How to do a Pull-up
Pull-ups are a fundamental strength exercise, especially for individuals training without access to weights. For bodyweight exercise specifically, it is one of the 5 most important upper body exercises (the others being the Push-up, Row, Dip and Pike Push-up).
If you have completed my introductory workout program for total beginners to fitness, the ‘Bodyweight Fitness Primer‘ routine, and graduted/moved on to my next program, the ‘Bodyweight Strength Foundation‘, this is one of the new movements you will be tackling!
The only other exercise that serves the exact purpose of a pull-up is a Lat Pulldown machine. While there are relative pros and cons in using a pulldown machine versus doing pull-ups for more specific purposes, I personally find pull-ups to be marginally better and much more satisfying to do for general strength building (especially when a weight belt is added).
There are many ways to perform a pull-up, but what is detailed in the below guide is what I would consider to be a good ‘all-rounder’ pull-up form for those seeking to simply build strength and muscle (rather than for any sport or hobby specific purposes).
From the perspective of getting the most out of this guide, it would be in your best interest (if possible) to film yourself from the side doing a few reps, and watch them back as you read this guide in order to get a frame of reference, and see which parts of the guide are most helpful for you. (Don’t worry if you don’t have a tripod to frame yourself up, you can just prop your phone against something and use the front facing camera to frame where you will be standing.)
Also the following summary of this exercise is described in about AS MUCH DETAIL AS POSSIBLE. If this is your first time learning about this exercise, this may feel like an overwhelming amount of information to you to begin with. Do not worry, this guide is so detailed simply because it is a reference guide, and not everything needs to be absorbed and perfectly replicated on your very first read through. You will most likely come back to read this guide many many times as you learn.
The start position of the pull-up is illustrated below:
The pull-up begins in a ‘dead hang’. This is characterised by the following from top to bottom:
- The elbows are locked out
- The shoulders are engaged but not yet depressed/retracted
- The core is braced, with ribs flattened down onto the torso
- Legs are straight and squeezed together
- Toes are pointed
While points 3, 4 and 5 may seem superfluous and only aesthetic, keeping enough tension in your core and legs will help you to maintain strict form (not aiding yourself with any kicking or wiggling).
From the starting position of the dead hang:
- Initiate the pull by driving the elbows down into your back pockets
- Simultaneously, depress (shoulders away from ears) and very slightly retract (pinch together) the shoulder-blades
- Simultaneously, extend the upper back (point your collarbones up to the sky) while maintining enough abdominal tension to prevent your lower back from arching excessively (some arch is fine, just not to the point that it pinches or feels sore)
- Continue driving the elbows down and back until (at minimum,) the bar reaches the middle of your neck or (at best,) makes contact with your body between your collarbones and your upper chest.
- Shoulders are depressed fully and back is engaged (slight effort towards retraction) so that shoulders are not collapsed into the bar
- Bar is level with the middle of the neck, or in contact with the chest/clavicle
- Elbows driven down/back, past the torso.
Why this happens:
Inadequate upper back strength/tightness
Bringing hands to shoulders rather than elbows down/back
How to fix it:
Think about bringing the elbows into the back pockets, focus hard on extending the upper back, and depressing and retracting the shoulderblades.
Focus on improving your rowing strength and form
This all-too-common fault is one of the main reasons why I like the slightly more arched, back focused pull-up as the standard form. This fault is commonly seen in those who attempt the ‘hollow’ pull-up, which is commonly advocated for in gymnastics strength training. This is because it is much harder to engage the back properly to prevent the shoulders rolling forward when in a hollow position due to the slight thoracic flexion. As seen in the below footage, even in a properly executed hollow pull-up, there is some shoulder rolling.
Why this happens:
Being too weak for the current progression
Bad habits once you get tired
How to fix it:
Do not train sets past technical failure
Conscious effort to keep body line tension (Hips extended, legs straight, toes pointed)
Working on an easier progression that you can do without kicking or wiggling.
It is important for me to clarify. Kicking is not Kipping. Kipping is an intentional technique used in CrossFit to reduce the difficulty and increase the speed of execution of a pull-up in order to make it optimal for timed conditions and make it an appropriate difficulty for the volume of work being done. For strength building purposes, kipping pull-ups do not carry much utility or benefit at all.
Kipping Pull-ups are for all intents and purposes a different exercise to a strict pull-up. Neither are wrong unless they are done with the intended purpose of the other.
Why this happens:
Using the ‘chin over bar’ cue
Compensation due to a lack of top ROM strength trying to reach to get the chin over the bar as early in the movement as possible
How to fix it:
Consciously stop doing it, if you can pull high enough. Stop using the ‘chin over the bar’ cue, think of bringing the collarbones/chest to the bar.
