Master the mechanics of the pull-up with this comprehensive how-to tutorial.
The pull-up bar is one of the most beneficial, versatile and cost-effective pieces of exercise equipment you could possibly ask for. It’s also one of the most ubiquitous. Almost every local park across the land will have a set of pull-up bars you can use for free – and you should.
Love them or loathe them, novice or expert, pull-ups should always form the cornerstone of your training routine, no matter your goal. Don’t just take our word for it. Callisthenics coach and general bodyweight training grandmaster Al Kavadlo has made a living out of them.
“I’ve been doing pull-ups for 30 years and they’re still my favourite exercise,” says Kavadlo. “They’re highly functional and they’ll do wonders for your appearance too.”
From running to climbing, five-a-side football to general day-to-day posture, increasing your pull-up strength will make you better at pretty much everything. “I can’t think of a single physical activity that a strong pull-up won’t help you with,” he adds.
To be clear, we’re talking about the palms facing forward, overhand grip version of this iconic pull-up bar exercise. If you’ve become accustomed to working out with just your body weight then there’s no better move for targeting the muscles of your back and biceps.
“The primary movers for this upper body exercise is the latissimus dorsi, also known as the lats,” says Brett Starkowitz, Master Trainer and Head of Education at Ten Health & Fitness.
This large complex of large, flat muscle covers the width of the middle and lower back, and is pivotal for pulling power. “In the context of a pull-up, the lats adduct the humerus bone of the upper arm, elevating the body towards the bar,” continues Starkowitz.
The biceps of your upper arm play a similarly crucial role throughout. “These two muscle groups are ably supported by the teres major, trapezius and rhomboids,” he adds. In other words: there’s no better move to strengthen your back.
To fully grasp the complexity of this challenging exercise, Starkowitz has broken down each phase of the movement. “To start with your hands should be slightly wider than your shoulders, and for a traditional pull up you want to be using an overhand grip, he begins.
“At this point, it is vital to engage the abdominal muscles to stabilise your torso. To initiate the concentric section of the lift, the brachialis of the biceps is the first muscle to be engaged, before the lower trapezius kicks in to retract your shoulder blades.”
As you begin to draw your torso towards the bar the large lats muscles will fire to pull your upper arms into your body. “In the middle range of the move, the biceps are helping maintain elbow flexion, and the rhomboids and traps will become more prominent to stabilise your scapula,” Starkowitz continues.
Approaching the top range of the exercise – as you strain to inch your chin over the bar – the rotator cuff muscles are working overtime. “On the eccentric phase, as you return to the bottom of the pull-up, all of the above muscles will be working hard to help you resist gravity until you reach full extension.”
If all that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. “Nobody ever really masters them. I’ve been doing them for over three decades and I’m still a student,” says Kavadlo.
Before adding: “That said, if you can do 20 reps without using momentum or cheating the form in any way then you’re probably in the top 0.1 percent of pulling strength compared with the average person.”
Twenty reps in one hit is almost a full workout in itself. But pull-ups are best when they complement a classic pushing exercise, such as a push-up (if using just bodyweight) or bench press (if using dumbbells, barbells or resistance machines).
Kavadlo recommends cycling between squats to target your lower body bilaterally, jump lunges to work them unilaterally, push-ups for your chest and triceps, pull-ups for your back and biceps, and a plank to work your core muscles.
Work for 30-45 seconds, resting for 15-30 seconds between exercises, and repeat this circuit for two to three rounds depending on your fitness level.
Listen up; if you are going for that 0.1 percent mastery, here’s what you need to know.
“Your arms are important for any type of pull-up,” explains Kavadlo. “But the muscles of your back, shoulders, chest, abs, and more, all play their part.” That's why it’s essential to focus on maintaining tension throughout your entire body.
“Grip tightly with your hands, tense your abs, squeeze your glutes and flex your quads,” he continues. How do you engage your powerful back muscles effectively? “Think about driving your elbows toward your hips to fully utilise your lats during the pull,” instructs the American.
For a rep to count in Al’s book, the chin must fully clear the bar at the top, and a full extension of the elbows is required at the bottom. The body must also remain relatively straight throughout, with minimal bending at the hips or knees, so forget about crossing your legs behind your body or you’ll lose all that vital tension in your core.
You’ve cracked the basic pull-up and you’re ready for more. So what’s next? Add these five pull-up variations to your pull-up bar toolkit and level up your upper body strength and fitness.
“The first place to start in varying your pull-up is to change your grip,” says Starkowitz. When using an underhand grip, the movement effectively becomes a chin-up which places a larger emphasis on working the biceps and reducing the load on the back muscles. Alternatively, try using a narrow or extra wide grip with your overhand pull-up.
“Negative or eccentric reps are all about increasing the time under tension, which will force the muscles to grow bigger and stronger,” says Starkowitz. Use a bench or jump to the top position of the pull-up, then focus on lowering slowly and under control. Repeat this process with each rep.
“Rather than under or overhand, this version uses a neutral grip, which puts greater emphasis on the forearms,” says Kavadlo. It can also put the wrists under less strain. Grab the bar with hands close together so both palms are facing. Alternate positioning your head on either side of the bar with each rep.
Crank up the abdominal muscle activation with this devilish variation. Raise your legs until parallel with the floor, then hold them in position as you perform each pull-up. “These require formidable core strength and relatively flexible hamstrings,” notes Kavadlo.
Okay, now you’re just showing off. “The strength and muscle gains you can achieve with this variation are astronomical,” says Kavadlo. Start with arms wide apart. Keep your legs straight and pull your body towards your hand on one side, pressing down on the bar with the other hand to help raise your chin over the bar. Lower and repeat on the other side.Words: Sam Rider
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