In this post I have tried to present you the most detailed pull-up tutorial I can come up with at the moment. It covers all technical elements that I consider crucial for correct execution of this popular movement. I have also included a few programming tips for beginners and intermediate pull-up apprentices. My goal was to write a tutorial that jumps out of the page compared to the rest of the generic garbage spreading misinformation and mysterious ninja techniques. At the end, you will be the judge.
It all starts in the head.
The first part of learning a proper pull-up is clearing your mind and shutting down the enormous amount of unneeded complication spread by the mainstream muscle authorities. The self-proclaimed muscle wizards have convinced many people that all exercises in the world are incredibly complicated. The truth is that performing a proper pull-up isn’t more difficult than learning how to ride a bike with training wheels. Serious! Once you know that, you are ready to begin learning the physical components.
Where should I do pull-ups? On tree branches, pull-up bars, monkey bars, door frames…Tell me! Where?
Unless you want to be part of a gym idiot compilation on YouTube, make sure to use something that can hold your bodyweight without breaking. The obvious answer would be a dedicated pull-up bar either at home, in the gym or outside.
At home: Whatever you choose – don’t buy one of those expending pull-up bars designed to be installed in door frame. In the long run those are basically useless. Even if they can support your bodyweight, they will never allow you to do weighted pull-ups unless you weigh 80 lbs (preferably less) yourself.
Similar products are made out low quality stainless steel that bends like a paper clip. They also leave marks on your door frame. It’s better to do your pull-ups using the handles in a public bus instead of putting your faith in this infantile training equipment pumped by the media. In addition, those suckers are limited by the width of your door frame and your elbows will be restricted. It’s also possible to hit your jaw in the upper corner of the door frame on the way up. Seriously, this stuff is for babies and mental midgets.
The best variation of the home pull-up bar is the one that uses gravity to secure the bar. It’s more stable than the telescopic version analyzed above. Unfortunately, even this one has some serious downsides – it damages the outer part of the door frame and is not very stable.
Doing really heavy weighted pull-ups maybe be problematic, especially if you are on the fat side. My advise is to use this type of pull-up bars only for bodyweight stuff and later on graduate to something heavy duty and leave the door frame life to the brainwashed crew of beach body warriors.
Another option is to hang a set of rings or homemade suspension system from something that has the strength to support many of you. This will reduce the amount of space your pull-up adventures require and allow you to train the weighted pull-up when you are ready.
Outside: If you want to save money, you can always improve your bodyweight pull-ups at a park with monkey bars or somewhere in the woods (not recommended – bears!!!).
The downside of this method is that weighted pull-ups become problematic unless you have a car and taking some extra weight with you is not a problem. If you have that part covered, this is a legit way to become a pull-up monster.
I know that many will say that you can use rocks and trash bins close to the pull-up station as additional weight, but I will politely reply that this is moronic. First, you don’t have any guarantees that your precious rock will be waiting for you the next time you are playing monkey. Second, programming is more efficient when you use some sort of metric system. I am not saying you can’t measure things in ”small rocks”, but I prefer the conventional method. It’s not the stone age anymore. Third, holding rocks with your legs is not very comfortable.
In the gym: This one is pretty straight forward – just use the bar in the gym. Sometimes the cable cross-over warriors are annoying, but you will get used to it. If you are going to do weighted pull-ups, you may consider making your own belt and taking it with you on pull-up day. Some people just don’t like to use belts that have absorbed sweat from hundreds of others over the years. I understand – getting over the fact that the belt has never been serviced over the past decades is a mood killer.
Step 1: Grab The Bar And Hang Like Monkeys Do
Once you have found a secure place to do your pull-ups, grab the bar using a shoulder width grip and hang completely.
This is a part that many people have hard time understanding. They think that the whole time you should be keeping your shoulders back – even at the bottom. Why would you do that? Oh, let me guess – because the gurus told you so. Maintaining scapular retraction (shoulders back) all the time is completely unnatural. In fact, this is one of the best ways to get a nasty shoulder impingement – especially during pull-ups and other overhead activities. You have to let gravity naturally pull you down. This means that your shoulders will go slightly above you ears. This actually pre-streches the latissimus dorsi muscles (lats), and they get ready to catapult you over the bar like a slingshot.
If you were to keep your shoulders down and back the whole time, your shoulder joint will not be able to move naturally. It’s restricted and shoulder flexibility is limited.
Try this: stand tall and lift your arms overhead while keeping your shoulders back and down. The shoulder girdle will feel really agitated and you probably won’t even be able to bring your arms all the way up. On the other hand, if you let your shoulders go up and shrug a little, the level of comfort will be much higher. The unnatural tension will be gone and most of the sensation will be muscle contraction in the upper and middle back.
