03 Aug How To Excel At Pull-Ups And Why You Might Be Struggling
When it comes to performing pull-ups, whether it’s accomplishing your first rep ever, or chasing a new PR, using proper form will make or break your success, and can help keep your body feeling good. The pull-up is a very technical exercise and is one that involves so much more than simply moving your body to and from the bar. While upper body strength matters, your entire body must work as a synchronized unit, and there are many components that will ensure you are performing pull-ups to your full potential.
In this article, Strength and Conditioning Coach Meghan Callaway will coach you through proper pull-up form and help you attack your weak points head on. She will cover who she likes to coach people to perform strict pull-ups and also cover different mistakes that are preventing countless people from excelling at performing one or more pull-ups. Additionally, she addresses and troubleshoots all of these key points in The Ultimate Pull-Up Program which is being followed by over 1000 women and men worldwide.
“Do you coach a kipping style of pull-up?”
I have been asked this question more times than I can count, so I want to nip this in the bud right away. While I am absolutely not bashing kipping pull-ups as they do serve a purpose if you compete in Crossfit and are required to perform them, they are a completely different skill than regular pull-ups and must be treated as such. I do not perform kipping pull-ups myself, nor do I coach people to do them. I am a purist and prefer strict pull-ups, and I find that the kipping movement can be more stressful on the body. If kipping pull-ups are relevant to your training, this is perfectly ok, but make sure that you are able to perform at least 8-10 perfectly executed strict pull-ups before you attempt to do any kipping.
Without further ado, here is how I like to coach people to perform strict pull-ups. I will also cover different mistakes that are preventing countless people from excelling at performing one or more pull-ups.
Hand Width And Grip
In terms of your hand width and grip, figure out what works and feels best for you. Generally, I like to adopt a pronated grip (palms facing forward), and with the hands just outside of shoulder width apart. You can also use a narrower neutral grip (palms facing one another). Going slightly wider than shoulder width apart is okay, but avoid placing your hands so they are inside of shoulder width as this can prevent you from being able to move your shoulder blades properly. As I will discuss in much greater detail very shortly, the scapulae, otherwise known as the shoulder blades, are integral to your ability to perform pull-ups. In terms of your fingers, I prefer to remove my thumbs from the bar and instead use the second through fifth fingers, but again, figure out what works and feels best for you.
Regular Pull-Ups (pronated grip)
Neutral Grip Pull-Ups (palms facing one another)
Once you’ve grabbed onto the bar and have adopted your preferred hand width and positioning, set your body so it is in a slight hollow body position. Meaning, your body should be in a stacked position from your head to hips. I liken this position to a canister, an analogy I got from Tony Gentilcore. In terms of your legs, fully extend your knees, cross one foot over the other, and dorsiflex your feet. Maintain this body position for 100% of the set. If you are using a doorframe pull-up bar and do not have the freedom to fully extend your legs, you can bend your knees and cross one foot over the other, but make sure that you use the same strategies for generating tension that I will cover shortly. For the duration of the exercise, do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, or ribs to flare. Keep your neck in a neutral alignment and chin tucked, including when you are approaching the bar. Resist the urge to look up.
Before Each Rep
Before you initiate each rep, take a 360 degree breath of air in (pretend that you are trying to fill the entire area around your spine with air), do a 360 degree brace (your front, back, and sides should expand), tuck your ribs towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Doing all of the above will help you keep your body in a more stable position. A more stable and intentionally rigid body (in certain regions) will help you propel your body to and from the bar with more efficiency. I will talk about this in greater detail shortly.
After You’ve Initiated The Pull-Up
To be very clear, while this exercise is called a pull-up, you are not achieving this movement by simply pulling with your arms. Many people make this mistake and it is preventing them from being able to perform their first rep ever, or from hitting a new PR. Rather than initiating the movement with your arms, draw each shoulder blade in towards your spine and down towards the opposite hip, and drive your elbows in towards your sides and down towards the ground. This is accomplished by using the muscles in your mid to upper back, not by relying on your arms. As for your breathing, exhale after you’ve initiated the rep and as your body is traveling towards the bar, but don’t exhale until your body is well on its way to the bar as doing so will eliminate some of the tension that a proper breath in will have created.
Here’s an example that is great for training the initial phase of the pull-up.
To demonstrate, here are some two finger pull-ups. As I am initiating the movement with my shoulder blades and am not overusing my arms, I am able to propel my body to and from the bar with ease, even though I am only holding on with two fingers.
When you are approaching the top position, complete the rep by continuing to draw your shoulder blades in towards your spine and down towards the opposite hip, and squeezing the muscles in your mid to upper back. Your arms should form roughly a 45 degree angle with your body, and your elbows should not flare out. Your chin should pass the bar, but do not look up. Keep your neck in a neutral position, and your chin tucked. Before you begin to lower your body to the starting position, gain a brief moment of control.
Here is a great exercise that is a great for training the top position of a pull-up.
During the lowering/eccentric component of the pull-up, your shoulder blades are meant to perform the reverse movements as they did on the way up to the bar. Resist the urge to keep your shoulder blades pinned and in a fixed position. Many people make this mistake. So, on the way down, your shoulder blades should move away from your spine and away from the opposite hip. As for your breathing, you can inhale as your body is traveling towards the bottom position. This way you don’t have to expend more time and energy resetting in the bottom position, or you can do a complete “reset” in the bottom position (360 degree breath in, 360 degree brace, rib tuck, and squeeze your glutes, quads, and hamstrings).
