Mastering Bodyweight Exercise

Humans Becoming Better

Mastering The Pullup

Mastering The Pullup Cover Photo

You can do pullups all over the place. I found these bars on a basketball court in Costa Rica

The pullup is as old as humanity itself, but still impressive, useful, and a powerful strength-building exercise. Long before the modern era, our ancestors pulled themselves up to tree branches to grab figs and mangoes, or over the lip of rock ledges to escape predators.

If you couldn’t do a pullup, survival would simply have been a lot harder. But the average desk-bound human of today is unable to do even a single one; the entire chain of muscles that make them possible have atrophied from disuse. 

But no matter what the current state of your body, you can start on the road to the pullups today by using the steps in this guide.

 

The Benefits Of The Pullup

 

Outside of the utilitarian value of moving your body around with ease, and the wow factor of knocking a bunch off to impress friends, pullups will give you a major aesthetic upgrade.

Lats greys anatomy.

Watch your lats get a lot bigger as you progress toward mastering the pullup

By the time you can do ten strict dead hang pullups, you’ll have totally transformed your back.

The lion share of the load of hauling you up to a bar is born by the latissimus dorsi, or the “lats”, which are the largest muscles in your body. They runs from your armpits down to your ribs, and on a well-developed man, the lats spread out around the back like wings when he does pullups.

Other back muscles, such as the trapezius, rear deltoids and the teres are also worked during pullups, as are the rhomboids around your shoulders.

Your biceps will also get a lot stronger if you do this exercise. Doing a pullup is the equivalent of doing a barbell curl with half of your bodyweight, which is no easy feat for big guys.

For most people, the hands and fingers will also gain in strength, since gripping a bar and hanging from it isn’t something most people do.

Rings vs Bars

 

Pullups can be done on any static horizontal surface you can get your hand around or on a pair of free-moving gymnastic rings.

Both are great, but the gymnastic rings are slightly harder (most people can do more bar pullups than ring pullups), and those struggling to achieve their first pullup should probably stick to a bar.

The only exception to this is if you have wrist or hand pain while doing bar pullups. Because the gymnastic rings swing freely, your hands and wrists can fully pronate and this may alleviate the pain.

Which Grip Is Best?

 

Which of the two main grip styles should you rely on in training?

Neither will drastically change the exercise, but for most people, one will make the it easier than the other, depending on if their lats or biceps are stronger.

The Overhand (pullup) Grip. Fingernails face away from you.

The Overhand (pullup) Grip. Fingernails face away from you.

An overhand grip is the more challenging of the two options for most people, and relies more on the lats.

The underhand (chinup) grip. Fingernails point toward you.

The underhand (chin up) grip. Fingernails point toward you.

The underhand grip shifts more of the load to the biceps, and so many people will find them the easier option.

 

Don’t think of one or the other as better. Instead, do your best to train both. Simply switching between the two grips with every set, or with every training session, will even you out.

 

Bar Size

 

If you can't get your hands around a bar, expect it to cut into your max rep capacity considerably.
If you can’t get your hands around a bar, expect it to cut into your max rep capacity considerably.

A standard pullup bar is one and a half inches in diameter, which you can easily wrap your whole hand around. But in the real world, what’s at your disposal may not be so convenient. A lot of the bars I’ve found – such as the one supporting the basketball hoop I was doing pullups on in the picture at the top of this article – are much thicker than your standard pullup bar.

The thicker the bar, the more reliant you are on grip strength, which most people are lacking.  Feel free to use a thicker bar – it will only make you stronger in the end.

It’s best to stick to a standard-thickness bar until you can at least do a few strict pullups, however.

 

Range of Motion

 

The kind of pullup we’re looking for are strict dead-hang pullups.

This means that we’re starting off with no engagement in our shoulders or arms other than the very slight contraction we keep to protect our ligaments.

We then, with no bouncing or swinging, come straight up and put our chin over the bar before coming down again.

Kipping pull-ups, which rely on a dramatic swing to minimize muscle fatigue, have recently become popular, mostly because of the emphasis Crossfit places on reps. These are fine and will offer some benefit if you know how to not injure yourself, but a strict pullup will always yield more strength improvement compared to a rep that uses momentum to make it easier.

 

Timing

 

For maximum strength gain, we want to make the pullup fairly slow.

Pulling up for two to three seconds, pausing at the top with your chin over the bar for another second, and then lowering down for a final two or three seconds is ideal.

The reason we want things slow is to cut all momentum and bounce out of the movement; these take a load off our muscles and make the exercise easier than it could be.

The stricter you get with your range of motion and timing, the stronger you’ll become.

 

Two Paths To The Pullup

 

There are two main progressions toward a strict pullup.

The first relies only on bodyweight exercises, a bar, and furniture you likely have around your home. I detail this progression below.

Some find the use of resistance bands (also called pullup bands) to be helpful in achieving full pullups, however. I explain how to use resistance bands to achieve full pullups here.

