When Yassine Diboun, ultramarathoner, trainer, and coach at Portland’s Wy’east Wolfpack, wants to put the cherry on top of a hard boot-camp workout, he invites his students to the pull-up bar. “It’s a great way to build all-over upper body strength,” he tells his class as they groan their way through sets of this classic exercise.
Diboun is right. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), pull-ups are a multi-joint exercise, which means that it develops muscles throughout the torso as well as in the shoulders and biceps—and, of course, it improves grip strength. (A movement like a bicep curl, on the other hand, exercises only one muscle.) Pull-ups are especially effective in strengthening your upper back, which leads to better posture.
Pull-ups are also a great exercise for women to practice. In general, females have less upper body strength than males, so while doing pull-ups is harder for us, the rewards are greater when we perfect them.
The good news is that you don’t have to be able to do a pull-up (many of us can’t) to get the benefits of pull-ups. That’s where progression comes in.
Doing the following exercises will help strengthen the muscles needed to do a pull-up so you can work toward a pull-up at your own pace.
- Negatives. Grab the bar with your hands about shoulder width apart, using an overhand grip. Stand on something (like a plyo box or a bench) to get your chin above the bar. Jump off the box and slowly lower yourself until your arms are straight. That’s one rep. Repeat.
- Lat Pull-Downs. If you have access to a gym, use the cable station to do lat pull-downs. Use the same grip you would use for a pull-up. Pull the bar down toward your chest. Do not pull the bar behind your neck as this can be dangerous for your shoulders. Choose a weight you can do for 5 sets of 5.
- Bicep Curls. Since the bicep is heavily used to accomplish a pull-up, it’s a good idea to do bicep curls on a regular basis with as heavy a weight as you feel comfortable using for 5 sets of 5.
- Human-Assisted Pull-Ups. Diboun gets in his own workout during the aforementioned boot camps by being the assist for his students when they do pull-ups. Grab the bar with an overhand grip. Bend your knees. The person assisting you supports your ankles. Simultaneously pull yourself up while keeping your lower legs rigid so that your assistant can help push you up.
- Machine-Assisted Pull-Ups. Many gyms have an assisted pull-up machine that will allow you to offset part of your body weight. Ask your gym attendant for instructions on how to use your gym’s model.
- True Pull-Ups. The reward for all that work is being able to do a true pull-up. Grasp the bar, hands shoulder width apart. Pull your body up, concentrating on using your back/lat muscles, until your chin is over the bar. Lower yourself in a controlled manner.
The fitness world is divided on “kipping” pull-ups. Kipping is the technique of swinging your legs at the bottom of a pull-up to create enough momentum to help drive your chin over the bar. It’s a foundational move in the CrossFit community. Other trainers believe kipping pull-ups just don’t build as much strength as strict pull-ups.
We asked Dylan Ferrell, a trainer at Portland’s premier private gym, the Multnomah Athletic Club, about the biggest mistakes he sees when watching people do pull-ups. “I notice that most people grip the bar too hard and position their hands too wide. And then they use the momentum from kipping to complete the pull-up. Ideally pull-ups should be done in a controlled manner, with hands just a little wider than shoulder width. Elbows should be slightly tucked. And finally, keep your chest up and make sure your chin is over the bar.”
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine.