Pull-ups are one of the best exercises anyone can do. It’s simple, it can be done almost anywhere and it builds excellent strength and muscle definition. It has been used extensively for military preparation and training for a very long time as it massively improves the strength to weight ratio which is crucial for developing good overall fitness.
That being said, pull-ups are also incredibly difficult, to begin with, and unlike some exercises, it’s not easy to simply lower the weight because it’s all attached to your own body. This means it can be hard to build the strength and confidence required to get better at pull-ups, especially if you don’t already have a fairly balanced strength to weight ratio.
There are a few factors that define how easy you will find pull-ups, the first being your strength to weight ratio. Even some very strong individuals find pull-ups nearly impossible because their size and mass make it too difficult.
There are other factors too such as grip strength, which is an often-overlooked type of strength that many people neglect. Good grip strength makes pull-ups easier by keeping you secure and stable on the bar and helping your hands remain relatively comfortable even while performing many repetitions or using weights to increase the difficulty of pull-ups.
If you’ve trained a little already you will start noticing increased grip strength, but focusing on improving this outside of the gym using grip trainers can make a big difference.
In short, there are a lot of different reasons that explain why pull-ups are so difficult, and also why they are so impressive. It’s an exercise that is rewarding and a real sign of strength and poise, and there’s no denying it’s a great way to show off your strength and overall fitness.
This is why it’s important to try and find innovative ways to get better at pull-ups and there are many different ways to improve that will suit everyone from beginners to people who are looking to increase the number of reps they can do.
There can be a few problems with trying to improve your pull-up strength, and they aren’t always obvious. If you’re having trouble increasing your performance you may be lacking in grip strength as we previously mentioned.
This can affect even the fittest individuals, as it’s something that’s easily overlooked. Luckily it’s quite easy to improve this with consistent grip training and other weight-focused strength training.
You may also have difficulties due to underdeveloped muscles, particularly muscles in the back such as the large latissimus dorsi, the erector muscles. Making sure you develop your back strength is key to improving your pull-up strength and is a great incentive to stop over-focusing on the classic pec/bicep bias a lot of fitness fanatics obsess over.
A strong core is also important as this will help keep your weight stable and rigid while performing pull-ups, and those without a very strong core will undoubtedly find pull-ups much harder.Another reason might be that you have poor flexibility and range of motion in the shoulder, which can make pull-ups difficult or uncomfortable.
This could be due to injury or poor posture and it’s important to identify these problems early to allow for an efficient and effective recovery.
Thankfully most of these are problems that can be resolved using the techniques we’ve listed below, aside from any injuries you identify which of course need to be healed before you can attempt challenging your body. Healing and recovery is just as important as your diet and fitness regime.
Pull-up Prep - 10 Exercises to improve your pull-up performance
In this section, we’re going to look at some of the best exercises you can do to help improve your pull-up performance. Not all of these are focused on brute strength and will help beginners as well as experienced lifters.
All pull-ups start in a hanging position, so it’s important to be able to hang comfortably. We walk before we can run, after all. Some people actually find this one of the hardest parts of performing pull-ups because it places a lot of pressure on our wrists and hands which can be fairly delicate and weak.
The beauty of this exercise is that it’s very simple. All you need to do is hang from the bar as long as you can, keeping track of how long you can hang on for and trying to improve this. While it’s a more beginner focussed exercise, there are ways to make it more difficult for experienced lifters.
Using a thicker bar, adding weight around your waist, or using fewer fingers to grip the bar are all ways to make this a very challenging exercise that builds grip strength and muscular endurance and will also help your shoulders and back become accustomed to the positions you adopt while doing pull-ups.
Scapular pull-ups are another great way to start building strength for beginners, particularly if you know that you need to build up back and shoulder strength.
This exercise is a nice way to graduate from dead hanging also and will begin to test your forearms a little bit more as you begin to get used to gripping while moving your weight around and engaging other parts of your body while hanging.
All you need to do is dangle from the bar in a dead hang position, and then raise yourself slightly using only the middle of your back and shoulders, creating a very small but intensely focused movement that will develop strength in the lateral muscles.
Stepping away from the pull-up bar, planking is a great way to build the core strength required to smash out pull-ups. Side planks are great in particular because they help build the obliques and lats which can be particularly difficult to focus.
All you need to do is get down on the floor and place one of your elbows and forearms on the floor, keeping your body raised and balancing on the same foot as the arm that is in contact with the ground. This will create a raised plank that will engage your core and also help build endurance.
