How To Do A Pull-Up: The Beginner's Guide

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August 12, 2020

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Pull-ups are a functional bodyweight exercise that is great for building upper-body strength, however, they are commonly known as one of those hard-to-master exercises that can be tricky for beginners. Perhaps you’ve given them a try before and thought, why are pull-ups so hard?

Despite common misconceptions, it’s possible for anyone — even those without strong arm and back muscles — to conquer a pull-up. You just need to know where and how to start, learn the correct form, and put in the time and effort. 

Once you’re able to perform pull-up variations (and eventually a full pull-up), you’ll be able to reap the physical benefits of a strong upper body, while feeling great about mastering a challenging exercise.

Find out: 

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What are pull-ups?

Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is a pull-up? A pull-up is an upper-body exercise that involves hanging from a pull-up bar by your hands with your palms facing away from you, and lifting your entire body up with your arm and back muscles until your chest touches the bar. The pull-up movement uses multiple muscles at once, making it a compound exercise

When performing the movement you should focus on using your arms and shoulder muscles, and avoid shrugging your shoulders up.

Just like any bodyweight back exercise, this movement uses your body weight as resistance rather than external weights. While the exercise itself is relatively simple, mastering it can be tricky for those who are new to strength training.

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What’s the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups?

The key difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is primarily the position of your hands — a pull-up involves an overhand grip (where your palms face away from your body), while the chin-up uses an underhand grip (where your palms face toward your body).

What muscles do pull-ups use?

Pull-ups primarily use your biceps and lats (which start at the middle of your back and run up towards your armpit and shoulder blade) to hoist your body up, but they also utilise your entire upper body, including your abdominals, traps, deltoids, and pecs. This makes them a great movement for building holistic upper body strength which is beneficial for your overall health.

What are the benefits of pull-ups?

Pull-ups can have many benefits for your physical health, from building muscle to improving your mood. 

Build holistic upper body strength 

Because pull-ups utilise many muscles in one movement, they are known as a compound exercise. Compound exercises mimic natural movement and help improve coordination, reaction time and balance. They also train the nervous system and muscle tissue at the same time (as opposed to isolation exercises).

Low-impact movement

If you struggle to perform high-impact exercises due to sore joints or injury, pull-ups are a low-impact way to build strength without placing additional strain on your joints. 

Improve your overall physical health

Movements like pull-ups are not just about building strength, they can have a positive impact on your overall health too! According to a 2012 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, resistance training has been shown to drastically improve overall health, and is connected to better overall physical performance, walking speed, control of movement, and cognitive ability.

Better mental health and mood

Getting stronger and fitter is proven to help boost your mood and mental health. According to a 2010 review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, strength training can help improve anxiety symptoms, depression, sleep and fatigue, and cognition in older adults (among other key benefits).

Performing pull-ups is just one way to helpimprove your overall mental health through strength training. These upper body and lower body home workouts are also a great place to start!

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Why are pull-ups so hard?

Pull-ups are so hard because they require you to lift your entire body up with just your arms and shoulder muscles. If you don’t already have significant strength here, this can be quite a challenge.

Because a pull-up uses so many muscles, you need to have the holistic upper-body strength to perform them. 

Pull-ups also require correct form and technique to getright — ensuring you’re activating the right muscles at the right time will make performing the movement easier and ensure you’re doing it correctly. But don’t be discouraged — there are many ways to progress to a pull-up (we talk about pull-up progressions later in this article), no matter the strength level you’re starting from.

How to do a proper pull-up with perfect form

Now, let’s get to the fun part - how to correctly perform a pull-up! There are a few tips and tricks that make doing a pull-up easier and make sure you reap the full benefits of this powerful exercise.

Exercise: Pull-Up - Chontel Duncan

Here’s how to do a pull-up with the correct technique:

  1. Start by standing directly below a pull-up bar. Place your hands in an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) with your hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart. If you can’t reach the bar from standing on the floor, you can place a box beneath you and stand on that. Once your hands are holding onto the bar, you’re in your starting position.

  2. Inhale, then exhale. Lift your feet up from the floor or box so that you’re hanging from the bar, and engage your core by pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Pull your shoulders back and down.

  3. Engaging the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and raise your upper body up toward the bar until your chin is over the bar. You can imagine bringing your elbows toward your hips if that makes the movement easier. As you move, avoid swinging your legs around or shrugging your shoulders up. You want to make sure your shoulder blades remain back and down throughout the exercise.

  4. At the top of the movement, inhale. Then extend your elbows and lower your body back down to the starting position. 

This movement might not be possible for you to perform on your first attempt — which is totally OK (and very common!). If you can’t perform a pull-up like this off-the-bat, then you can perform exercise progressions to gradually increase your strength, until you get there.

How to progress to your first pull-up

It’s very normal to not be able to perform a full pull-up or to feel overwhelmed or exhausted, particularly if you haven’t done a lot of strength training before. Don’t give up! There are plenty of ways to progress up to a full pull-up — no matter what strength level you’re starting from. Here are a few ideas to guide your training. 

Assisted pull-ups with a resistance band

One way to get the hang of the technique if you can’t perform the full movement is to use a resistance band. Start by looping the resistance band around the pull-up bar so that one end is secured around the bar, and place your foot in the loop at the bottom. You can then perform the movement as normal, but the band should lessen the resistance and allow you to pull your body up. 

The thicker the resistance band, the easier the movement will be. Once you’ve mastered the pull-up with a certain band thickness, gradually start to use thinner bands each time and eventually you should be able to perform the movement with no band at all.

Isometric holds

An isometric hold on the pull-up bar involves jumping up to the top of the movement so your head is above the bar and your chest is against it (rather than pulling yourself up). You can either jump up from the ground or use a box. Once you’re there, hold onto the bar in that position for as long as you can. Repeat this hold three times as part of your strength training routine.

Negative pull-ups 

To do a negative pull-up, place your hands in an overhand grip just wider than shoulder-width apart. Use a box or sturdy chair to jump up to the top of the pull-up movement so that your chest is touching the bar. Then, slowly lower your body down until you reach the starting position of the pull-up movement. 

This movement still builds strength in the same muscles, but is a modified pull-up that is easier to perform for beginners. Add negative pull-ups to your exercise routine by performing these in three sets of 12, making sure you take a break in between each set.

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Mastering tough strength-training exercises 

There are plenty of resistance exercises like pull-ups that are tricky to learn, especially if you are new to strength training. But you shouldn’t feel discouraged from doing them if you’re not quite there yet — there are always substitute exercises you can try to suit your skill level.

Whether you’re just starting to work out or you’ve been exercising for a long time, pull-ups are a great movement to add to your routine and there are so many ways to begin. Remember, we all start from somewhere and building up confidence and strength takes time! 

The trick to learning how to do a pull-up and progressing to more challenging exercises is simply to give it a go, and progress towards a full pull-up with easier variations.

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* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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