 

The Pullup Progression Series

 

The pullup progression series relies only on bodyweight exercises, so you don’t need anything besides a bar and the furniture you probably already have.

Depending on your current level of strength, some of these may be incredibly easy. You should still make sure you can do the progression standard of sets and reps listed in each exercise before moving on to the next, however.

Step One: Vertical Pulls

 

Vertical Pull One Vertical Pull Two

 

Vertical pulls are ideal for the very overweight, the very weak, or those who have suffered joint or muscle injuries that leave horizontal pulls out of reach.

The movement is ideal for healing, as it will send more blood flow to the affected areas while retraining the pulling movement pattern.

Simply find a door frame, pillar, railing, or other object you can grab on to and stand a few inches away from it. Lean back until your arms reach full extension, and then pull till you’re about to touch whatever you’re pulling toward.

Ideally, you should be able to do three sets of 30 of these before you move on to the next exercise.

Step Two: Horizontal Pulls

 

Horizontal Pull 1
Horizontal Pulls 2

 

Horizontal pulls will be the main pre-bar strength-building exercise that we’ll use. They can build a good deal of muscle and power in someone who cannot yet do pullups, while also conditioning the elbows and shoulders for the bar work to come.

Find a horizontal bar, desk, table, countertop, or other base which will safely hold your bodyweight. Try to find something at least as high as your hips.

Lay under it and grab the edge with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Pull upward until your chest hits the back of your hands, keeping your core contracted and your whole body straight. Your hands and heels should be carrying all the weight. If you like, you can put your arms slightly outside your shoulders so you can touch your chest directly to the object’s lip.

Ideally, you should be able to do three sets of 10 before you move on to the next exercise.

 

Step Three: Jackknife Pullups

 

JacknifePulls1 Jacknifepulls1

 

Jacknife pullups get you onto the bar or rings for the first time.

To do them, you want to put a high horizontal object (stable high-backed chairs work well) in front of the bar. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder width apart while keeping your shoulders slightly engaged to protect your ligaments.

Pick up or swing up your legs and put your heels or calves on the back of the object in front of your bar. Ideally, your legs should be sticking straight out from your pelvis (not angled)

Now, taking about two seconds to pull yourself up, bring your chin up above the bar while pushing into your legs to assist you. Then come down over the course of two seconds.

You should be able to do three sets of 15 before moving on to the next exercise.

Step Four: Half Pullups

 

HalfPullup1 Half Pullup Two

 

In half pullups, you pull through half of the range of motion of a full pullup without any assistance from your legs. This is the first exercise in the series that forces you to strongly use your hands, biceps, backs, and forearms, so you can expect to see some strength increases there as you work this exercise.

It’s also the first one in which being even a bit overweight can seriously impact your ability to progress. There are plenty of overweight men and women that can do pullups, but they become  progressively harder the more overweight you are. If you’re having trouble progressing, consider slimming down.

To do half pullups, simply jump up and grab your bar, but instead of dropping down into a dead hang, only let yourself fall to the point where your elbows are bent at roughly 90 degrees.

With no movement in your legs (cross your ankles behind you if you have an ingrained habit), slowly pull for two seconds until your chin is over the bar. Hold here for a moment, and then come down to 90 degrees over the course of another two seconds.

You should be able to do 2 sets of 15 of these before moving on to the next exercise.

Step Five: Strict Dead Hang Pullups

 

Pullup One Pullup Two

 

Strict dead hang pullups are beyond the ability of most adults in developed countries, so once you’ve mastered them, you’ll have something to be proud of.

By the time you can do two sets of 10 dead hang pullups, you’ll have totally transformed your upper back and biceps, leaving you much stronger and capable of moving on to harder exercises.

Because you’re doing them from a dead hang and pulling out of the bottom position is so challenging, this step will likely seem considerably harder than the previous one.

Once again, if you’re overweight, losing some fat can make this exercise easier.

To do them, hop up to the bar and lower yourself into a dead hang. Leave your shoulders slightly contracted to protect your ligaments.

Pull up for two seconds, rest with your chin over the bar for another second, and then descend back to the full dead hang for another two seconds.

If you find yourself, “kipping,” swinging, or using momentum at all, cross your ankles behind you to keep your legs out of play. Aim for no momentum during this exercise for maximum strength gain.

If you can’t manage a single full pullup, despite being able to do 2 sets of 15 half pullups, then take a piece of furniture and place it in front of the bar. Put one foot on it and press through your toes slightly to help yourself get through the first few inches of the movement. Gradually reduce the amount of foot pressure you use as you get stronger.

When you can do two sets of 10 dead hang pullups, you’ll be very strong.

 

Moving Forward

 

  • Still can’t manage to do a pullup? Using resistance bands may be your ticket.
  • If you’re rocking strict dead hang pullups, consider moving toward the much harder one-armed pullup.
  • Ready for something different? Check out some of these other bodyweight exercises that will challenge you in new ways.

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