Pull Ups (The Best Upper Body Workout)
If I had to choose only one exercise that I could do for the rest of my life , it would be without a doubt the pull-up.
Pull-ups are the first exercise I ever did, way before I ever stepped into a gym or new anything about physical fitness. I would hang from every bar I could get my hands on which slowly turned into being able to performing pull ups for reps.
It’s been a staple in my workouts since then and because of that reason I’ve always been good at them. At my peak I’ve managed 31 decent form pull-ups in one go. I know that’s 1002 reps less than the world record performed by Jan Kareš in september 2017 for most pull ups performed in an hour, but still very good for your average joe.
Us humans tend to stick to things we are good at and shy away from anything we find hard or too challenging. The pull-up, especially to a novice can be pretty difficult and for that reason, most people after the first failed attempt, give up.
Don’t be one of those people!
I understand that nobody wants to be that person at the gym dangling from the bar looking like their hanging on for dear life. But who cares. If you really are that bothered, then the beauty of this beast of an exercise is that it can be performed in your garden or the privacy of your own home. Ask any professional trainer and they will tell you how the pull-up is king when it comes to body weight exercises and in fact nearly any strength training exercise.
To understand why pull ups are so effective, let’s look at the muscles involved in performing this often underutilized compound exercise.
Let’s start with the arms and work our way down the kinetic chain
Your fingers and forearms play a vital role in being responsible for connecting you to the bar. Without a strong grip, there is no pull up so the more practise you put in, the stronger your grip will get. A strong grip is vital for most movements throughout the day and has been proven in studies to be a great predictor for overall strength.
You then have the brachioradialis (In the lower arm), the Brachialis (In the upper arm) and the biceps, which are responsible for flexing the elbow joint and conversely, the triceps extending the elbow joint.
Pull ups work the deltoid muscles of the shoulder and in particular the posterior deltoid.
The teres major assists the lats in stabilising and lowering the raised arms and the rhomboids are responsible for retracting the scapula.
The trapezius(traps) moves the scapula and supports the arms during the movement.
The Levator scapulae as the name suggests lift the scapula and the pec minor along with the rhomboid muscles work in conjunction to perform downward rotation in the scapula
By turning you hards the other way into a chin up grip to face you, you’re also recruiting the pectoralis major thus not only working you back muscles but your chest also.
The Latissimus dorsi (lats) gets targeted massively in the movement and is responsible for giving you the coveted V shape.
The abdominal muscles role is to stabilise the torso as you perform a pull-up.
The obliques prevent twisting and may also play a role reducing the body from swinging and the transverse abdominis further assists in preventing movement in all directions .
The pelvic floor muscles stabilise the pelvis and help maintain intravenous- abdominal pressure to further stabilise the torso while performing pull ups.
As you can see, many muscles are recruited when performing a pull up and it’s clear to see know, why it is deemed the king when it comes to back and upper body exercises.
What Are The Benefits Of Pull-ups?
Functional strength – Because it is a compound movement you are working many groups of muscles together, making you stronger in many movements, strengthening the kinetic chain and relationship between your nervous system and muscles.
Better posture – Strengthening your core and back muscles will improve your posture.
Fat loss – This study showed how performing pull ups burns 9.95 calories per minute which is more than any other bodyweight exercise. The increase in muscle mass will also increase your basal metabolic rate thus burning more calories even when your not working out.
Widen your V – As much as we don’t like to admit it, most people work out to look good and obtaining that wide V shape tends to be the holy grail. The muscle that will give you that shape is the latissimus dorsi or lats which happens to be the muscle a pull up targets most.
Cheap – Nothing is cheaper than free as all you need is your body weight and something to hang from. If you are looking to buy a pull-up bar, Similarly to a kettlebell, it is a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment.
How To Perform A Pull-Up
For such a challenging exercise its actually very simple to perform.
- Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width apart with your palms facing away from you.
- Brace your core muscles to prevent your torso from swinging.
- Bend your knees and cross your legs
- Pull your shoulder blades back to engage your back muscles
- Pull yourself up till your chin reaches the top of the bar (without using any momentum)
- Lower yourself down in a controlled manner until your arms are fully stretched out
Difference between a pull up and a chin up
A pull up is when your palms are facing away from you and predominantly engaging your lats and back muscles.
A chin up is when your palms are facing towards you and although still engaging the lats you are also placing more emphasis on the biceps and hitting the pectoralis major (chest muscle) as well.
How to get better at pull ups.
Unsurprisingly, a requirement for the Spetsnaz Soviet Special Forces isn’t to see how many bicep curls they can perform but the ability to achieve 18 dead hang pull-ups wearing a 22 pound bullet-proof vest. Former Soviet Special Forces Physical Training Instructor, Pavel Tsatsouline actually revealed the secret of how the recruits would be able to achieve this.
“It is so obvious, most people don’t get it…If you want to get good at pull-ups, why not try to do…a lot of pull-ups?”
Revolutionary stuff here guys.
Ok, im being sarcastic, but thats because in general were always looking for some magic formula, especially when something is hard to achieve. Do not be afraid to tackle the pull up bar even if you suck at it.
Like anything it’s down to repetition, repetition, repetition.
When your practising pullups your not just training your muscles but simultaneously training your nerves, tendons, ligaments and central nervous system the mechanics of a pull-up and improving your proprioception for this new skill.
The biggest hurdle if you are new to this movement is always being able to perform the very first rep. The progression after that is on a much steeper upward curve as you’ve not only gotten over the mental hurdle but your body has adapted to the movement. I suppose not to dissimilar to finally managing to ride a bicycle unassisted for the first time.
Its unlikely that you will go from zero to your first pullup in one go, which is absolutely fine and just requires some progression.
Below are a few ideas to assist you in breaking that barrier of your first strict pull up and a great way to progress from there:
- Dead hang – If you can’t lift yourself up at all then just hang. Hanging is not only a great way to improve shoulder health and decompress your spine, but will also start strengthening your grip
- Partial pull up – If you can only pull yourself a quarter of the way up then that’s fine. Do that consistently till your able to go halfway up and before you know it you would have reached the first milestone of your first full rep.
- Negatives – Working the eccentric portion of the movement will also improve your ability to perform a pull up. Jump and pull yourself up so you are at the top of the movement and either hang in that position or slowly lower your body down till your arms are straight.
Pull ups are also used by the marine corp as a test of their physical fitness where they perform as many reps as they can before their grip fails (for men) and dead hangs (for women).
That’s not to say that women can’t perform pull ups because they certainly can. Major Misty Posey went from 0 to be able to perform 30 and now teaches Marines how to perform and improve their pull ups.
Below you’ll find Major Posey’s pull up plan, so go ahead a learn how to train pull ups like a marine!
If you prefer to visually see and have an expert walk you through all the steps then ‘The Pull-up Solution’ is a programme that is highly recommended. It’s not one I’ve personally used as my ability to perform pull ups as mentioned has come over many years of just doing pull ups. I have reviewed it for you though and I believe it to be a great tool to help you get started if you are a beginner or looking to improve on what you are already doing and smash through those plateaus.
I think I can probably talk about pull-ups all day but I hope that I’ve done a enough in convincing you to take this exercise more seriously.
Pull-ups are simple but they are not easy.
If you stick with them though you will get so many positive benefits out of them and more. You will be stronger, you will look stronger, and you’ll no longer be the guy or gall shying away from the dreaded pull-up bar but ready to attacking it full on.