The Beginner's Guide on How to Do a Pull-Up With Perfect Form for a Strong Upper Body

Pull-ups are a great body-weight exercise to build upper-body and core strength.
Image Credit: RichLegg/E+/GettyImages

One of the most impressive exercises you can do at the gym is bust out a set of pull-ups with perfect form. But if you're new to strength training, don't let this move intimidate you. With practice, anyone can do a pull-up — yes, even you!

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Below, we discuss the benefits of pull-ups, share our top form tips and provide modifications you can use at every stage of your pull-up journey.

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  • What are pull-ups?‌ Pull-ups are a body-weight exercise where you pull yourself up to a bar from a hanging position.
  • What are pull-ups good for?‌ You can use pull-ups to build impressive amounts of upper- body strength and muscle. They're also a foundational exercise you should be able to do in order to progress to more advanced gymnastics movements such as levers and muscle ups, if that's your goal.
  • What muscles do pull-ups work?‌ The primary muscles worked during pull-ups are the latissimus dorsi and rhomboid muscles in your middle and upper back. Other upper-back muscles, such as your lower trapezius muscles and rear deltoids, are also active. Your biceps, forearm flexors and core muscles play a supporting role.
  • Who can do pull-ups?‌ Pull-ups are an advanced exercise that require a substantial base of relative strength (how strong you are compared to your body weight). People with a history of shoulder and elbow injuries should talk to their doctor or physical therapist before doing pull-ups.
  • Why are pull-ups so difficult?‌ You need a very strong back, core and grip in order to pull yourself up to a bar using your own body weight.

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How to Do a Pull-Up With Proper Form

Skill Level Advanced
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Position a box underneath a pull-up bar and stand on top of it.
  2. Grab onto the bar with palms facing away from you, then carefully step off the box into a dead hang. Your legs should be straight and slightly out in front of you, and your arms should be fully extended above your head.
  3. Initiate the movement by relaxing your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down.
  4. Engage your back muscles, core and glutes to pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
  5. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down into a full dead hang.

Pull-Ups vs. Chin-Ups: What's the Difference?

Pull-ups are performed with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip. Chin-ups are performed with a supinated (palms facing you) or neutral (palms facing in) grip. Both exercises target your lats and rhomboids, but you have a lot more assistance from your biceps when performing chin-ups.

Pull-Up Benefits

1. It Builds a Stronger Back and Arms

There's a reason pull-ups are held up as a gold standard pulling exercise: They provide a powerful demonstration of back strength. Few exercises demand as much of your back muscles as pull-ups. You already need to have a strong back in order to perform unassisted pull-ups, and you'll continue to build strength as you add more reps and progress to harder variations.

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Pull-ups can also help you build muscle in your arms. Muscles grow more when placed under deep loaded stretches, so it's important to use a full range of motion if you're trying to use pull-ups for hypertrophy (muscle growth).

2. It Works the Muscles in Your Core

Pull-ups obviously target your upper body, but your core also plays a major role. You must engage your core muscles to keep your body position stable during pull-ups. This type of core strength and stability can transfer to other exercises and activities outside the gym.

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3. It Requires Minimal Equipment

All you need to perform pull-ups is a sturdy bar or handles. This means you don't necessarily need to train at a gym to work on pull-ups. Many people choose to purchase a doorframe pull-up bar so they can pursue their pull-up goals at home. Others go to local parks and use the monkey bars or pull-up stations.

Common Pull-Up Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

1. You Don't Use a Complete Range of Motion

The most common pull-up mistake is using an incomplete range of motion. Some people struggle to pull themselves all the way up so their chest touches the bar. Even more people sell themselves short by failing to lower their body all the way down into a full dead hang in between reps. Both of these compensations are ultimately caused by a lack of strength.

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It's essential to use a full range of motion if you really want to get better at pull-ups. Touch your chest to the bar, then lower yourself all the way down into a dead hang where your arms are fully extended over your head. This could reduce how many reps you can do right now, but in the long run it will make you much stronger.

2. You Shrug Your Shoulders

Shoulder shrugging is a another common compensation on pull-ups. You don't want this to happen because it shifts the work from your lats and rhomboids to your upper traps. Over time, this can lead to discomfort in your neck and shoulders.

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Keep your shoulders pulled down away from your ears during pull-ups. The only time you don't want your shoulders down is in the dead hang position at the very bottom of your pull-up.

3. You Arch Your Low Back

A good pull-up is like a moving plank. Your core is integrated with your upper body to create the most efficient pulling position. Arching your lower back ‌feels‌ like it helps in the movement, but it actually prevents you from expressing your full strength during pull-ups.

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Keep your ribs down and your legs slightly in front of your body during pull-ups. It's helpful to actively squeeze your thighs together to lock in your core position and prevent lower back extension.

How to Make Pull-Ups Easier

1. Barbell Inverted Row

If you can't do a pull-up yet, you can still build relative pulling strength using inverted rows on a Smith machine or barbell in a power rack. This is one of a few pull-up exercises that helps you get used to pulling your own body weight and builds strength in your back, arms, core and grip.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Start with the barbell at chest height or slightly below.
  2. Grab the bar and walk your feet out so your body forms an acute angle with the floor. Smaller, steeper angles will be more challenging than larger angles where your body is more upright. Dig your heels into the ground and point your toes up to the ceiling.
  3. Keep a plank position as you lower your body away from the bar. There should be a straight line running from your heels through your hips and shoulders. Lower your body until your arms are straight.
  4. Finish the rep by pulling your body back up. Pull until your sternum touches the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.

