though, pull ups aren’t as far out of reach as they seem.
It takes time and a lot of practice, but anyone can work up to completing a pull up.
With any luck, what we’re about to talk about will help you do just that.
What IS A Pull Up?
I was getting ahead of myself there.
Before diving into the juicy stuff, it’s worth taking a minute to touch on the basics of the pull up.
Considering that pull ups are one of the most popular bodyweight exercises, I’m guessing you have some experience with them, whether you’ve watched someone else do them or you’ve done them yourself.
But just in case you have no idea what a pull up is, it’s just like it sounds:
You hang from a bar and pull your body up to it.
Pull ups are compound (multi-joint) exercises, so they hit a bunch of different muscles.
Your latissimus dorsi, a large muscle found on each side of your back, is the main mover, but it’s supported by other upper and mid-back muscles including the rhomboids and trapezius.
Geek Mode: what muscles do pull ups work?
Muscles in the back body:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Lower Trapezius
- Teres Major
- Teres Minor
Lats: The biggest muscle recruited throughout the pull up is the Latissimus Dorsi, or ‘Lats’.
This triangular shaped muscles sits across the midsection of the back and stretches to the sides, behind the arms.
Traps: The Lower Trapezius is also responsible for a great amount of the power output during a pull up. This is a wide diamond shaped muscle that spans across your upper back.
Teres: The Teres Major, Teres Minor and Infraspinatus are also activated. These muscles cover the back of your shoulders blades and work together to assist the Lats and Traps.
Muscles in the front body:
- Pectoralis Major
- Long Head Tricep
Pecs: Over on the front side of the body the Pectoralis Major is also fired up and working hard to get your body lifted.
Together with the Coracobrachialis (a thin muscle connecting the front of the shoulder joint to the upper arms bone) and the long head of the Tricep muscles high up on the back of the arm, these muscles enable you to execute your pull up with appropriate power distribution and safe technique.
It’s not just an upper back exercise, though.
Pull ups require you to dynamically stabilize your shoulders, so the rotator cuff muscles come into play.
Your biceps also assist with the pull, and your forearms work to help you keep your grip.
Oh, and since you have to control your dangling body, your entire core kicks in, too.
Want To Learn The Benefits of Pull Ups Everyday?
Even though you know that pull ups hit a ton of muscles, you might still be wondering:
Why bother with them when there are so many less intimidating (and easier) exercises available?
I get it, I really do.
I mean, pull ups aren’t the only vertical pulling exercise out there, so you might be tempted to skip them and choose another exercise.You can do that, but none of them are as well-rounded as pull ups.Check out 5 benefits of pull ups and chin ups:#1. They build serious upper back muscle.You already know this since we just talked about it, but it’s worth mentioning one more time.Pull ups crush your upper back musculature and they’re an essential part of building dominant lats.#2. You can do pull ups (almost) anywhere.Of course this applies to all bodyweight exercises, but I still have to say it.The only thing you need to do pull ups is something stable to hang onto that’s about your height.#3. They work your grip and forearms.The pull isn’t the only challenge that pull ups offer.You need to maintain a strong enough grip on the bar (or whatever you’re using) to complete an entire set, and that’s killer work for your grip and the grip-supporting muscles of your forearms.#4. They require total body control.Remember that your upper back and arms aren’t the only muscles working during the pull up.Given that you have to actively control your torso and lower body to ensure good positioning, there’s quite a bit of core strength and stability involved.#5. They’re incredibly varied (once you get the hang of them).It might seem far-fetched to beginners, but once get comfortable with them, pull ups open up nicely.You can vary your grip, add additional movements like side-to-side slides and leg raises, and much more.There’s more to say about how awesome pull ups are, but I’ll leave it at that.The moral of the story is that they provide too many benefits to leave them out of your training.But to get pull ups into your training, you have to be able to do them, and you know how that goes.But don’t worry — we’re getting there.
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Pull Ups vs Chin Ups
We have to make a quick stop to clarify one point first, though.
People often refer to pull ups and chin ups as if they’re the same exercise, but they’re not.
The distinction is a small one, but it’ll come in handy later on.
Pull ups use a pronated (overhand) grip, while chin ups use a supinated (underhand) grip.
Like I said, it’s a little change, but it’s important.
With an underhand grip, your biceps can contribute more to the motion, and that makes all the difference.
Most people will find chin ups easier, and that’s something to keep in mind as you move forward.
It’s perfectly okay — and even recommended — to start with chin ups before tackling pull ups.
Nobody is judging you, and the same benefits still apply.
Geek mode: what muscles do chin ups work?
Through extensive scientific investigation, Professor of Physical Therapy James Youdas and his team of researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Laboratory in Minnesota found the Pecs on the front of the body and biceps along the front of the arms experience significantly more activation during a chin up as opposed to during a pull up. Youdas States in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research that “the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up.”Muscles in the front of the body:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Teres Major
- Teres Minor
From this we understand that the back muscles including the Lats, Traps and Teres Minor and Major are still activated during a chin up, but to a lesser degree.