If you cannot pull high enough, work on top range holds (in jackknife position or with a band if necessary to keep good positioning)
Now this one isn’t so black and white as to be ‘wrong’. There is nothing wrong with it in terms of safety, but by cutting off that last bit of ROM you are cheating yourself out of what is essentially the most upper/mid back heavy part of the movement. When it comes to needing an objective measure of ROM for something such as weighted pull-ups once you start to get really heavy, getting the chin over the bar is a more than adequate marker to count a rep if that’s how you want to train. Same goes for if you are already pulling heavy weights and this is just the way you learned, that’s fine. I just personally think that for someone learning the pull-up for the first time, the only reason you would have to not take your time to learn a full chest to bar pull-up is because your ego is too large to work long enough to get quality reps and you just want to be able to say that you can ‘do pull-ups’ sooner than you’ve earned it. When you do have reps of quality unloaded pull-ups, you may choose to only use chin over the bar as your form standard for weighted pull-ups as well, and that’s fine. But the important thing is having the choice, and not simply settling for chin over the bar because it’s the only thing you can do.
Why this happens:
Trying to squeeze out a few extra reps by cutting the ROM short
How to fix this:
Just stop doing it.
Paused Deadhang Pull-ups can help to force you out of the habit
How to Scale the Pull-up so Anyone Can Do it:
If you can’t do a pull-up yet, the best general strength building movement for that, is to do Inverted Rows! They work the same muscles as a pull-up but are much easier due to pulling less of your total bodyweight.
Your muscles are capable of withstanding much more load in the negative portion of a movement (the ‘lowering’ portion in most cases). That means if you have been working on your strength with rows and are close to being able to do a pull-up, or can JUST BARELY do one rep, then working purely on the negative portion for multiple reps will help you to continue to develop strength, but in a more specific way than the row.
Important notes for the negative:
- Your reps will be immeasurably higher quality if you can step off of a high platform to enter the top position, rather than having to jump into it.
- Every rep should start with a pause of at least 1 second in the top position
- The descent of every rep should last the same time (e.g. 5 seconds)
- The descent should be a consistent tempo throughout the movement (i.e. not slow for the top half, and then a sudden drop for the bottom)
- Every rep should end with a pause of 1 second in the dead hang
Jackknife pull-ups are a less common but still very useful tool for learning the pull-up. If you are working on negatives but would like a little more volume to work on your pull-ups, or if you want to focus on the Concentric phase (the actual pulling up, rather than the negative) then these are a great option.
One important point for the Jackknife pull-up:
The height of the surface you rest your feet on and how far away it is in front of you should be adjusted so that at the top of the pull-up, your torso angle is almost vertical (the same angle that it would be in a pull-up) and your hips are the same height as your feet (if you can do it with straight legs, this means that your legs will be parallel to the floor).
Banded pull-ups are probably the most commonly recommended exercise for people that cannot do pull-ups. However, I personally do not recommend them because of the way that bands help you unevenly throughout the lift. The more stretched out the band is ,the more force it will exert upwards to lift you up. Therefore, banded pull-ups are a lot easier at the bottom than the top. The only circumstance where this is not an issue is if you have access to many incremental bands and move through them progressively as you get to an unassisted pull-up.
That is not to say, however that they are not a useful tool even if you only have one or two bands. Personally, I like them as a way to help build coordination in the movement of the pull-up and confidence in doing the movement if an athlete is close to being able to do to pull-ups for reps but is experiencing a psychological block and just needs to feel what it’s like to do it.
Bands are also useful for assisted top range isometrics if you can pull-up most of the ROM but resort to neck craning to ‘complete’ the rep because you do not have the strength to go all the way up. Using progressingly lighter bands until you can do unassisted top range holds is a great way to fix that.
How to Progress the Pull-up to Make it Harder
The best, and simplest way to make the pull-up harder, is to add weight by using a dip belt.
If that’s not possible, there are a variety of ways to progress the pull-up using bodyweight only, including working towards archer pullups, L-sit pull-ups, and a variety of other potential options, which are shown in one of my *very old* videos: 25 different pull-up variations!
Individual Form Variance:
Pull-up Grip Type:
If you have your palms facing away from you, it’s called a ‘Pull-up’. If your palms face you, it’s called a ‘Chin-up’.
(Nerd moment: In general, muscle Activation is the same apart from a higher utilization of the biceps over the brachialis/brachioradialis in the chin-up due to a position of mechanical advantage for the bicep when the palm faces you, and vice versa for the pull-up.)
However, people generally find the upper back has to work harder in the pull-up due to how much more the elbow needs to travel backwards to reach the top range of the pull.
Most find the chin-up easier than the pull-up, but either is fine if you are just trying to add weight to it and get stronger.
Pull-up Grip Width:
In general, I would recommend most to train with a standard shoulder width or slightly wider grip . However, wider grip pull-ups can e useful for targeting the upper back more due to the decreased elbow ROM involved in the movement meaning it’s driven more by the upper back muscles. Similarly, a very close grip can be a good way to strengthen the lats due to the fact that it trains the lats through a larger ROM (the hands together position puts the lats on stretch much moreso at the bottom of the rep and is at its shortest position at the top compared to a standard or wide grip).
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