The pull-up is the toughest bodyweight move there is, requiring your back and other muscles to work hard to lift and lower your entire body. Muscles in your back, shoulder and arms all get a workout with pull-ups, and you’ll definitely feel every one of them when you wake up the morning after a first session on the bar. Few bodyweight exercises have the ability to target as many upper body muscles and leave them quivering as quickly as pull-ups.
In fact, when it comes to bodyweight moves, the pull-up is king. This classic test of strength targets the powerful muscles of the back, specifically the lats, traps and rhomboids.
But with the right training it’s a move you can get really good at really quickly – and, with a doorframe pull-up bar, you can even build pull-up power without leaving home. Here’s our guide to mastering this classic move so you can add muscle size and strength faster.
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Why is the pull-up important?
“It’s the ultimate test of upper-body muscular strength and one of the very few bodyweight moves that works your back and biceps,” says former Royal Marines PTI Sean Lerwill. “A lot of guys get fixated on their bench press best, but I think your total pull-ups effort is a far better indicator of a strong, stable and functionally fit upper body that has real-world performance capability.”
How many should I be able to do?
The Potential Royal Marine Course (PMRC) requires you to do three full pull-ups to stay on the course, while 16 gives a maximum point score. “A guy in good shape should be able to do about six perfect-form pull-ups at a slow and controlled tempo, with an aim of getting to 12 reps,” says Lerwill. “Once you get to that point you should make them harder by holding a dumbbell between your ankles or wearing a belt with weight plates attached.”
What do I do if I can’t do any?
“The best way to build pull-up power is by doing wide-grip lat pull-downs, both heavy-weight sets and high-rep sets,” says Lerwill. “Eccentric pull-ups – where you ‘jump’ to the top position and lower back down very slowly – are also very good training drills.”
How To Do a Perfect Pull-Up
- Leap up and grip the bar with your hands shoulder width apart and your palms facing away from you. Hang with your arms fully extended, you can bend your legs at the knee if they’re dragging on the ground.
- Keep your shoulders back and your core engaged throughout. Then pull up. Focus on enlisting every upper body muscle to aid your upward endeavours.
- Move slowly upward until your chin is above the bar, then equally slowly downward until your arms are extended again.
- Aim for 10 pull-ups, but be prepared to fall short.
Do not be daunted if the idea of smashing out 10 pull-ups seems laughable right now, there are plenty of ways to build up to even your first full pull-up. Start by getting used to your own bodyweight by holding a dead hang for as long as possible without even bothering to try and pull yourself up.
You can also prep for pull-ups by strengthening your back muscles. Exercises like bent over dumbbell rows and inverted bodyweight rows will help. Many gyms will also have assisted pull-up machines, where you kneel on a platform that will give a certain amount of help in raising you up depending on what weight you set it at.
Pull-Up Assistance Lifts
Try these supportive machine moves to power up your pull-up prowess.
This machine move most closely replicates the muscle actions required to do pull-ups. The wider your hands on the bar, the more you isolate your lats, making each rep harder.
Cable face pull
This works wonders for your pull-up ability by not only improving your hunched-over posture from too much sitting but also making you learn how to retract your shoulder blades properly, which is key to perfect pull-up form. Do three light sets of 15 after your back or shoulders session.
Make a positive effort to up your pull-up max with negative reps. Your muscles are stronger when lowering a weight than lifting it so at the end of a set, jump to the top, then lower as slowly as possible. Keep going until you can no longer control your descent.
Pull-Up Form Tips
Use the full range
Using a full range of motion engages more muscle fibres and works them harder. Hang from the bar with both hands so your arms are fully straight. This is the start and finish position. Keep the full-range reps slow and smooth to reduce joint stress.
Get tight at the start
Bracing your body will engage your big and small stabilising muscles, making it easier to manage your weight. Keep your chest up and abs and glutes engaged. Initiate the move by retracting your shoulders, then drive your elbows down to pull yourself up.
Squeeze at the top
Once your chin is higher than your hands, squeezing your working muscles will recruit even more muscle fibres for greater strength and performance gains. Pause for one second at the top to squeeze your muscles, then lower back to the start.
Mix your grip
“Vary between wide, narrow and hammer grip hand positions to recruit more muscle fibres and correct any weaknesses for greater overall strength,” says trainer Andy Watson (@functionalfitnesstraining.
Break them down
“Remove momentum to target all three phases of the lift,” says Watson. “Pull your chest to the bar, pause for three seconds, lower halfway, pause, then lower to the bottom and repeat.”
“If your grip goes, you go. Get used to hanging from the bar with extra weight until failure. Then raising your own bodyweight when doing pull-ups will feel easy.”
Different Pull-Up Grips
An overhand grip pull-up is the hardest to do, because it places more of the workload on your lats. The wider your grip, the less help your lats get from other muscles, making a rep harder.
This grip turns a pull-up into a chin-up, and places more emphasis on your biceps, which makes it more of an arms move than a back one. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
A neutral or palms-facing grip is your strongest hand position because it distributes the workload between multiple muscles. Use it initially to start building strength, or even as your final grip for a drop set.
When you become a relative pull-up pro, test your mettle with these challenges.
Russian Special Forces Challenge
This test stems from the entrance exam undertaken by new recruits to the Russian Special Forces. It’s not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to perform 18 complete pull-ups without sacrificing form or technique. If that doesn’t sound tough enough, you’ll have a 10kg weight attached to your body – either in the form of a kettlebell, plate or weighted vest.
Dead Hang Challenge
Select a weight with which you can perform 15 comfortable pull-ups. That may be your bodyweight alone, or you may be able to add 5-10kg via a weighted vest or dipping belt. Your challenge is to hang at the bottom portion of the lift for 1-2min (depending on fitness level). It’s not as easy as it sounds, and to make it tougher, retract your shoulder blades as if you were about to perform an actual pull-up – and hold that position. This is extremely useful for those looking to quickly gain strength on the pull-up.
The 10 Set Press-Up / Pull-Up Combo
Five pull-ups, straight into ten press-ups. No rest in between. Ten sets. Ideally perform this at the end of your session for a strength and endurance test. It’s a favourite of Combined Strength coach Andy MacKenzie (@ironmacfitness), and while appearing relatively simple at first glance, will lead to a lung-busting finish.
We’ve put together 11 variations plus the classic pull-up – from the first-time negative pull-up to the ultra-difficult towel grip pull-up – to help progress your pull-up game. Once you can do a set of six to eight reps, move up the scale – adding an extra pull-up each week is a good rule of thumb.