There is a time and a place for shoulder retraction during pull-ups, but it’s not at the beginning of the movement. Don’t be afraid to start from a dead hang unless you have some sort of injury. If that’s the case, keeping your shoulders retracted and down throughout the whole movement will not resolve your problems. Figure out what’s wrong with you and fix it.
The grip: Your grip should be thumbless during straight bar pull-ups. ”What does that mean?” It means that you should not wrap your thumb against the other fingers of your hand. Instead, you should keep it on the side of the bar facing you – right next to the index finger.
This technique will make your grip weaker, but it is still very important during pull-ups on a bar because it ensures that your wrists and elbows are in proper alignment. If you rely on the mainstream opposing grip, your wrists will immediately twist. This is not a problem for all people, but some feel pain and discomfort.
The thumbless grip is known to cure wrist and elbow pain during pull-ups. Also, unlike the bench press, it is safe to use it here. What happens if your grip fails? You just go down on your feet.
Step 2: Kill All Momentum and Pull Your Shoulders Down
Before initiating your first pull-up, make sure that all momentum is dead. Then, imagine that your arms are just hooks/chains (the thumbless grip helps with that too) and bring your shoulders down without thinking about bending your elbows. The first part of the pull-up is all back – the arms kick in later.
If you do it properly, you will feel your lats (the muscles on the sides of your rib cage and under your armpits) fire. In the process the shoulders will come down and secure themselves tightly. Keep them compact and ”packed” until the end of the ascent.
This step is meant to activate your lats since the very beginning and generate a lot of upward explosive power. A proper pull-up always starts this way. This is why I told you that retracting your shoulders throughout the whole movement is pure nonsense from a technical standpoint and only shows poor understanding of what the body actually does during pull-ups.
Step 3: Keep On Pulling Until Your Head Is Over The Bar
Once you have the first pull down, it’s time for the second pull. The second pull is just continuation of the first pull (mid phase), but I like to separate the two when teaching beginners how to play monkey properly.
The second pull continues until about the middle portion of the pull-up. The most difficult part is to pull as much as you can with your back (lats) while keeping your shoulders down and chest out.
Note: This tutorial describes the classic pull-up – not the gymnastic hollow version. This specific point will be discussed in more detail during the rest of the post. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just remember to keep your shoulders down (lats contracted) and chest out (trying to touch the roof with your chest) on the way up. If the first and the second pull are correct, you will definitely feel your lats working.
Step 4: The Finish
The arms work the most during the final phase, which is way most people miss their pull-ups at this stage. Once the first and the second pull have been completed, and all stretch reflex is ”exhausted”, you have to contract your arms incredibly hard to complete the movement. When you are doing pull-ups (palms facing away), the major arm flexors are the brachialis, the biceps and the wrist extensors. It may surprise you, but the last help with elbow flexion (the thing that happens with your arms during the lifting portion of a pull-up).
Of course, this does not mean that your back stops working once you reach this stage. It never stops. The same is true for the arms – they are involved in the first and second pull. However, it’s better to think about your back at the beginning instead of your arms in order to avoid muscling up the weight without using your lats. Back first, arms second!
A pull-up ends when your clear the bar with your chin or when you touch the bar with your upper chest. Don’t lift your chin to shorten the movement. It won’t do you any good. Use proper range of motion in order to have easier time learning more advanced bodyweight exercises such as the muscle up.
Step 5: Initiate Landing
No, we are not done yet. A flight is nothing but a suicide without a proper landing. Once you have performed the positive part of the pull-up, slowly lower yourself down under control. This means that you should NOT let your body drop like a sack of potatoes. Why? Because the negative part of a pull-up can generate a lot of joint stress and potentially damage your precious shoulder and/or biceps tendons. Keep your shoulders packed down until the middle phase of the landing. Then, slowly assume a dead hang position.
You are now ready for your next repetition. First pull, second pull, third pull….until the end of times.
Q: Can you show me a video demonstrating perfect pull-ups?
The video below by Ryan Ford demonstrates a set of perfect pull-ups.
Note: You don’t have to touch this high. A little lower is also fine.
Frequently Asked Questions and Clarifications
Q: How wide should my grip be for otherworldly lat activation? I want to have huge wings!
A: This may surprise people new to the site, but the closer your grip is, the more your lats have to work. That’s because the range of motion of the muscle group increases even further when the used grip is narrow. Consequently, the muscle is doing more work, which in return equals more fiber damage and growth. That’s why the individuals who say that wide grip pull-ups develop your lats the fastest are basically idiots.