There is also greater recruitment of the Rhomboid muscles which lie underneath the Traps in the upper back.
Muscles in the front of the body:
- Pectoralis Major
The greatest change is the increased activation in the biceps and chest. As with the pull up, the Pecs and Coracobrachialis are recruited in a chin up, but to a greater degree. The bicep muscles include a long head and short head that work as one muscle. The chin up demands high recruitment from the Biceps, and developing these bad boys give you killer shaped arms and help you when carrying those overloaded grocery bags.
Reference: Youdas, J. W., Amundson, C. L., Cicero, K. S., Hahn, J. J., Harezlak, D. T., & Hollman, J. H. (2010). Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(12), 3404-3414.
Focus On Building Up With Pull Up Progressions
If you’re still reading, you’re probably convinced that pull ups are worth doing, and that’s an awesome start.
But now it’s time to learn how to get to the point where you’re able to do a full pull up.
It’ll be a long road for many of you, but you’ll get there if you take it one step at a time.
The following list of tips functions as a progression that you can use to help you become a pull up master.
True beginners and individuals who can’t do a pull up yet should start with the first tip, while those with some experience — maybe you can do two or three reps — can start further down the list.
Tip #1: Use Lat Pulldowns and Inverted Rows to build strength.
Lat pulls are a valuable part of the pull up progression because they mimic the movement pattern and they work the same primary and secondary muscles.
Lat pulls help create the foundation of strength in your upper back and arms that’s necessary to do full pull ups.
The easiest way to do lat pulls is with a cable machine, but you can also do them with a resistance band. Rotate between heavier sets of 8 reps to build strength and lighter sets of 12-15 reps to build endurance.
Inverted rows are similar in that they build strength and endurance in some of the same muscles, but they’re horizontal instead of vertical.
As with lat pulls, the difficulty is easy to adjust, making them ideal for beginners.
All you need for inverted rows is the edge of a solid surface that you can grab onto, but if you’re in the gym, the smith machine works especially well.
Tip #2: Supplement with assisted pull ups to prime your body for the motion.
Assisted pull ups are the bread and butter of beginner pull up training, and you can do them in conjunction with the first tip.
They work well because you’re actually doing the full pull up movement, but with added assistance to lower the difficulty.
You can do assisted pull ups with an assisted pull up machine, a smith machine, or with a loop resistance band. If you have access to the assisted machine, go that route — you’ll be able to make small adjustments to the resistance that bands won’t allow.
However, if your gym doesn’t have an assisted pull up machine, you can use one of the other options.
For band-assisted pull ups, you’ll need a heavy resistance band, a box or something to step onto, and a pull up station.
They’re more awkward than their machine counterpart, but they’re just as valuable.
If you don’t want to buy a resistance band, you’re not completely out of luck.
Leg-assisted pull ups are just as they sound: you’ll use your legs to relieve your upper body.
They aren’t as precise as the first two exercises, but they serve the same purpose.
If you’re not having luck with any of these exercises or you simply want more variety, you have a few more options.
Tip #3: When you’re finally able to do full pull ups, do them often.
It makes sense to rest at least a few days, and often up to a full week, between squat and deadlift sessions.
Those exercises are often performed with a high load and they hit a huge number of muscles.
But with pull ups? Frequent is good.
As long as your pull ups aren’t drastically loaded with weight or volume — and they won’t be, at first — you don’t need much rest between sessions.
Don’t be afraid to do pull ups four or five days per week, as long as you don’t feel like it’s hurting your progress.
At this early stage, you need as much practice as you can get.
It’s going to take time before you’re comfortable with the movement, but you can use these technique reminders to help you stay on the right track.
- Watch your grip. It’s easy to grip too wide, and that makes the movement tougher. Start with a shoulder-width grip and make small adjustments as needed.
- Find a good body position. Your lower body and core aren’t doing the work, but you still need to pay attention to them. There’s not a right way to do this, so play around with straight legs and bent knees until you find something comfortable.
- Memorize this cue: try to tuck your elbows into your back pockets. It’s an easy way to make sure your body is tracking along the right path. You should finish the motion with your elbows right next to your sides.
How To Do A Pull Up Correctly?
All difficult exercises come with an important caveat: they’re ridiculously easy to butcher.
And as you’re learning them, you’re going to do things wrong.
It sounds bad, but that’s A-okay.
Making mistakes is part of the learning process.
Still, it helps to have some idea of the mistakes you’re probably making so you can catch them earlier rather than later.
Big Mistake #1: You Use the Rest of Your Body for Assistance.
The kipping pull up is a perfect example of this.
I won’t go into my personal feelings about this exercise, but just know that it’s not a strict pull up.