2. TRX Chin-Up

You can use a suspension trainer like a TRX to practice chin-ups and pull-ups. This is a less intimidating option because you're sitting on the floor and not hanging from a high bar.

Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Sit on the floor directly beneath a suspension trainer with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. The handles should be high enough that you can just barely reach them when sitting on the floor. Grab the handles with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Initiate the movement by relaxing your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down.
  3. Pull yourself all the way up until your hands are at armpit height and your elbows are at your sides. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug. As you pull up, turn your hands so your palms face in at the top. You can use assistance from your legs to help push yourself up as needed.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down to the floor.

Tip

Begin with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor so your legs can help push you up. As you get stronger, extend your legs out in front of you to pull more of your own body weight.

3. Negative Pull-Up

Most people are naturally stronger in the eccentric (lowering) portion of their pull-up than the concentric (pulling) portion. You can use this to your advantage to build strength in your lats and other back muscles — even if you can't yet do a full pull-up.

Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Position a box underneath a pull-up bar and stand on top of it. Make sure the box places you fairly close to the top of the bar.
  2. Place your hands on the bar with your palms facing away from you, then carefully jump from the box into the top position of your pull-up. Your chin should be over the bar.
  3. Lower yourself all the way from this top position to a full dead hang. For best results, go as slowly as possible and don't rush the bottom portion of the movement.

Tip

Always go as slow as possible and use a full range of motion on negative pull-ups. The hardest part of a full pull-up is in the very bottom, so you should try to control your descent all the way into your dead hang position.

4. Band-Assisted Pull-Up

Band-assisted pull-ups are a popular pull-up modification. They help you by reducing how much of your body weight you must pull against gravity.

It's important to note that the strength curve on band assisted pull-ups is different than unassisted pull-ups. Band assisted pull-ups are easier at the bottom and harder at the top, but this is flipped for unassisted pull-ups.

This doesn't mean band pull-ups aren't useful, but you might need to combine them with other exercises to work toward your first unassisted pull-up.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Tie a resistance band of moderate thickness around the bar by placing the band on top of the bar and looping one end through the other. Make sure the band is secure and doesn't have any tears that could cause it to break while you're using it.
  2. Place a box next to the bar and stand on it. Pull the band down and loop it under the bottom of one foot.
  3. Grab onto the bar with palms facing away from you, then carefully step off the box and into a dead hang. Your legs should be straight and slightly out in front of you, and your arms should be fully extended above your head.
  4. Initiate the movement by relaxing your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down.
  5. Pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
  6. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down into a full dead hang.
  7. When you're done with your set, step back onto the box with the non-banded leg. Then carefully let go of the bar and remove the band from your other foot.

5. Chin-Up

Practicing chin-ups is one of the best ways to build strength for pull-ups because the movements are so similar. Once you can perform unassisted chin-ups — which could happen much faster than pull-ups — you should regularly include them in your workouts.

Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Upper Body
  1. Position a box underneath a pull-up bar and stand on top of it.
  2. Grab onto the bar with palms facing toward you or in toward each other, then carefully step off the box and into a dead hang. Your legs should be straight and slightly out in front of you, and your arms should be fully extended above your head.
  3. Initiate the movement by relaxing your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down.
  4. Pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
  5. Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down into a full dead hang.

How to Make Pull-Ups Harder

1. Play With Your Tempo

Any strength-training exercise can be made more challenging by manipulating the tempo. Try slowing down the eccentric (lowering) portion of your pull-up or adding a pause in top or at the bottom.

2. Widen Your Grip

The farther apart your hands are positioned on the bar, the harder your lats have to work. Challenge yourself by moving your hands farther apart once narrower pull-ups feel easy.

3. Add Weight

Many people want to add weight to their pull-ups, but it's best to wait until you can do multiple sets of 8 to 10 perfect body-weight pull-ups.

The two most comfortable ways to add weight to pull-ups are with a weighted vest or a belt specifically designed for weighted pull-ups and dips. These belts are placed around your waist and usually have a chain that hangs between your legs where you can clip in weight plates or kettlebells.

If you don't have access to a vest or belt, you can hold weights with your legs and feet.
Use your best judgement and stop if the weights feel insecure.

4. Use Rings

Gymnastics rings are much more wobbly than pull-ups bars and require you to stabilize through each arm individually. Ring pull-ups are a great option for people looking to eventually work toward even more challenging calisthenics movements. Be sure to set the rings high enough that you can use a full range of motion.

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How to Add Pull-Ups to Your Workouts

It might take a significant amount of time to build up to your first unassisted pull-up. Use the regressions above and focus on increasing your overall strength. Most important, be kind to yourself and don't give up!

Even after you achieve your first pull-up, you'll likely only be able to manage 1 to 3 reps at a time. One strategy you can use to rack up more volume is to sprinkle short sets of pull-ups throughout your workouts.

For example, you could perform one rep each time you walk by a pull-up bar. Or, you could decide on a set number of pull-ups (15 or 20) and perform multiple short sets throughout your workout until you hit your rep target.

With time and practice, you'll build up to longer continuous sets of pull-ups. But it's always better to perform fewer reps with stricter form than to pursue more reps above all else.

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