Keep in mind that when it comes to pull-ups, adopting an extremely close grip sucks, because it places a lot of stress on the wrist and elbow joints. That’s why it is better to keep your grip at about shoulder width or a little wider. If you want to play around with close grip stuff, consider doing neutral grip (palms facing each other) pull-ups or do your training on a set of gymnastic rings/homemade suspension system.
Note: Neutral grip pull-ups and pull-ups on rings do not require thumbless grip to achieve friendly wrist and elbow alignment.
Q: Should I try to make my legs look like a scorpion’s tail during pull-ups?
A: No. Don’t dance with your legs. This is not striptease. If the bar is too low for you and you have to bend at the knees, do it but do not created luxury knots with your legs. Just form a right angle at the knee and do the work. Some people like to reach back with their legs in order to create a bigger arch – it helps with pushing your chest out (similarly to the powerlifting style bench). It’s fine as long as you don’t overextend your back. Just don’t overdo it.
Q: Where should I look during my pull-ups?
A: Look up and forward – never down. When you look down your chest caves in and you cannot use your lats effectively unless you are already an experienced monkey. This style will also hurt your shoulders. The good news is that most people naturally look forward and up during their pull-ups anyway, and you probably won’t even have to think about this element.
Q: The brainwashed crew at gymnasticbodies.com told me that I should do my pull-ups in the so-called hollow position. Pavel Tsatsouline also says so in his fighter pull-up program. What’s your opinion on that issue?
A: First, I have to explain what’s the hollow position for those who don’t know. The human spine forms a weird letter ”S” when looking at it from the side. If you stand tall close to a mirror with your upper body naked (protect your pictures from ”leaking”), you will see a natural curve at the lower back region. Now, push your hips forward a little by flexing your glutes (hate to say this, but I have to). That curve will disappear right away. The spine will look straight at the lower back region. In the meantime the upper curve of your spine will actually increase a little. This is the hollow position. Gymnasts and acrobats use it when performing the new school handstand as well as many other elements. It allows you to perform a handstand without that terrible backbend you had when you were practicing bboying in high school. This method reduces the stress on your lower back significantly during handstands. However, it also requires substantial shoulder flexibility.
My opinion is that hollow pull-ups suck, especially for beginners. They are just not natural. It’s a man made game. It’s also much harder to activate your lats when performing your pull-ups this way.
If your main goal in this pull-up adventure has nothing to do with advanced gymnastics, and you just want to acquire strength as well as a few grams of muscles mass, expand your chest and say ”fuck you” to the hollow position.
In addition, don’t worry about doing pull-ups like a fighter. There’s no such thing as a fighter pull-up. In fact, most fighters don’t even do pull-ups. They spend their time learning how to fight. Honestly, for most people there’s zero benefit in doing pull-ups in hollow positions. It’s a handstand thing for the most part.
Q: What’s best way to activate your lats during pull-ups? Vodoo?
A: The best way is to start from a dead hand and pull your shoulders down. I have a dedicated article that provides a detailed solution to this problem.
Q: What’s your opinion on behind the neck pull-ups?
A: They are pointless for the most part.
Where’s benefit in doing behind the neck pull-ups? What’s happening during this exercise? All I can see is that the chest caves in and you are unable to activate your lats. You are also placing a lot of stress on the shoulder joint.
With that said, people with decent flexibility will be able to do this drill without pain or injury. If you gradually build up, your shoulders will successfully handle behind the neck pull-ups. I don’t agree with the gurus who say that behind the neck pull-ups will make your shoulder explode. If you are ready for them, they won’t. Question is, why would you waste your time with this inefficient exercise anyway? What’s the point? To look like the guys in the movies? Those morons do it just for the show and have no idea how to train properly.
Q: Should I pause at the bottom and/or the top portion of a pull-up?
A: Technically, a properly performed pull-up does not require a pause, but you can add a short one at the bottom to limit the stretch reflex which causes muscle bouncing.
To be honest, bouncing does not always equal bad form. You can perform a perfectly safe pull-up or a bench press without pausing. Problems are created when people just drop like an anchor in the sea in order to abuse the natural stretch reflex of the lats or chest.
Can you tell me more about that ”bouncing”? I don’t get it.
At the bottom of a pull-up, your lats are stretched. You can think of them as rubber bands. During the lowering portion they stretch and then catapult you. If you pause completely for a second or two, that stretch reflex is ”killed”, and you need even more strength to get up. Notwithstanding this fact, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Just lower yourself under control instead of trying to get as much as you can out of that bounce. Use it in moderation, as they say. Also, don’t pay attention to the maniacs who do everything with a pause. They ain’t going to heaven either.
Q: Which pull-up variation gives you the most lat activation?
