The pull up is one of the most impressive athletic movements there is. What’s more, it requires nothing more than your own bodyweight and something to grip onto; making it the perfect exercise for traveling fitness fanatics. With that in mind, we thought we’d put together these six simple steps to perfect pull ups (even if you’re a beginner!)
Step 1: Learn to ‘Dead Hang’
One of the first obstacles to performing a pull up is simply that you’re not used to gripping something above your head. Your first step to solving this is to perform ‘dead hangs,’ an exercise that basically has you hanging off a bar like a dead weight! The exercise will help you to develop grip strength and get used to holding your body weight.
Hold for as long as you can and practice as often as you can!
Step 2: Scapula retraction
The next step to pull up mastery is learning how to activate the right muscles to do the job. When most people start learning pull ups they mainly try to use their arms, but unfortunately, our arm muscles (i.e. our biceps) just aren’t really strong enough to pull our entire body weight upwards. Instead, we need to learn to engage our larger back muscles such as our latissimus dorsi (or lats for short).
The best way to do this is by performing scapular (shoulder) retractions from the ‘dead hang’ position. This will help you to switch on your lats, pulling you slightly upwards without using any arm strength. Try to think of the movement as pulling your shoulder blades back and downwards.
We recommend 3 to 5 sets of 10 repetitions. Feel free to practice multiple times per week.
Step 3: Inverted Rows
Now that you’ve got the ideas of the ‘dead hang’ and scapular retraction down it’s time to start getting some work in. Don’t worry though, we’re not expecting you to jump straight in and be able to perfect your first pull up yet. Instead, you’re going to focus on building strength in your back and arm muscles by performing inverted rows.
Inverted rows are basically non-vertical pull ups. Here’s a picture to demonstrate what we mean
You can do these on any low bar, and can choose to make them easier by using bent legs or harder by using straight legs. We recommend 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. Don’t worry if you can only do two or three repetitions, just keep building up the number you can do each week.
For training frequency two or three practice sessions per week are ideal.
Step 4: Vertical Pull Variations
Now that you’ve got inverted rows under your belt it’s time to start performing pull variations in a vertical position.There are actually quite a few different ways to do these variations, but our favorite is with a set of resistance bands. The elastic resistance of the band helps you pull up at the bottom.
This video also has some handy ways that you can perform variations of vertical pulls (Minute 4 to Minute 5 is the bit you need to watch)
Step 5: Negative Pull Ups
Don’t worry these are actually much more fun than they sound! Plus they’re also the last step before you can do your first perfect pull up, so you should be feeling pretty good right now.
To do a negative pull up you need to use a chair, step or bench (or take a really big jump) so that you can start the movement right at the top position of a pull up. From there, your goal is to lower yourself as slowly as possible all the way to the bottom. Once you reach the bottom you can release your grip on the bar, reset yourself at the top and perform your next repetition. Here’s a short demonstration to help you visualize. These are a great exercise for developing strength in your lats, just be aware that you’ll probably feel quite a bit of soreness the next day!
We recommend 5 sets of 5 repetitions, holding each rep for a specific count. So if you hold every negative rep for 2 seconds this week, you’ll want to try and hold every negative rep for 3 seconds next week. A good goal to build towards is performing all five sets with a really slow and controlled 5-second hold. (Though if you can hold for longer that’s even better!)
Step 6: Full pull ups
As the saying goes, if you never try then you’ll never know. Start in your dead hang position, start the movement with your scapula retraction and pull yourself up to the top using your back and arm muscles. Be really committed to it and keep on pulling even if it feels really difficult.
Hopefully, you’ll manage your first perfect pull up, but don’t worry if not, all it means is that you need to do a little bit more practice with the exercises from steps 1 to 5. Come back and try again in a couple of weeks!
Give yourself a pat on the back!
Well done, you’ve gone through all six steps; the dead hangs, scapula retractions, inverted rows, horizontal rows, negatives and finally the full pull up itself. But don’t let your efforts stop there. Try to increase the number of pull ups you can do, and maybe try adding some weight to the movement! Good luck.