One of the hardest exercises out there, pull-ups can humble even the strongest gym-goer. To hoist your body weight up toward a bar over your head, you have to develop a serious amount of strength, mobility and endurance. And for beginners, doing even a single rep may seem like an insurmountable task.
If you can barely lift your feet off the floor, don't fret. You can always work on improving your physical limitations. Below, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness science at Trainiac, shares what might be holding you back from performing a perfect pull-up, plus tips to help you get your chin over that bar once and for all.
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If You: Rely Too Much on Your Biceps
You Need: To Engage Your Back Muscles
Arms shaking? When attempting pull-ups, people tend to focus on using their biceps, but these smaller muscles can't handle all that weight, Tripp says. "Instead, it's important to set tension in your shoulders, engage your lats and initiate the pull from your back with assistance from your biceps."
Basically, you need to build your back muscles to perform a proper pull-up. "You will have the most success with gaining strength by sticking to vertical pulling moves because those are similar in nature to the pull-up move," Tripp says, who recommends incorporating the assisted pull-ups and inverted rows into your training.
- Wrap a heavy resistance band around the center of the pull-up bar.
- Pull the end of the band down and place one foot into the loop.
- Grip the bar and in a slow, controlled movement, pull your chin up toward the bar.
- Lower your body back down.
- Because the band has the most tension at the bottom of the movement, it gives you a bit of a boost on your way up and helps to offset some of your body weight.
- Place a bar in a rack about waist height (you can also use a Smith machine).
- Position your body underneath the bar and grab it a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Your arms should be fully extended, and your body should be in a straight line with your heels on the ground.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades and pull your chest towards the bar.
- Pause at the top, then slowly lower back down.
If You: Can’t Get Your Chin Up to the Bar
You Need: To Improve Your Shoulder Mobility and Flexibility
Weak and tight shoulders make it tough to raise your arms overhead, grab the bar properly and lift your body weight, Tripp says. In other words, stiff shoulders can keep your chin from reaching the bar and sabotage your pull-up goals.
Specifically, if your serratus anterior — the fan-shaped muscle that holds your shoulder blades against your rib cage and provides stability during pull-ups — is weak, you tend to put strain on other muscles in your back and shoulders. This can create an even greater muscle imbalance or result in injury.
So, what can you do to tackle tight shoulders? For starters, since most stiffness comes from postural issues, make sure your posture is correct when performing repetitive tasks like sitting all day long, Tripp says. Sit up tall, engage your core and don't lean your head forward. Plus, get out of your chair and stretch every half hour or so.
Next, incorporate chest and shoulder stretches as well as thoracic extensions (a type of stretch where you bend your upper back backward), which will help greatly in improving body alignment, enhance mobility and reduce tissue tension, says Tripp.
If You: Can’t Hold Onto the Bar for Long
You Need: To Work on Grip Strength
If you can't get a good grip, you won't be able to find a suitable starting position for the pull-up, Tripp says. That's why grip strength — and holding endurance — are key when it comes to nailing the move. Plus, a sturdy grip will help with shoulder stability and pulling power, which are essential when plugging away at pull-ups.
The best way to gain grip strength? Tripp recommends practicing pronated (palms face away) and supinated (palms face inward) hanging holds with a neutral wrist (no flexing).
Basically, you hang from a pull-up bar with straight arms as you retract your shoulder blades, point your toes and squeeze your glutes. Try three reps for 10 seconds. Once you've mastered this hold, you can progress to the flexed arm hang, where your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. For this position, start with an underhand grip, which is slightly easier on the shoulders.
If You: Use Momentum to Swing Yourself Up
You Need: To Strengthen Your Core
"When you swing around and kick to do a pull-up, you waste a lot of energy and it becomes hard to get into a solid position to perform the move with proper form," Tripp says.
Instead of using momentum to jerk your body up, you need to keep your body still and your core engaged. That's why you should focus on practicing exercises that mimic the pull-up and teach you how to maintain tension in your core. Tripp recommends starting with hollow body holds.
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and your legs straightened.
- Tilt your pelvis under, press your lower back into the floor and pull your belly button in.
- Squeeze your abs, quads and glutes, then lift your arms, shoulder blades and legs off the ground. Don’t let your lower back arch.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Once you've hammered out plenty of hollow body holds, you might want to advance to flexed arm hangs, which will also fire up your core and prepare your body for pull-ups. For a real challenge, Tripp recommends adding alternating knee lifts (10 to 15 reps per side) to your hangs.
Using momentum to perform pull-ups isn’t always a bad thing. Kipping, which involves aggressively stretching and contracting your muscles to create a “spring effect,” can be an effective, powerful movement when done correctly and strategically, Tripp says.
But only take a crack at kipping once you’ve achieved the fundamentals of proper pull-ups. Otherwise, kipping is just a sloppy attempt to perform pull-ups without maintaining control, perfecting your form or strengthening your core.