A: Close grip chin-ups, neutral grip pull-ups and ring pull-ups work the lats more than the mainstream versions you see in Rocky 1-6. There are two main reasons for that. First, those variations allow you to do a higher number of reps, which equals more work for your lats and extra ”stimulation”. Second, close grip overhand grip pull-ups place too much stress on the triceps tendon due to overflexion of the elbow joint. This limits your range of motion and lat activation. My personal favorite are ring pull-ups and then neutral grip.
Q: My elbows are killing me during pull-ups and my wrists hurt during chin-ups. What now?
A: You have three options – be an idiot and continue to train with pain in order to win an air award or switch to neutral grip or ring pull-ups. Also, don’t worry about your pull-up integrity since each variation has great carry over to the other. This means that if you get really good at one type of pull-ups, all other sorts will also get much easier.
For example, for a long time I have been using a suspension system for my ring pull-ups. A few weeks ago I tried a set of regular overhand pull-ups on a straight bar, and I was able to pull myself so high that I almost touched the bar with my dick. I owe this phenomenal experience to weighted pull-ups done on my homemade suspension system.
With that said, there are two other things you can try besides switching to neutral grip or rings. If you are having elbow pain at the triceps area during pull-ups, try to use a wider grip. On the other hand, if you are having wrist pain from chin-ups, use a narrower grip.
If you are having wrist pain during your regular straight bar pull-ups, remember to use the thumbless grip technique explained above.
Q: Which muscles are developed by the pull-up? Are pull-ups a complete back exercise?
A: The primary movers are the arm flexors (all kinds), the long head of the triceps (yeah, don’t look stupid), the latissimus dorsi, the middle of the back and the rear deltoids. The abdominal muscles work as stabilizers.
While most of the mentioned muscles form a large portion of your back, a lot of the rear musculature is actually sleeping during pull-ups. This is especially true for your upper traps and spinal erectors. You need another movement such as the barbell deadlift or a row variation without support to strengthen the area. This may crush your calisthenic soul, but the pull-up is far from being a complete back exercise. Rows, deadlifts and rack pulls offer fuller back development.
Q: Can I use straps for my pull-ups?
A: Straps are sometimes good when you are still learning how to ”use your arms as hooks” or recovering from a forearm/elbow injury. For the most part, however, the pull-up is not super grip demanding. Even if you are doing weighted pull-ups, you will rarely be limited by your grip. This is not a deadlift! You will not be holding an amount of weight justifying more frequent use of straps.
Q: I am a fatso. Can I start doing pull-ups right away or should I lose weight first?
A: It depends on how fat your are. If you are not over 25-27% body fat as a male, you can probably start right away. However, if you are fatter, you will suck at pull-ups.
Pull-ups hate fatsos with a passion while squats are tolerant and ”understand your feelings”. This is the nature of the beast. It may be hard for some people to hear it, but you will never be the best you can be at pull-ups when you are holding five bags of lard under your skin. With that said, you also don’t have to be 5% body fat to reach your best. Below 14% the amount of diminishing returns is slowly increasing. 8-12% seems to be the golden range.
Q: Should I do my pull-ups on a thick or a thin bar?
A: Stay away from really thick bars because they make your grip strength a limiting factor. Unless you are doing pull-ups specifically to train your fingers and squeezing prowess, you will just reduce the work done by your back and arms. At the same time avoid really thin bars because they dig into your hands and cause unpleasant sensations in the area. The best size is always somewhere in the middle.
Q: Are pull-ups a good exercise for hypertrophy?
A: If you are a feather, don’t expect to get huge from pull-ups – they tolerate light bodyweights really well. The lighter you are, the easier it is to pull yourself upward. That does not mean that zero hypetrophy will take place, but don’t expect some anabolic halo type of growth.
Furthermore, weighted pull-ups are a mass building exercise because you can progressively make them harder and harder until the end of times. There may be plenty of skinny people who can do high rep pull-ups, but finding individuals with small arms and lats who can do a weighted pull-up with 70% BW+ (more than 70% of your bodyweight attached to you) is slightly harder.
I am not saying that all people who do weighted pull-ups have huge arms. That’s not true. I believe, however, that weighted pull-ups can potentially cause more growth compared to bodyweight only pull-ups. Sadly or not, you can go from 0 to 15 or more bodyweight pull-ups without much of a visual change.
Q: How often can I do pull-ups in my training routine?
A: It depends on intensity and volume. For example, if I can do 10 pull-ups, performing 2 reps each day will not cause overtraining. However, if I was to do 10 sets of 5 reps every day, I will one day get smoked like a pipe. Provided that your workouts are challenging enough, doing pull-ups every 4th day seems like a good approach. You are doing them frequently enough while also having enough time to recover. This method only works with bodyweight pull-ups. Weighted pull-ups require more rest time. You may have to only do them every 5th or 6th day. Sometimes even a whole week of rest may be needed. I know there are many gurus out there pushing high frequency nonsense, but most people don’t have the recovery ability to tolerate similar training. This case becomes even stronger when we are talking about weighted pull-ups, which place a lot of stress on the biceps tendons.
