The pull-up is one of my favorite exercises, and for an abundance of reasons. To state the obvious, pull-ups are tremendous for improving upper body strength, muscle definition, and lumbo-pelvic stability (the ability for the body to maintain proper support around the lower spine and pelvis during movement), as a pull-up executed to perfection essentially resembles a traveling hollow body. Furthermore, pull-ups are incredibly empowering to perform, and can create tremendous feelings of empowerment and pure freedom.
This is largely why I am so passionate about helping people excel at pull-ups. Whenever I see a bar, rings, or even a tree branch, I often have the urge to perform pull-ups — they’re fun, and I’m a huge believer that working out should be fun!
While pull-ups are a convenient exercise, because they require very little equipment, make no mistake: they are very technically demanding, and require your entire body to work as a synchronized unit.
Here are some extremely common mistakes — and the solutions to fix them — that prevent countless people from being able to perform their first pull-up ever, or from being able to perform multiple reps.
Overusing Your Arms
When many people set out to perform their first pull-up, or even if they can already perform a few reps, they often make the mistake of initiating the movement by pulling with their arms, rather than using the larger and more powerful muscles in their mid and upper back. The movement should be initiated by drawing the shoulder blades in toward the spine and down toward the opposite hip. While the arms will be involved, they should not be initiating the movement or doing the majority of the work.
Solution: Scapula Pull-Ups
This fantastic pull-up regression helps focus on initiating the movement with the shoulder blades rather than pulling with the arms. In addition to developing the controlled mobility of the shoulder blades, this exercise also improves grip strength, and lumbo-pelvic stability.
When performing scapula pull-ups, initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades in toward your spine and down toward your opposite hip. When you do this, your body should elevate a little bit, as if you were performing a reverse shrug. In the top position, pause for a brief count, and then lower back down to the bottom position with complete control. During the lowering portion of the movement, your shoulder blades should be doing the reverse of what they did on the way up. If you are performing this movement correctly, your elbows should not bend at all, and you should feel the muscles around your shoulder blades.
Not Treating the Pull-Up as a Full Body Movement
Many people think of the pull-up as a purely upper body exercise, which leads them to only focus on their upper body when performing the movement, and essentially disregard what is going on with the rest of their body.
In reality, a properly executed pull-up involves the full body working together as a synchronized unit. This includes the anterior core, glutes, and even the lower body. When the full body is working as one, you will be able to propel your body to and from the bar with much more ease and efficiency. While I will address lumbo-pelvic stability and generating tension in a separate point, from a technical standpoint, ensuring that your body is in the correct position before each rep, and for the duration of the exercise, will play a huge role in your success.
Solution: Establish Optimal Body Positioning
Before each rep, make sure that your body is set in either a straight line from your head to your heels, or you can adopt a slight hollow body position. Your head, torso and hips should be in a stacked position, with your knees fully extended, your feet crossed one over the other, and in a dorsiflexed position. Also, keep your chin tucked and neck in a neutral position. Do not reach with your chin when you approach the bar, and do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or your ribcage to flare. Maintain this body positioning for the duration of the exercise. If you are just starting out in your pull-up journey, you might need to “reset” and establish this body positioning before you initiate each rep.
You can perform any pull-up regression of your choice and can practice establishing and then maintaining this body positioning. In this video, I am doing a concentric hang.
Not Generating Enough Tension to Keep the Body From Swinging
You are more stable when your full body works in unison. However, in order to maintain proper body positioning for the duration of the exercise, you need to be able to generate a significant amount of tension in certain muscle groups, particularly the muscles of your anterior core and glutes. When a sufficient amount of tension is present, you will be pulling a rigid object versus an equally weighted limp and floppy object, and your body will be much less prone to swinging. This will result in a much shorter and more efficient path to the bar, whereas, an unstable and swinging body will result in a path to the bar resembling is a much longer and inefficient arc.
Solution: Dead Bugs
The dead bug, and its many variations, is one of my top exercises for improving lumbo-pelvic stability. This exercise trains your anterior core muscles to generate the requisite levels of tension to perform pull-ups efficiently, and also trains your body to resist the extension of the spine. For the duration of the exercise, keep your head, torso and hips in a stacked position, keep your ribcage down, and do not allow your lower back to hyperextend. As you initiate each rep and lower the opposite arm and leg toward the floor, slowly exhale through your teeth, and brace your anterior core muscles as hard as you can.
A good way to make sure you’re keeping this tension is by looking down at your shirt while you’re performing the movement: if the front of your shirt remains wrinkled, your ribcage is likely in the right position. If, however, you disengage your anterior core muscles, your ribcage will be prone to flaring, and your shirt will suddenly become smooth. This is also a good cue if you’re coaching someone else through the movement.
Weak Grip Strength
A weak grip plagues many, including those of an elite fitness level. When it comes to performing pull-ups, if your grip strength prevents you from simply hanging from the bar, you will be hard-pressed to perform one, or many pull-ups, and you will even struggle to perform the many pull-up regressions that will lead you down the path to dominating regular pull-ups. Here are several of many techniques I use for developing grip strength.
Solution: Plate Pinches and Loaded Carries
Plate pinches are a fantastic exercise for improving grip strength. With plate pinches, simply hold onto one or more weight plates, and hold them in a pinch grip. Keep in mind that gripping is a full-body movement, and that your entire body must be working as a synchronized unit. Really engage your lats and the other muscles in your back, your arms, you anterior core and glutes, and maintain a tripod base with your feet, where your big toe, small toe and heel are in full contact with the ground.
Loaded carries are another one of my favorite exercises for improving grip strength. They also improve lumbo-pelvic stability, shoulder and scapular stability (both remain in a fixed position for the duration of the carry), and full-body strength. Many loaded carry variations are relatively basic, and are suitable for people of most fitness levels. When performing any loaded carry variation, make sure that your head, torso and hips remain in a stacked position, your anterior core muscles remain braced, and your ribcage remains down.