Pull-ups. Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, they are one of the most effective upper body exercises for developing functional strength and defined muscles. No other exercise works your upper body muscles in the same way as this exercise does. Which is why it deserves its own special post. We’re going to break down the anatomy of which muscles a pullup works, why everyone (especially women) should do them, and finally, how to get that first set of solid pull-ups. So really, this post should cover everything you’ve ever wanted to know about pull-ups, but if you have any questions when you are done reading, please comment below!
*Note* For the sake of clarity, when I talk about “pull-ups” in this post, I mean traditional, palms-facing-away-from-you pull-ups. Not chin ups. Not kip-ups. PULL ups. Chin ups and kip ups both work your upper body muscles, but the most difficult (and beneficial) version of this exercise is the static pull up, with your palms facing away from you as they grip the bar.
The scientifical (yes I made up that word) explanation of pullups…
Relatively speaking, pull-ups are a simple exercise. All you have to do is pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, and lower yourself back down. Easy, right? Wrong. Simple, yes, but definitely not easy. This movement is deceptively difficult, because it works a specific chain of muscles in a much different way than other upper body exercises. Below is a chart that shows the main muscles engaged in a traditional pull-up. To complete a pull-up with good form, you will also engage your core (abs, obliques, and lower back) to some extent to keep your body tight. A couple of years ago (in my weaker days) I would always be confused about why my abs would be more sore than my arms the day after trying to do a pull-up. Now I know that it’s because my core was weak. Compound exercises have a way of showing us our weaknesses very clearly. Pay attention if a specific muscle (or muscle group) is sore week after week. Your body might be telling you that area needs a little extra work.
Sometimes, when relatively fit individuals try a pull-up for the first time, they are frustrated and can’t understand why they can perform other strenuous upper body exercises but they can’t get their chin over the bar. Sometimes they can pull themselves about a third of the way up, but can’t get any further than that. Most commonly, the reason for this is weak latissimus dorsi (lats, in normal human speech). There just aren’t very many exercises that simulate the pull up motion for your lats. Even lat pull-downs, a seemingly lat-specific exercise, just aren’t the same as pulling your dead weight up above the bar. Simply put, pulling weight down is not at all the same as pulling your bodyweight up. (Later on I’ll talk about the best exercises for strengthening your lats if you can’t do pull-ups).
If they are so difficult, why bother doing them?
Pull-ups work just about every single muscle in your upper body, especially your lats, in a very unique way. They are one of, if not the best exercise for defining your upper back muscles and increasing functional upper body strength. After all, if you are ever in one of those hanging-off-the-edge-of-a-cliff-or-building situations, it would be really handy to be able to just pull yourself up, right? 😉 But seriously, when you can pull your bodyweight up over a bar multiple times in a row, that transfers over into every day activities that require a strong upper body (something women naturally lack). Pull-ups also make good use of your full range of motion in your arms and shoulders, which can help preserve joint and tissue health.
To prove to yourself that you can. The best way to get started improving your fitness is to work on mastering the three most fundamental exercises (squats, push-ups, and pull-ups). Once you have those down you can pretty much tackle anything. This is especially important for us women as we usually think that getting fit = losing weight and doing endless cardio. That simply isn’t true. It’s about getting strong and healthy, which may mean losing weight, but it isn’t limited to that. As women we also tend to believe we just can’t do certain exercises. This is an unfortunate belief because it holds a lot of women back from their potential. So let me just put it bluntly: women can do push-ups, pull-ups, and lift weights. We can be strong. Maybe not the same amount as men, but we can at least accomplish the same basic fundamentals. So if you are afraid of doing pull-ups, or don’t think you can, that is the perfect reason to get to work and build up to your first solid set. Proving to yourself that you can do something as cool and fun and strong as a pull-up is one of the best ways to boost self-confidence and build courage and discipline.
The best exercises to help you when you can’t do a single pull-up (yet!):
- Negatives. These are the best way to quickly strengthen your lats specifically for the pull-up motion. All you have to do is jump up so that your arms are flexed and holding your chin above the bar, then lower yourself down as slowly as you possibly can. Eventually it should seem like it takes forever to do a single negative, because your lats are strong enough to stay engaged that long. The fastest way to build strength using negatives is to do 3-5 sets of at least 10 negatives, with your emphasis being on performing each rep as slowly as possible. This video is a great demonstration of how to do negatives.
- Flexed hang. Even just holding your chin above the bar, with your arms flexed, for 3-5 rounds of 30-60 seconds is a great way to build up lat strength. This is a good first step if you aren’t quite up for negatives yet. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t even hold the flexed hanging position for more than 10 seconds at first. Your body will adjust surprisingly quickly – you just have to challenge it at least a few times a week to demand that it gets stronger.
- Kipping pull-up. When using proper form, kipping pull-ups can be a good step to build that last bit of strength needed for your first strict pull-up. Personally, I think negatives and flexed hanging are the quickest and best ways to build up pull-up strength, but kipping can be effective as well. It takes more coordination, however, so you really want to make sure you have good form or you could easily injure your back or shoulders.
- Ring rows. If you have access to gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer (like the TRX), ring rows can be a good alternative if negatives or flexed hanging doesn’t work for you. The goal is to perform them with your feet as far forward as you can to put greater weight on your upper back muscles. The rowing movement can be very similar to the pull-up motion when your body is nearly parallel to the ground.
Once you can do one or two strict pull-ups with good form, try working on them 4-5 times per week by performing 3-5 sets of as many reps the hardest version you can do – whether that means you do 2 strict pull-ups followed by 3 sets of negatives, or 2 sets of 1 strict pull-up followed by 2 sets of 45 second flexed hanging, play around with it and you will soon find you can do a set of 5 strict pull-ups without a problem 🙂
There you have it! This post should have pretty much covered everything you’ve ever wanted to know about pull-ups, but if I missed something or if you have a question, please feel free to comment below!