Q: Should I do my pull-ups with full range of motion? The big guys on YouTube do partials.
A: Yes. You should be doing full range of motion pull-ups – from a complete dead hang until your chin is over the bar, then you lower yourself back into complete dead hang once again and repeat. Those would be classified as full range of motion pull-ups. That’s how the exercise was meant to be done in the first place. I know that a lot of big guys on YouTube are doing partial pull-ups that basically look like biceps hang. Sorry, but that’s cheating. The big guys get away with it because they are big and captivate people’s attention using the ”wow” factor. Many morons think that just because somebody has large muscles he knows what he is talking about. That’s like saying that all rich people loaded with money know how money is earned. This may be the case in many situations but not always. Also, let’s not forget that many rich people take great pride and pleasure in spreading disinformation and making the poor frustrated, confused and sad. This makes the nasty type of rich people quite happy.
Q: How should I breathe during pull-ups?
A: Breathing during strength exercises is pretty simple. You inhale before the effort, hold your breath during the hardest part and then exhale at the bottom. When you are a bit more advanced you can exhale during the lowering part too. However, I am talking about controlled exhalation without losing tightness. You have to remain tight on the way down. This reduces the stress on your tendons and keeps you strong.
Q: What is your opinion of kipping pull-ups?
A: Kipping pull-ups are not a strength exercise and do not build muscle mass. They are a modern invention with questionable effectiveness. I guess kipping pull-ups have some endurance value, but for the most part they are a waste of time and have a ballistic nature that is known to cause joint pain. I personally stay away from kipping pull-ups and dips.
Q: I can’t do a single pull-up. Should I do negatives to get there?
A: Fuck negatives. They may work, but you will destroy your joints in the process, which I guess means that they don’t actually work. In addition, negative repetitions start at the top and don’t teach you the most important part of a pull-up – the first pull, which should feel like a lat explosion.
If you can’t do pull-ups, there are better ways to get there. First, if you are fat, lose weight and in the meantime perform horizontal rows and lat pulldowns. Once you are on the slim side and have become fairly strong at horizontal rows (15 reps) and lat pulldowns (bodyweight for 8-10 reps), you will be able to do pull-ups. While working on the horizontal row, you can also perform the so-called scapular pull-ups which are essentially a ¼ pull-up – you only do the first pull.
This is a better approach because your are learning proper lat explosion and the stress on the joints is much smaller compared to negative pull-ups.
Q: Can the techniques described here be applied to lat pulldowns as well?
A: Yes. The method is exactly the same. In fact, one of the best ways to learn how to use your lats is the pulldown machine. Many people say that the pulldown is an inferior exercise to the pull-up and they are probably right if we take into account the monkey factor. However, the lat pulldown can be used as an assistance exercise to increase your lifting tonnage. It’s very beneficial for people who can’t do a lot of pull-ups but want to perform high repetitions per set. In that case horizontal rows and lat pulldowns are some of the best available options.
Q: How should I warm-up for my pull-ups?
A: If we are talking about regular bodyweight pull-ups, you can warm-up with joint rotations followed by a couple of easy sets. For example, if you are doing 10 pull-ups for your working sets, a few sets of 3-5 reps are all you need. The goal is to avoid getting tired before doing the main work.
If you are going to do really low reps between 1 and 5, you can use horizontal rows, light lat pulldowns with bands, push-ups and shorts sets of simple hanging from the bar as your warm-up.
Push-ups? You crazy?
An easy set of push-up will be beneficial as a warm-up. Don’t worry! I know that the push-up is a pushing exercise and the pull-up is a pulling exercise. The goal is to fill the upper body joints with blood and push-ups can help with that.
If you are asking how to warm-up for weighted pull-ups, the principle is pretty much the same – joint rotations followed by a few sets of bodyweight pull-ups. Then you do a few series with little added load. You just want to feel the weight, not fatigue yourself to the point where your main work sets suffer.
Q: I can do 10+ bodyweight pull-ups. What now?
A: The logical progression is to start adding weight and build up your weighted pull-up to jaw dropping numbers. The other option is to do more advanced bodyweight exercises such as L pull-ups.