When pull ups get tough, it’s easy to kick your legs and thrust your hips for assistance, but that defeats the point of the exercise.
If you notice that your pull ups start to look like the kipping pull up, it’s time to take a step back.
TIP: Finish your set with a Reverse Chin Up.
It might hurt your ego, but stop the set as soon as your upper body can’t handle it alone.
If you’re hesitant to drop your reps, then make sure you’re constantly telling yourself to keep your body in a tight and stable position that doesn’t change as you move.
Big Mistake #2: You aggressively pull your chin over the bar.
Pull ups are generally considered complete when your chin moves above the bar, but I’m not a big fan of that phrasing.
While it’s a good spot to aim for, it tends to push you into aggressively driving your chin up and forward with each rep, especially as the difficulty increases.
It’s a bad habit to develop because that forward head motion puts a lot of stress on your neck, and that’s one part of your body that you don’t want to mess with.
It also has a tendency to give you a false sense of range: you think you’re getting to the top of the motion, but in reality you’re just using your neck to get a few extra inches.
Instead of focusing on bringing your chin over the bar, think about pulling your chin up just enough to be in line with the bar.
Big Mistake #3: You aren’t using a big enough range of motion.
Given that pull ups are so difficult, it’s understandable that you’ll do what you can to make them easier, whether you realize it or not.
One of the most efficient ways to do this is to decrease the range of motion, or the amount of movement that occurs during the exercise.
You might do this at the top of the motion like we just talked about, but it happens more commonly on the other end.
While it’s okay to use a shorter range of motion early on to help get more reps in, you’ll eventually want to work up to doing pull ups from a dead hang position (arms completely straight).
Unfortunately, there’s no sage advice to dole out here. Just make sure you’re aware of the range you’re using and do your best to keep it as big as possible.
How to do pull ups at home without a bar?
Simulating pull ups without bar can be done easily with what you have around.
Be it in your house, outside or crafting your own way to do a pull up.
It’s pretty obvious once you think about it.
I covered a few prior in the post above BUT these are without a bar and if you can’t pull your weight at all.
Here are a few pull up variations, in order of easiest per progressions:
#1. Vertical Pull Up – By far the best place to begin if you can’t do a pull up.
These will help prime your joints and soft tissues or help if you are coming from an injury.
You can simply grab a pole outside, a door jam or grip your door.
Go for a 2:1:2 count – meaning 2 seconds pull in, hold, then push 2 seconds out.
#2. Sliding Floor Pull up
Here you can use your kitchen floor or if you have hard wood/laminate flooring.
If you aren’t sliding well, put a towel under your core and start pulling!
Try – 1 set of 10 and work your way up:
#3. Door Pull Ins – (Or called door towel rows)
Best practice with this exercise is keep your shoulders back and tight (best way to describe this is to “tighten your arm pits”) when doing these to keep your body centered and strong. No injuries!
#4. Table Bodyweight Rows At Home – or called inverted rows.
Have a table at home that can take your weight?
Slide underneath it, bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor and pull up. Having your legs straight out is harder like in the video below.
#5. Door Pull Ups – Door frame pull ups
If you have progressed enough from the previous exercises, then give this a try.
NOTE: Make sure the door can handle your weight. Also, through wear and tear just be aware that the door might unhinge.
Even if you still can’t do a pull up on the door, try a negative progression. That means, jump up and hold in the pull up position and slowly lower yourself.
The video below does a great job of demonstrating BUT click the “skip intro” box on his screen so you don’t have to hear him talk.
Door frame Pull Ups Demo:
#6. Creatively find or make your own pull up bar:
What I mean by this is, finding creative ways to pull yourself up using what’s around you in the home and outside
You can go for a walk around the neighborhood or school playgrounds.
Utilizing the back of stairs, ladders, beams, poles, kids parks, a fence, clothes line supports or hand rails.
You can even make your own pull up “bar” using rope! Idea and images I found here at Evil Cyber dot com.
[If you are ready: go here to check out my power rack guide]
So What Does All This Mean?
You’re now armed with everything you need to know to get started with pull ups.
A better understanding of the many reasons why you should include pull ups in your fitness program.
A workable progression that you can use to improve, whether you’re just getting started with pull ups or you’re able to do a set of five.
A list of the most common pull up technique mistakes that have the potential to derail your progress.
And maybe even more motivation than you had before you read this article.
I’ve said it already, but why not one more time?
Anyone can do pull ups, you just have to know how to start and be willing to put in the effort necessary to make it happen.
Plus, the standard pull up is just the beginning, so there’s much more to look forward to.
Before you know it you’ll be rocking wide grip pull ups, sliding pull ups, and maybe even clap pull ups.
The sky’s the limit.
Andy Chassé is a writer and fitness professional with a decade of experience in the field. He holds a master’s degree in kinesiology, along with certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).