Pull ups are a useful exercise to improve your back, shoulder, arm and grip strength. They are arguably one of the best functional upper body exercises, commonly included in training regimes of the military and elite athletes.
However, pull ups can be challenging. For many people, just doing one unassisted bodyweight pull up seems impossible. The good news is that there are ways to get better at them. Even if you can’t do one (yet).
Pull up vs chin up
First, we should clarify what a pull up actually is. A pull up is usually performed with a wide grip on the bar and palms facing away from you. A chin up, on the other hand, has a narrower grip and your palms face your body. Chin ups are usually easier to perform as their hand position allows for more assistance from the biceps.
If you’re training at a typical gym and looking for a place to do pull ups, a straight bar is ideal. However, many cable machines have handles at the top that can be used. Usually they will have a few options. You will probably find two handles parallel to each other, which can be used for neutral grip pull ups (more on that below). Hopefully there will also be two handles spaced further apart and in line with each other to mimic a straight bar. This is what you want to use.
Strict pull up vs kipping pull up
Another distinction to note is the strict pull up vs the kipping pull up.
Strict pull ups start from a hanging position with your back and arms stretched out and your shoulders by your ears. The strict pull up movement is initiated by pulling your shoulder blades down your back. Then your elbows bend and you pull your chin to just above the bar before returning to the start position.
Kipping pull ups involve swinging your body and use momentum to help you get your chin up to the bar. They are often used in gymnastics and CrossFit and are simply a different exercise.
How to get better at pull ups
5 ways to improve pull ups
- Assisted pull up
Assisted pull ups allow you to reduce your bodyweight to make the pull up movement easier. There are a few different ways to do them.
Resistance band pull up: Secure a resistance band around a pull up bar, and place your knee or foot in the band to take some of your bodyweight whilst performing pull ups. Depending on the height of the bar, you may need to stand on a box to be able to get your foot or knee into the band. A heavier resistance band will provide more assistance. As you progress, move to lighter resistance bands so that you start to pull closer to your bodyweight.
Box pull up: Place a box under the bar and keep your foot on it while performing pull ups. Push with your foot the minimum amount required to allow you to get your chin over the bar on each rep.
Assisted pull up machine: Many gyms have an assisted pull up machine. If you have seen people kneeling on a pad whilst performing pull ups, this is probably an assisted pull up machine. Similar to using a resistance band, the assisted pull up machine allows you to set a counterbalance weight that the machine will lift for you. As you progress, reduce the amount of weight that the machine lifts.
Partner assisted pull up: Have a training partner stand behind you and hold onto your waist or under your feet to help you perform the pull ups. This option is a bit more cumbersome and your partner needs to be relatively strong and coordinated to be able to assist. Your partner should only lift you just enough so that you can get your chin over the bar on each rep.
- Scapula pull up
Scapula pull ups train the initiating movement, or bottom portion, of the pull up. Scapula is just the anatomical name for shoulder blade. Start in a dead hang position, then pull your shoulder blades down your back. Imagine pulling the bar down to your waist while keeping your arms straight. I like to hold for a couple of seconds at the top before returning to the start and repeating. Your arms stay straight throughout.
- Flexed arm hang
A flexed arm hang works many of the same muscles that are used to perform pull ups. It involves hanging from the pull up bar in the top position of the pull up with your chin above the bar. You can use a box or jump up into the top hang position. As you progress, you will be able to hold this position for longer periods of time.
- Negative rep pull up
Negative rep pull ups involve slowing lowering yourself down from the top of the pull up position. They help to build strength in the muscles used to perform a pull up. Similar to the flexed arm hang, use a box or jump up into the top hang position, then lower yourself down as slowly as possible.
- Chin up and neutral grip pull up
Chin ups work a lot of the same muscles as pull ups, but are easier to perform as your biceps provide more assistance. As mentioned above, for a chin up, you have a narrower grip on the bar with palms facing your body.
Neutral grip pull ups are somewhere between a strict pull up and a chin up. Your grip will be narrow like a chin up, but your palms face each other. You can perform them on parallel bars or parallel handles often found at the top of cable machines. Practicing neutral grip pull ups will also strengthen a lot of the same muscles that are used to perform strict pull ups.
All of the above exercises, if practiced consistently, will help you achieve your first strict pull up. If you can already perform strict pull ups, you can use these exercises to practice more advanced pull up variations such as a one arm pull up. Practice a combination of all five exercises for optimal progression. Remember to also prioritise good nutrition and post-training recovery.