I prefer the weighted pull-up approach. It has great carryover to all other bodyweight movements and builds brute strength. Somebody who is really good at weighted pull-ups will have easier time learning more advanced exercises like front levers and muscle-ups. That’s because weighted pull-ups have the potential to build sick strength to bodyweight ratio. A good number is everything above 70% of your bodyweight. That means a pull-up done with added weight equal to 70% of what you weigh. This does not mean that everything below this range is weak sauce, but getting to 70% and above equals serious strength and advanced level of pull-up mastery.
I have written another post which talks about weighted pull-ups in more details:
Q: Where should I place pull-ups in a workout?
A: It depends. Some people use pull-ups as an assistance lift while others like me treat it as a main movement. Obviously, if it’s an assistance lift, it makes more sense to do it after the main work has been done. On the other hand, if your goal is to become a pull-up wizard, you will have to start many of your days with pull-ups. In my case I have a dedicated day where I only do pull-ups and nothing else.
However, even if doing pull-ups is a priority of yours, you should never do heavy weighted pull-ups before squats, deadlifts, power cleans…etc. You don’t want to have exhausted arms during heavy barbell exercises, especially deadlifts. That’s a nightmare and a recipe for weakness and pain. Think for a second: would you do biceps curls before deadlifts? I hope not.
The pull-up may be a sexy compound lift, but that does not change the fact that the deadlift demands more respect. The same is true for other pulls such as the power clean. Those exercises may not depend on arm strength but having tired elbows is just bad form. You have to accept the fact that the pull-up is lower on the food chain compared to other movements. Sorry.
Q: How many pull-ups should I be able to do in order to perform a one arm pull-up?
A: I can’t do one arm pull-ups, but that does not prevent me from knowing that reps do not equal strength. You may be able to do 20 pull-ups and still be unable to do one arm pull-ups. After a lengthy research, I found that most experts recommend getting your weighted pull-up to 70% BW before attempting one arm pull-ups.
One thing is certain – weighted pull-ups have much better carryover to one arm pull-ups compared to high rep training.
Q: Is it true that I will build super strong abs from pull-ups alone?
A: Strong? Maybe. Super strong? Not really. Your abs definitely have to work hard during pull-ups, but I wouldn’t say this is the ultimate exercise for the mid-section. Still, don’t be surprised if the day after a heavy pull-up session, your abs are sore.
Q: The permabulking crew says that pull-ups are not very important compared to the big lifts. Is that true?
A: Your goals determine what’s important and what isn’t. You have to choose what you want to do with your training. If you aspire to become a pull-up master, squats and permabulking will slow you down. At the same time, if you want to become a squatter, weighing as much as a feather will hold you down.
The reason why the permabulking crew does not support pull-up addiction of any kind is that those guys are fat and usually have hard time doing 12 pull-ups in a row with good form. The same goes for the calisthenics wannabes who thing all you need for your legs is walking and swimming. Those guys are a joke too.
Note: Rippetoe is actually pretty good at chin-ups for a fat guy. Nobody can deny that. Few of his followers can match him.
Q: Is it true that I can build a monstrous back with just pull-ups like the guys in the videos on YouTube?
A: Many of the calisthenics wonders you see in YouTube videos are pinning their glutes in the shadows. This creates the illusion that bodyweight training has magical strength allowing you to overcome the limitation of being a natural lifter. Wrong.
Don’t expect to get super big from pull-ups. Some hypertrophy will take place, but people will not be stopping you on the street to take a picture. Even if you become a world class pull-up master, you will still not be as big as the guys wearing thongs in muscle magazines.
Q: Rippetoe recommends doing high volume of chin-ups in order to fix elbow tendonitis. What the hell?
Clarification: Mark Rippetoe is known to recommend high volume chin-ups to people with elbow tendonitis. The idea is that chin-ups will inflame the area even more and cause a massive healing process as a result.
The goal is to make the small damaged zone bigger so that the body can dedicate more resources to repairing it. He actually got this idea from an old painful technique used to heal horses. You can read more about it here: http://startingstrength.com/resources/forum/mark-rippetoe-q-and-a/52233-rip-chin-ups-4.html. He explains the technique in post number 36.
A: I’ve had plenty of experience with tendonitis back in the day. In my case it was a form of TMS (Tension myositis syndrome). In brief, this is physical pain with emotional cause.
Your brain creates real physical pain to distract you from a painful emotional problem. In my case this was also linked to hypochondria (health anxiety). What helped me overcome this problem was simply going through the pain with no fear. This method only works in cases of chronic pain that you have tried to heal with conventional methods.
For people who don’t quite get it, I will give a real life example. Back in the day, I was given an enormous task to fill 5000 lines of data in an Excel spreadsheet. In order to do that work properly, I would normally need 2 months. However, I was given only a month. Of course, I was not paid extra and had to work at home for long hours every evening. As a result I developed nasty wrist pain from all the button punching. For me, this is pretty rare because my fingers and wrists are pretty well conditioned for similar tasks. Ironically, after I was done with the Excel spreadsheet for the day, I was either writing posts or playing on a keyboard. I had little wrist pain during those activities.