Here is an exercise that is great for training the lowering phase of the pull-up
In the bottom position of the pull-up, your elbows should be close to fully extended (extend as much as is comfortable), but do not allow them to hyperextend. Your starting position should be a dead hang, but do not allow your muscles to lose tension as this can place your joints under unnecessary stress.
Overhead Mobility Overhaul
Overhead shoulder mobility is not only a necessity for simple day to day tasks, but it is a prerequisite for many exercises, lifts, and functional activities. Without it, your body can and will compensate from many other body regions when doing things overhead, which can expose these areas to potential unnecessary strain. If your mobility is limited due to an injury/surgery in the past, or you’re just dealing with a stiff upper body that is limiting your workouts and athletic performance, this program is appropriate for you as long as you have general workout experience! Learn more HERE.
This is pretty straightforward, but the shorter the distance your body has to travel to the bar, the easier the exercise will be. In order to achieve the shortest path to the bar as possible, your entire body should be working in unison. You need to be able to control the movement of your shoulder blades, you need to be able to generate the requisite levels of tension in certain parts of your body, particularly the lumbo-pelvic region and your lower body, and your pull-up specific technique needs to be spot on. This is one reason why many strong individuals fail to dominate their pull-ups. In The Ultimate Pull-Up Program, I include many exercises that address lumbo-pelvic stability as this can absolutely make or break your pull-up performance.
Being able to generate enough tension around your hips and spine, and in your lower body, will really help your ability to perform pull-ups. I use this analogy a lot, it will be significantly easier to move a rigid board to and from the bar than an equally weighted limp noodle. If you do not establish and maintain enough tension, you will be more prone to swinging, and you will also be forced to move deadweight. This will make performing each rep more challenging.
When it comes to your reps, quality trumps quantity. If you are already proficient at pull-ups and are working on besting your current PR, as long as your form remains consistent, you can aim to perform sets of as many reps as possible. If you are starting out and can only do a single pull-up, or sets of a few reps, you can opt for McGill pull-ups. With this strategy, perform sets of 1-2 reps, and aim to move as explosively as possible on the way up. Rest for 10-20 seconds between sets, and perform around total 6-8 reps. As you get stronger and more proficient, you can increase your overall number of sets. This technique is awesome for improving your total number of reps, and while keeping your body feeling fresh.
Are You Relying On Band Assistance?
Let me be clear. Using band assistance can serve a purpose in a well designed and properly implemented pull-up program. However, skipping the fundamental steps and relying on band assistance alone will usually not get the job done, at least if you have the goal of being able to perform an unassisted pull-up. The band provides assistance at the wrong time (for many individuals), and it also makes “cheating” much easier. While I do use this tool when I am building up overall volume, working on the actual ”pulling” mechanics/scapular movements of the exercise, or working on creating and maintaining full body tension, there are many other pull-up specific exercises that should be used before you introduce the band. This is why I do not incorporate the band until phase 3 of The Ultimate Pull-Up Program.
Are You Ready To Take Your Pull-Ups To The Next Level?
When I created The Ultimate Pull-Up Program and released it this past October, I did so with the goal of troubleshooting the key mistakes countless people are making that are preventing them from excelling at pull-ups. In my program, which is 4 phases in length, and each phase more challenging than the phase before, I include many exercises that address pull-up specific technique and body positioning, upper body strength, shoulder and scapular controlled mobility, lumbo-pelvic stability, grip strength, and even some lower body work. Some people might scoff at this, but if you are able to keep your lumbo-pelvic region and legs in a more rigid and stable position, you will be surprised at how much easier performing pull-ups will be.
My full program, which is being followed by over 1000 women and men (including some coaches) from over 45 countries worldwide, is 166 pages in length and 100% of the exercises include a very detailed written description, video, and photo. I left no stone unturned.
About the Author: Meghan Callaway
Meghan Callaway is a strength coach in Vancouver, Canada with over 15 years of experience coaching a wide array of clients from elite athletes, to post-physical therapy rehabilitative strength training, as well as everyday people who want to feel, perform, and function at a higher level.
Meghan is the creator of the Ultimate Pull-Up Program, and believes that working out should be fun, mentally and physically rewarding, and empowering. Her pull-up program is currently being followed by over 1000 women and men from over 45 countries worldwide.
When Meghan was 28, she was in a bad car accident, and this led to over 5 years of severe discomfort, full body issues, and a significant amount of mental, physical, and financial stress. She never thought she’d be able to work out again, or even move properly, and she spent these 5 years going from doctor to doctor until she finally found somebody who could tell her what was causing all of her symptoms and injuries. Despite many low points and moments of doubt, Meghan persevered until she found a solution, and learned a tremendous amount about herself, and lessons, in the process. This was Meghan’s turning point, and truly made her appreciate her health and simply the ability to feel good more than ever.
Meghan has an extensive athletic background and has played competitive soccer for 27 years, and also grew up playing ice hockey and baseball on boys teams.