What muscles do pull ups work? How can I increase my pull ups: with weights or reps? How do you achieve that first pull up? What’s the difference between a chin up and a pull up?
For many, the quest to perform a single pull up is a Big Deal. For gals especially, where are upper body strength is at a disadvantage relative to the males of the species, achieving a single body weight pull up is to have reached a critical pinnacle of success. Indeed, in the RKC School of Strength, a key test for men and women as Level 2 instructors is the single Tactical Pull Up: dead hang, pull up so neck touches the bar. Must be completed once, men and women alike.
Methods a Plenty. Fortunately, for something perceived to be such a mark of fitness accomplishment, there are almost as many methods to training to achieve a pull up as there are people blogging about pull ups. Just a reminder, the pull up and chin up are distinguished by the hand grip: the pull up is pronated (palms facing away); the chin up is supinated (palms facing).
The purpose of this post is to go over a few of the many resources where i’ve heard back from folks i trust to say they actually work.
The Prime Movers of the Pull Up. Before getting into technique, it’s worth reviewing what’s going on mechanically in the pull up: that can help focus on what we need to be working to make progress (excuse me if this is going over what are basics for you).
Some folks would look at the pull up and say that’s arm work: need big biceps to pull yourself up. Indeed, pull ups can be very good for the biceps. The rear delts also come into play. Mainly, however, the pull up works the back. In particular it really works the Lats, or latissimus dorsi one of the largest muscles in the body. Some folks may be skeptical about focusing on the lats rather than the bi’s for pull ups. Charles Staley motivates the comparison this way “if you load your bodyweight onto a bar, how many times can you curl it? I’m guessing 0.”
Why are the lats more vital than the biceps in the Pull Up? Let’s take a sec to consider the connections of the muscles. The biceps for sure are elbow flexors. And yes, pulling UP means flexing the elbows. BUT the lats also enable the trunk to be pulled up via shoulder (or glenohumeral joint) extension. How does that work? The lat is like a big triangle of tough stretchy stuff that is nailed down along the spine from the middle of the back, just under the shoulder blade, right down into the butt at the sacrum. That’s a lot of back. So the mid thoracic spine is one point on the triangle; the sacrum is the second, and the third is in the arm, on the “medial side of the intertubercular groove of the humerus”
The lat connected in this way supports four movements of the shoulder joint: extension (movement of the humerus straight, posteriorly), bringing it across and in front of the body (adduction); internal rotation (putting your lower arm behind your back); bringing your arm up and around so that you can grab the opposite shoulder to the upraised arm (horizontal abduction).
So the biggie move of the lat in the pull up is to get that arm back down by your side. Remember, it’s huge area is pulling from the mid back down to the butt, all focused on that single spot in the arm. That’s a lot of reef.
Compare that amount of pulling area from the lats into the shoulder against the biceps into the elbow, and it’s really no contest. Staley’s visualization hits home: trying to biceps curl bodyweight (biceps focus in the pull up) vs pulling bodyweight (lat focus). Intriguingly, we also get an insight into why chin ups are “easier” than pull ups: with a chin up (supinated) grip, we have a more typical curl going, working flexors as well as biceps.
Thinking through the Movement. We can get in the way of our own pull up progress by focussing too much on the biceps and not enough on firing those massive lats. Below are a few techniques to visualize pulling from the lats. If the goal is to focus on the lats rather than biceps, a well known, powerful technique to focus muscle firing is visualization. Powerlifter Jerry Nicolas talks about doing a pull up imagining that the elbows connected to the sides by cables, so that when you’re hanging from the bar, the cables are extended; getting up to the bar, the sides are reeling up the cable, raising your body. Charles Staley uses a similar visualization:
[Rather than the advice by others (eg this article) to squeeze the bar as hard as you can as a cue, since that cue focuses on the biceps rather than the lats] a better cue, which helps to recruit the bigger, more powerful lats, is to think about driving your elbows down to your ribcage. Not only does this cue encourage lat contraction, it’s also less daunting to imagine driving your elbows down, than it is to imagine pulling yourself up.
Less muscular and more psychological visualizations are those Tom Venuto suggests: imagine yourself to be as light as a feather, and just floating up. Visualizations like these have a long history of success in sports  .
Aside: Contrasting Lat Pull Downs with Pull ups. Going deeper into not just what muscles are fired on the gross level, but on the micro level, some people wonder whether doing lat pull downs aren’t the same as pull ups, except in reverse. The short answer is “no.” Two quicky reasons: (1) hanging in space requires different neuro muscular adaptations (different numbers and patterns of muscle fibers recruited within the same muscle) than sitting on a bench and (2) based on Stuart McGill’s research (see Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance) on how evil and unnatural sitting is for your back especially, do you *ever* want to do seated resistance work – of any kind?
