Updated: Dec 6, 2020
*Fun Fact: The world record for most consecutive pull-ups by a man is almost 5 times greater than a woman’s: 232 for a man and 48 for a woman! Even though men tend to weigh more are have longer limbs than women, they can still do, on average, many more pull-ups. Why? There are several reasons but perhaps the top three are: the psycho-social component. Girls are dissuaded from a young age from building upper body strength and encouraged to stay away from heavy resistance training. Secondly, males have a lot more testosterone, which makes it much easier to accrue lean muscle mass. Lastly, women tend to have a greater carrying angle at the elbow (flares out more). They thus are at a biomechanical disadvantage for pull-ups (but at an advantage for carrying babies and designer handbags!). These factors give men the edge over women not only in pull-ups but in many other exercises and sports. Anybody can do pull-ups. It just takes lots of practice and it helps no being 30 -50 lbs overweight.
What is a Pull-up?
This is called a closed chained kinetic exercise (CKE). Steindler defined closed kinetic chain exercise “as a condition or environment in which the distal segment meets considerable external resistance and restrains movement. In a closed-chain movement, the distal end of the extremity is fixed, emphasizing joint compression and, in turn, stabilizing the joints.” In other words, the hands or feet are in constant contact with an immovable fixed point like the floor or, in this case, a pull-up bar. All CKE involve a good amount of relative strength compared to one’s own body mass.
The heavier you are the stronger you’ll have to be to perform a well-executed pull-up. During the initial ‘pull’ of the exercise, your body is trying to move the bar down. Unless you are the Hulk, your force production will not be able to overcome the immovable surface and thus, you will lift your body up toward the bar.
Pull-ups are like squats for the upper body because they engage a slew of muscles. The largest muscle of the upper body, the “V” shaped latissimus dorsii, is the prime mover and intensely activated during the pull-up. Furthermore, there are stabilizing and antagonist muscles required to complete this exercise, including the trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids, biceps, corachobrachialis, subscapularis, pectoralis minor/major, teres major/minor, infraspinatus and serratus anterior. Pull-ups also require assistance from the transverse and rectus abdominus, obliques, and erector spinae to resist the swinging of your body throughout the movement. This exercise gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Factoid: The US Marines require a minimum of 3 pull-ups to pass their physical fitness test.
How to do a Pull-up
Hang from a pull-up bar using an overhand grip (palms facing out), a little wider than shoulder-width apart, your arms completely straight (this is called a ‘dead hang’). Without moving your lower body, pull yourself as high as you can – depending on your goal, most people don’t need to go higher than chin level, but some bring their chest to the bar. Pause momentarily at the top and then slowly lower your body until your arms are straight. Don’t swing or kick your legs. Repeat. Deceptively simple but extremely hard.
There are endless variations on the pull-up, most involving changes in hand position and grip orientation (underhand or overhand). Here are the primary types:
*A ‘chin-up’ (underhand grip) is categorized under the umbrella of pull-ups. This variation will engage your biceps more than the overhand grip pull-up. Biceps brachii engage more extensively when the forearm is fully supinated.
*Kipping pull-ups may be used if you are training for the gymnastic team or CrossFit games; otherwise, for most people, the cost outweighs the benefits. It is not a great exercise to increase absolute strength or hypertrophy. It is a good approach if you’d like to acquire a SLAP tear on your shoulder – if done improperly. I don’t believe anyone should utilize ‘Kipping’ unless they can do at least 3 or 4 strict pull-ups, to begin with.
Factoid: The lat pull-down is not the same as a pull-up. Pull-ups engage a larger global neuromuscular pattern than pull-downs (more core and stabilizing muscles). And pull-ups offer a wider array of variations and not to mention a non-sitting neutral spine. Pull-ups more closely mimic the human primal movement pattern of climbing.
How to Improve Pull-ups
1. Practice holding a dead hang for 10s, 20s, and 30s. Once you can master a 30-second hang, add some weight. This will increase your grip strength. You can also try hanging on thicker bars or vertical ropes or towels, making gripping somewhat harder. You are only as strong as your weakest link – if your hands and forearms can’t hold your weight, you’ll never be able to do a strict pull-up.
2. Do weighted isometrics (static holds) at the top and middle of the pull-up. Aim to hold yourself without moving for 20-30 seconds. But don’t rest your chin on the bar! See how long you can keep yourself from straightening your arms.
3. Eccentric only pull-up (negatives). Jump up to the bar (or climb up) and slowly lower yourself into the hang position. Do 5 reps of 5 seconds down and build up to 1 rep of 60 seconds. You can also add weight to make this tougher. You can always lower more weight than you can lift. This eccentric only practice will provide more micro-damage to the muscle and enable you to come back stronger.
4. Use the assisted pull-up machine (or make your own with bands – see below) and practice with the least amount of assistance as you can muster. Always use good form and resist swinging or kicking your legs. Progress to 1 arm assisted pull-ups, not only for bragging rights but to combat your bilateral deficit.
5. Practice makes perfect. Do some pull-ups every other day (3 to 4 times per week). Give your ‘pulling’ muscles and soft tissue adequate rest between bouts of exercise -usually 48 hrs is sufficient. Perhaps create a goal like how many sets will it take for me to do 50 or 100 pull-ups in one workout; then do one better the next workout.
6. Progressively overload your muscles by increasing the reps, time under tension, sets, added weights and/or decreasing rest intervals between sets or pull-ups. Track your progress and do this regularly.
7. My favorite pull-up variation for improving grip strength and overall performance in the towel hang pull-up. If you can’t do it, practice holding your weight for as long as possible while gripping the towels. Once you can master 10 reps of this, you will have a killer grip.
8. Lose weight. Eat better and move more.
Bonus: Neural drive pull-ups by Dr. Mcgill: