Exercise 101: The Art of the Pull-up

Welcome to Exercise 101!

Today we cover the Pull-up, which is your new favorite exercise. If you’re anything like me, when you walk into the gym and see someone on the bars grinding out 10, 20, or 30 pull-ups like they’re nothing, you wonder why you ever bother doing anything else. The pull-up is one of – if not the most – quintessential fitness movement. When someone can do them, we count them as fit.

Now it’s time for you to get in gear and get those pull-ups going!

Pull-up vs. Chin-up

I get this question a lot: what’s the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up? Aren’t they just the same thing?

Well, yes and no. The basic position and movement is the same: find a straight bar that is far enough overhead that you can hang from it either straight body or with legs slightly bent. Keep your head, neck, and back in line, with your face slightly elevated towards the bar. Flex your back muscles and use them to draw your body up to the bar, until your chin is above the bar.

Simple right? The difference between these movements is the hand position. In a pull-up your hands are gripped so that the palms face away from you, which is called pronated. In a chin-up your hands are gripped so that the palms are facing towards you, also known as supinated.

Here’s a pull-up on a straight bar:

  1. Pull-up Start
  2. Grip the bar with a palms-out grip.
  3. Pull-up flex
  4. Flex your back muscles and draw your body up
  5. Pull-up finish
  6. Flex until your chin clears the top of the bar at full flexion

The motion in a chin-up is the same, but the hands change. Chin-ups have the hands turned towards the exerciser.

I’m also a big fan of Natural Grip chin-ups, which keep the hands turned in a neutral position with the palms facing the core of the body.

So why use the different grips?

The pull-up grip works the muscles harder and provides faster strength gains than the other grips. The down side is, the pull-up grip is harder to use since it works the muscles harder. The chin-up and natural grip versions allow more recruitment of the biceps muscles, which make the movement easier to complete, but also spreads out the work associated work benefits between more muscle groups.

Since the pull-up grip is so beneficial, it will be good in the long run to build up the strength and endurance to start doing sets of pull-ups as part of a strength training routine. But how do we get there?

Negatives! Why You Love Them

When you don’t have the strength to complete the full motion of an exercise, you can still build the muscles associated with the concentric movement (the work movement, or the “hard part”) by doing Negative Repetitions (“negatives”). Negatives build muscle strength by prolonging the eccentric (“easy”) motion of the exercise into a longer duration than normal, which helps build strength for the opposite movement.

So what the heck does that actually mean for your pull-up development? First, find your straight bar or Olympic rings, and then find yourself a chair or another height booster that will hold your weight. Grip the bar with palms facing outward, then use the chair to step up to where your chin is over the bar. Slowly lower your body down until your arms are completely straight. You should feel the same strain on your arms and back as with pull-ups; this means you’re working those muscles, just in a different direction.

For each negative, aim for a 5 second duration from the top of the hold to the bottom of the hold, moving smoothly between them.

To build your pull-up power, try to work up to 3 sets of 10 negatives. Once you can manage that, you can progress to adding full pull-ups to your routine. The next workout after you get the 3×10 negatives, do as many full pull-ups in your first set as you can manage, and then finish the set with negatives. Do the same thing with the remaining sets.

Progress as well as you can, converting negative reps into full pull-ups each set as possible. Once you get to 3 sets of 10 pull-ups…well besides being kind of a Bad-ass, you might be ready for muscle ups!

Until next time!