Negatives are usually something everyone wants to keep out of the gym, as negativity is a great way to become demotivated.
We’re referring to negative repetitions, however, which is the only type of negative that should ever be permitted inside the gym.
This exercise is great because it builds up the muscles you need to use to control yourself when completing the reverse side of a pull-up, which means better endurance and strength when it comes to doing actual pull-ups.
To do negatives you’ll need a step or bench in order to raise yourself up to the starting position, which mimics the peak of a normal pull-up.
Starting by gripping the bar and supporting yourself with your chin above the bar, gradually and slowly lower yourself down to the starting position of a normal position, stopping at a dead hang.
This exercise will get your body used to this crucial part of the exercise and will also increase your strength and endurance as your body becomes used to holding the pull-up position at the start of each repetition.
X-ups are another fairly demanding core exercise that will help develop the main abdominal muscles and is a great partner to the side plank.
To perform this exercise you need to lie on your back using a yoga mat or the floor and spreading your arms and legs so that you resemble an X. Then you simply touch your left hand to the side of your right ankle, engaging your core in order to bring them together.
Being able to maintain a ‘hollow’ core is one of the most important ways to improve your pull-up efficiency, and this is something that even experienced athletes should consider using to break performance plateaus.
Another great core exercise is known as bananas, and they are not for the faint-hearted as they’re quite painful for beginners and notoriously difficult to hold. However, the payoff is an amazing core workout that mimics a similar position your body must hold when performing pull-ups.
To perform this exercise simply lie down on your back and flatten out your lower back so that your natural curvature is pushed out.
With your legs and arms together, lock your joints and raise them up off the floor, roughly a foot or so in the air. Then you simply hold this position for as long as you can. It’s a deceptively simple exercise that requires no equipment at all but it’s very difficult.
Kettlebell workouts are great because they develop grip strength alongside the body parts the exercise itself is designed to target. The kettlebell press in particular is designed to hit the core, shoulders, and arms and can be done in various formats, from the standard press to the bottom-up clean and bottom-up press.
If you don’t have kettlebells, a standard military press using dumbbells or a barbell is a good replacement that develops good shoulder strength.
Inverted Row/Supine Row
Inverted rows are great because in many ways they are similar to pull-ups, they use grip strength, a bar and require you to pull your own body weight up. The difference is that inverted rows are much easier and target the back more than the arms and shoulders.
They are a great starting point however can quickly lead to graduation to full pull-ups as you adapt to working with your own bodyweight.
Partner Assisted Pull-ups
Getting a partner or spotter to assist you with your first pull-ups is a far better way to start than using other assisted pull-up machines.
The key is that your partner should only assist you by gently pushing you from the rear of your rib cage. Grabbing hold of the legs or other body parts and pushing someone up is actually unhelpful because it doesn’t help you to develop the core strength needed to maintain good posture and form while doing pull-ups.
This method of gentle assistance can help you to really start developing your strength in earnest, while also encouraging good form and huge confidence.
Much the same way as poor spotting, assisted pull-up machines may work for some people but they absolutely do not provide a good platform for correct form development and this will ultimately make it more difficult for you to progress on to real pull-ups and will slow down your progress dramatically.
Grip Strength Training
Regardless of your starting strength, improving your grip is a great way to add serious reps to your pull-up game.
This can be developed organically by training in the gym as normal, but it can be built more quickly by doing daily exercises to test and improve the endurance and strength of your hand muscles, which will better be able to take the strain that pull-ups put on them.
Form Tips and Common Pull-up Mistakes
1. Using the hips
It’s very common when you see people doing pull-ups to notice them pumping their legs or hips in order to generate momentum that will assist them in raising themselves up over the bar.
This is bad form, and a strict pull-up should not make use of the lower body to generate force. Your body should be rigid and held steady by a solid core, not swinging around. That is the preserve of crossfitters who subscribe to a totally different style of pull-up technique.
2. Not Fully-extending
Another common mistake that even experienced athletes make is not fully extending the arm at the bottom of the pull-up. We’re not saying you need to lock your elbows, that would be both uncomfortable and quite absurd, but lowering yourself until your elbows are nearly fully open is the best way to ensure good form and to recruit all the correct muscles with each rep.
3. Lowering the chin
Keep your head up while you lift, as this will keep your shoulders open and your back engaged correctly!