Why? There are two main explanations. The first one is that I felt strong disgust towards this task and my brain was creating pain to distract me from unpleasant thoughts. The other one, which the science guys among you may like more, is that this specific computer mission was making me perform unnatural wrist movements that are were present in my regular keyboard typing. I believe both causes were real. This is how I feel. Take it or leave it.
In my experience tendonitis usually heals pretty fast if you catch it early. In most cases it’s caused by either poor form (bad bio-mechanics) and/or a lot of training volume that your body is not ready to handle yet. If you are in a similar situation, you have to evaluate what’s wrong with your technique. Is there an element of the exercise that places too much stress on a tendon?
The second culprit is doing too much work. In that case you have to rest, rest and rest and then get back in the game slowly. Usually those two fix tendonitis pretty fast.
I wouldn’t use the Rippetoe method on myself. I am not saying it doesn’t work, but I just don’t want to over-inflame an area to heal a smaller inflammation. Most people just need rest and technique evaluation. Honestly, high volume chin-ups may even make the situation worse. I guess this should be used as a final bullet after you have exhausted all other healing options. You also have to be a little crazy.
Since I have been training for a long time, I had the chance to find out that my recovery abilities are low, and because of that I rarely cross the limit. I haven’t had a training related overuse injury in at least four years. If you learn your body, you can avoid similar pains too.
Also, if you are suffering from elbow tendonitis caused by pull-ups specifically, switch to neutral grip or rings while reducing your volume and training frequency. The neutral bar and the rings are much kinder to the elbow joint. If you want to train outside, simply take a homemade suspension system with you and use it.
Q: Is it cheating if I lift my legs during pull-ups?
A: Yes. Many people use explosive hip flexion (lifting the knees towards the chest) when they are stuck in the middle of a pull-up. This is cheating because you are generating leg force to push the weight up. The regular pull-up is an upper body exercise. Eliminate that jerky movement or at the very least keep it only for death sets when your life depends on going up.
Q: Will weighted pull-ups improve my bodyweight repetitions?
A: It depends. You can definitely get to 20 pull-ups in a row while focusing solely on weighted pull-ups done in the 8-2 rep range. According to some bodyweight sources, by the time you are able to do a pull-up with 100 lbs / 45 kg 20 reps will be easy. The truth, however, is that some people just suck at doing reps. Why? It could be a mental barrier or a higher concentration of fast twitch fibers. People of that kind just do better with low rep heavy stuff. Those individuals will usually be pretty good at weighted pull-ups and may put amazing numbers while struggling struggle to perform 15 clean reps with their bodyweight only.
It happens. I consider myself one of those people too. However, in my case the reason for this is probably the desire to have really short workouts.
At the end of the day, you will have to do some rep work once in a while if reps are your main goal. Strength and endurance have carryover to each other, but in order to reach the deep ends of either, you have to train specifically for your goal once in a while.
Q: What is the best pull-up variation for lower lat development? I want to have thick lower lats. Tell me how.
A: There is no such thing as a lower lat pull-up variation. Your lower lat development depends on your insertions. People with lats inserting lower and close to the lower back have the full shell look, while the high lats guys have naked lower backs regardless of the exercises they do. This is the truth. When you don’t have lower lat insertions, there is nothing to develop there. What exercises are you supposed to do for muscle parts that do not exists? Maybe pray for better luck in your next life. Come on.
Q: What’s the best belt for weighted pull-ups?
A: I like the homemade chain belts. You buy a heavy duty chain from a hardware store, some foam and a roll of duck tape used for plumbing. Then, you cut the foam, cover the chain and wrap the whole thing in duck tape. The goal is to prevent the chain from digging into your waist. You will also need two carabiners to secure the weights and tighten the belt. This set-up can support a ton of weight provided that you truly use a strong chain – not some plastic garbage.
Q: Do you like high volume high frequency chin-ups routines?
A: You are probably talking about routines promising to get your pull-ups from 0 to 20 in three months. I am not saying that’s impossible, but it’s pretty much impossible unless you are coming from a break. Most people would need a year or more to get to 20 pull-ups from the ground up.
Routines with a lot of volume and high frequency often cause overtraining. The elbows and the lat attachments under the armpits are the first to complain. In the long run you will not arrive faster at the desired destination.
Q: What’s the perfect tempo during pull-ups?
