The first time I attempted a pull-up, it was for fitness testing in elementary school. I stepped up to the bar, jumped up to grip it, and then hung there like a right-side-up possum. And I wasn’t the only one. Frankly, I didn’t think anyone had the upper-body strength to hoist their entire body weight up to the bar at the age of 11. What I didn’t know then was that with a little assistance and practice, we all could have completed a pull-up.
Chin-up vs. pull-up.
The difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is the grip of the hands. Pull-ups are done with palms facing away from you; chin-ups are done with palms toward you, or sometimes facing one another. Either is effective in training the muscles of the upper back, and most people use a variety of grips to target them from different angles. It’s a bit of a myth that chin-ups and pull-ups actually work different muscles. They may, in fact, target different muscle fibers, but if you’re pulling yourself up, you’ve engaged your upper back, lats, and shoulders. So whichever grip feels the most comfortable for you is a great way to begin.
How to do it.
If you’re able to reach the bar while still standing, grip the bar a shoulder length apart, fully extending your arms. Keep your torso as straight as possible and bend your knees back so your feet are behind you and off of the ground. Inhale as you initiate a pulling motion that should continue until your chin clears the bar. You’ll end up leaning back a bit as your torso ascends to the top position. Exhale as you begin your descent, bringing your torso straight under you and extending your arms fully at the bottom position. Go slowly, and control your descent to stimulate your chest and tricep muscles.
A little help here, please?
At this point, you may be saying, “I couldn’t do a pull-up when I was 11 and weighed 78 pounds. How am I supposed to do it now?” The answer: progression. You have to build up to it. Even Nadia Comaneci couldn’t pull herself up to the uneven bars the first time she tried, and she probably never weighed much more than 78 pounds.
Your first order of business should be strengthening your back muscles. Any pulling movement will engage these muscles. Consider a lateral row, a lat pull-down, an overhead pull, or a straight-arm press-down in your training schedule. Once you have developed a bit of strength, you can move on to the next step.
An assisted pull-up is your next stop on the journey. There are a few ways to do this. One is to find or create a bar that is three to four feet off of the ground. Sit underneath the bar, with your chest parallel to it. Reach up and grab the bar with either grip, keep your arms straight, and make your torso as flat as possible, slightly bending your knees. If you require more resistance, you can eventually straighten your knees so your body is one long plank. Bend your arms, pull your torso up to the bar, touch your chest to the bar, and then return to a straight-arm position. The closer to the ground you position the bar, the more difficult it will be.
Another option is the chair-assisted pull-up. Place the chair underneath the bar, then stand on the chair’s seat with one or both legs and use them to assist yourself in pulling up. Try to put progressively less and less pressure on your legs so the majority of the work is increasingly done by your torso.
You can also get a friend to spot you. Having someone hold your feet and help you lift yourself can make all the difference in the world. If that’s too much help, cross one foot over the other and have the spotter only support one ankle. If it’s not enough, the spotter could support you from your waist and help you rise up to the bar.
Should pull-ups become as simple as brushing your teeth, adding weight to the process can help make them more challenging. You can hold a dumbbell between your feet or wear one of the special weight belts created specifically for pull-ups. You can also wear a weighted vest to create more resistance in most exercises. And for the very daring, the one-armed pull-up can be executed by gripping the bar and lifting yourself with one arm while you hold on to the working wrist with your other hand. You should only attempt these advanced exercises after you’ve developed a sufficient amount of strength.
A final pull-up exercise is the negative pull-up, which should really be called the “descent-only pull-up,” since it’s not particularly depressing or cynical. The idea is to have an assistant, either human or a chair, help you with the upward-pull portion of the exercise, then to control the downward portion on your own. This is great for those building up to being able to do the complete pull-up, and also for those looking to work to muscle failure by doing many different exercises for the same muscle group in a given session. Note that the negative pull-up works more of the stabilizing muscles, as opposed to the primary ones we have been focusing on so far.
Begin the journey
Accomplishing something like a pull-up can be a bit daunting, even for the bravest of us. But with effort and a lot of tenacity, you can take the steps we’ve discussed and master an exercise you’ve been trying to do since the fifth grade. After all, isn’t it time to clear up at least one of the lingering issues from childhood?