Enough! Just tell me how to get up! So now that the muscle work is sussed, and the visualizations are worked out, how to get the physical work happening.
IF you can do One or More Pull Ups
Gold Standard: Clarence Bass describes Pavel Tsatsouline’s Buddy Ladders. These are expanded in more detail as the Fighter Pull Up sequence (pdf only), also by PT. Each of these sequences is based on a ladder going up: do 1, pause. do 1, 2. pause. do 1,2,3 etc. This simple approach has been shown time and time again to have powerful effects.
Now, i have to say that i have plateaued with ladders at 7, so went looking for alternative approaches. Roland Fisher, a trainer in Alberta i really respect, pointed out a cool program in, yes, a Men’s Health article by Mike Mejla, MS, CSCS. It provides some bench marks on when to add weight to body weight for increasing reps, for instance, that i’m finding very helpful.
Another approach that many RKC’s have claimed super success: once you can do 7-10 reps, start adding weight, and start again. They have found that working with weights has let them, when going “naked” get rep ranges for which they have not trained.
These 4 approaches rather assume you can already do one pull up, but what if you can’t? A number of both my male and female students haven’t been able to get off the ground right off the bat, and that has kept them from thinking it’s possible.
Getting to that First Pull Up
There are many tried and true strategies to get to that first pullup. One includes doing negatives. This is how i got my first pull up. With a negative, you find a way to get to the pullED up position, and then use muscle while going down. We are much stronger going eccentrically (using muscles streching out ) than concentrically (contracting). Negatives are a time proven way to help build up pull ups.
Another strategy is to use an appliance to help get up and down. A great appliance is stretch band. I personally like using Iron Woody bands: they’re affordable and durable.
Here’s an example vid of how to sling bands to a pull up bar:
Alternative Attachment of the band to the bar: as shown in the vids, some people just loop the band through itself around the bar – that uses up a lot of band and means generally you’re using your knee in the band. You can change the resistance of the band by lengthening it. One way to do it is to use a big carabiner to attach the band to the bar. You can also set up some climbing webbing/tubing to the ‘biner to get even more length and eliminate the biner. I like the biner when taking the band to the gym: means i can set it up and pack it up quickly.
One other strategy to get going, and a great use for a smith machine, areFloor Assisted Pull Ups. This approach also mean you’re not using your complete body weight, but can increase the resistance (move your legs back or the bar up) as effort improves. Floor assisted work can also of course be combined with negatives.
Once a First Pull Up is achieved, Carter Schoffer also has an interesting pull up program mixing what might be called “raw” and assisted pull up work, where a multiple of the raw pull up is used to calculate numbers of assisted pull ups for sets.
Inspiration. If you would like some inspiration going for that first pull up, you may find it in these folks, men and women alike, who have done the Tactical Strength Challenge. My personal hero is Angela Craig, RKC, of the UK who has come in first internationally for the past two meets , , well ahead of many gals her junior.
And one more thing. Well three more: Head Position, Flexion/Extension and Bone Rhythm
How many of us crane our necks back to try to get our chins over the bar? Well it turns out, that’s not a good ideal: cranking the head back puts a kink in the cervical spine. This spine compression has a negative impact on muscle activation, which can be powerfully demonstrated (as it was at a recent Z health cert) with a muscle activation test. More of an explanation of this “arthrokinetic reflex” can be found in this discussion of head position for the front squat.
Here’s a really nice piece by Mike T. Nelson on form and the effect of head position on facilitating this move.
So no neck kinking on the way up. Indeed a drill we were given at z is to practice keeping our spines “tall” head in neutral while pulling up, and just pulling straight up under the bar, till the bar taps the top of the head (as shown in the above vid). No it’s not a full pull up, but it gets ya to get optimal alignment for optimal muscle work. Form really is everything.
If you want to help your pull up further, you can, just with your eyes, look UP when pulling up, to focus on the lat extension of the pull up (eyes up connect with extension, also discussed here).
Suck it Up
One powerful technique within the pull up is to suck in the shoulders to enable the lat pull. But another very valuable technique is to suck in the abs – to shorten the distance between the ribs and the hips which Franz Snideman models here about mid way through the vid. Practice this tip and it pays big dividends pretty quickly:
Repping It to Get in the Groove. And if you really want to get in the zone, forget about pulling yourself up, grab one of those big iron woody bands and focus on bone rhythm (see end of this post on the kb front squat for a description). This is more z health stuff: think about the shoulder going up at the same rate the elbow is going down. If you de-weight yourself to practice getting the rhythm, you’ll find your pull ups improve. Really. more form focus will pay dividends in short order.
Good luck on your Pull Up Mission. If you have other great pull up plans that have worked for you, please add pointers in the comments section for this post.