A: Fuck all tempos. That’s such a joke. Counting in your head? Seriously? That’s so S-Nation like. Counting just distracts you from performing the exercise properly. You should be thinking about proper form rather than tempo. Explode from the initial position and then lower yourself under control. Tempo? Nice one.
Q: How do you feel about freestyle training by feel when it comes to pull-ups?
A: I think it sucks. You cannot train only when you feel like it. You have to follow a plan. This is how you progress. People all around the world keep on marching at the same place because they don’t have a plan and do everything by feel. Emotions can be deceptive and manipulated.
I remember going in the candy store hungry as hell, ready to eat whatever. I would buy five extra extra large croissants with additional additional chocolate and overload. At the beginning I would be like – this is awesome, but 10 minutes later I would feel guilty and ashamed of what I have done to my body due to emotional weakness. Sometimes people think their intuition is talking to them when in fact they are listening to the in-built human stupidity and laziness. This is why the freestyle approach does not work. To progress, you gotta do planned suffering. It’s a fact of life and pull-ups are too much of a little bitch to change it.
Q: My hands get torn up from pull-ups? What should I do?
A: First, stop doing kipping pull-ups. Second, stop doing pull-ups on rusty bars in the ghetto without gloves. Third, stop doing so many pull-ups.
In case you decide to ignore this friendly advice at least don’t post pictures on Instagram of your peeled palms. This does not show hard work. It shows stupidity and a CrossFit brain.
Q: Should I stretch extensively before my pull-ups?
A: You can hang from the bar for a few short sets just to wake up the affected musculature and stretch your lats and shoulders. With that said, you should avoid prolong stretching before strength exercises because it makes you sleepy and weak.
Q: Should I always straighten my arms completely at the bottom of each rep?
A: What have you been reading for the last fifty minutes? Of course you should straighten your arms completely at the bottom. If your arms can straighten, you straighten them. What so hard to understand? Full range of motion is the way to go. However, you have to remember that this has to happen naturally. Don’t just snap your elbows. That will make them explode and damage the connective tissue.
Q: What’s your opinion of L-sit pull-ups?
A: They are a fine exercise but cannot match the strength developed by weighted pull-ups. Nothing beats weighted pull-ups – not even the front lever. Why? Because weighted pull-ups have a larger range of motion and more basic bio-mechanics. That makes them more versatile and suitable for people who have no interest in developing advanced bodyweight skills. The good news is that weighted pull-ups have great carryover to all other pulling bodyweight exercises anyway.
If you are a fan of L-sit pull-ups, you can do them at the end of your pull-up workout as a back off set.
What’s a back off set?
It’s a set done with light weight or in this case without weight. It’s meant to increase your total tonnage for the workout. In simple terms – it’s an extra. The L-sit pull-up fills the bill.
Q: Is it dangerous to max out on pull-ups?
A: If you are healthy and do it right, it’s not the riskiest thing in the world. Still, it’s not recommended until you have experience and know what your body can handle. I try to keep my reps no less than two or three, but sometimes at the end of a cycle I would miss a rep and do a single. It happens, but I try to limit this experience.
When you are just starting out, be conservative and don’t go lower than the 3-5 range. Once you have some experience, you are free to do your own thing.
That being said, definitely don’t apply the John Broz/Bulgarian training to pull-ups. The exercise involves really small muscles and tendons that cannot tolerate as much hardcore beating as your legs.
Q: I am afraid to do pull-ups at the local park. There are people watching. I am skinny. What now?
A: Nice question. The audience can affect your performance significantly. I remember the first time I went to do local pull-up bars. They were located at a deserted place where you would think very few people pass by. All I know is that this was not the case when I was there.
That day I tried to do pull-ups and got one rep and a half. It was epic. ”Rahan fighting,” I thought.
Then, out of nowhere a fat/huge guy in sports clothes came and started warming up his wrists with joint rotations. He didn’t look very approachable. He had that bear face that pushes people away.
However, my desire to learn was strong and I asked him: ”Are pull-ups a good exercise for the back?”.
He replied: ”It depends on your grip!” and looked at my bio stats with eyes saying: ”Just give up. It’s not going to happen.”
I decided to show him how I do pull-ups. I failed to do a single rep. The guy started laughing out loud like it was getting out of style. I guess he thought there was a fragile soul underneath my Mickey mouse T-shirt, but he didn’t really hurt me that much. I was already an apprentice hater, starting to understand why progressive hate is important for self-preservation.
Truth being told, you should try to mute such individuals as much as possible. At the end of day we are talking about pull-ups. Who cares if people look at you? Just ignore them as much as possible. Don’t give them the pleasure of knowing that you care about their opinion. Just follow your plan and you will be fine.
It’s also important not to change your routine to impress girls. Never do that. Keep your mind on the bar and forget about the girls.