How many times have you heard “Hey man, how much can you bench?” That question’s been posed to me probably over a thousand times. And the answer I give is always the same. “Who cares?” I don’t feel a 1 rep max on a bench press is a true test of strength.

On the contrary, a good, clean crisp pull-up performed with elegance and grace is WAY more impressive. And in the big picture, it shows a lot more about your overall strength than a measly bench press can.

Be aware that pull-ups should not be performed with momentum and your legs flailing back and forth like a fish flopping on dry land. Those are known as kipping pull-ups, which require a lot of momentum. If you hop up and grab a pull-up bar, and ask me to count your reps while doing those, you’ll be sadly disappointed when I don’t count a single one. Pull-ups are not high-volume exercises. They should be performed for low reps with 90% quality or better!

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If you are doing 20-plus, then you’re not doing them right. And I’m not trying to be an elitist here. I just want you to know the facts. DO NOT kid yourself into believing that kipping pull-ups are the way to go. All you’re doing is mashing your hands and shoulder joints to a pulp, while getting some cardio from an off-the-ground position.

That being said, I am going to explain the correct way to do them, then I’ll give you a little insight on how you can work your way up to them if you currently have zero in your arsenal.

Be aware that it takes a lot of practice and time to get these dialed in. If you lack patience, then don’t even bother trying. It makes sense that, while doing pull-ups, you are hanging from a bar. Well, that should be your first step. Reach up and grasp the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Stare at a clock and hold on as long as you can. If you are unable to do a dead hang from a bar, do you really think you’ll be able to do a pull-up? Sorry, but you won’t.

Aim for about 10 seconds, then drop down and rest. Once you are recovered, jump back up and hang again. Repeat this five or six times and walk away. Memorize your longest hold and use it as a baseline. Practice every two or three days and keep trying to increase your time until you can easily hang for at least 30 seconds. Now you know you have developed enough grip strength to hold your body from the bar while pulling yourself up.

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The next thing you need to do is learn to pack your shoulders and create tension in your body. Packing your shoulders occurs when you pull your shoulder blades inward toward the midline of your body. This is actually the first step when doing pull-ups that a lot of people overlook, yet it works magic. We learn this technique through what’s called a scapular pull-up. Hang from the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and pull your shoulder blades inward as if you were squeezing a tennis ball between them.

You will feel your upper lats engaging forcefully as you do this. Hold for a second, slowly release and repeat. Aim for 5 to 10 reps, hop down and recover. Repeat five or six times and walk away. Practice this drill every two or three days for several weeks until you can easily do 10-plus reps. This is a very subtle movement with a small range of motion, but it should not be overlooked. Practicing the scapular pull-up will get your lats firing properly and your brain in tune with the starting mechanics of the regular pull-up. Not to mention, these are really good for correcting poor posture.

Next on the list of must-dos is learning the hollow body position. This is where creating tension will come into play. Believe it or not, the pull-up is as much an ab exercise as it is a back exercise. This is all due to creating tension through your core. The tighter you make your body, the easier your pull-ups will be. The hollow body position involves a high intensity core contraction and it is often used by gymnasts.

Before you reach up and grab the bar though, we are going to practice on the floor. Lie flat on your back with a stationary object behind your head. Reach back and grab it with both hands and fully extend your legs with your feet together. Tuck your tailbone under as you forcefully contract your abs and glutes and raise your legs slightly off the ground. Your body should be in a slight V-shape at this point. You are now in the hollow body position, which is what you’ll be in on the bar. Once you feel you have the position down, jump up and grab the bar, and try it again. Either hold as long as you can in the hollow body position or hold for a few seconds, release and repeat.

Now it’s time to put everything together and do a beautiful pull-up. Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Look straight ahead, pack your shoulders and get into the hollow body position. Take a big inhale and exhale forcefully as you pull yourself up toward the bar. Keep going until your chin clears the bar and hold for a full second. Ideally your chest reaches the bar, but let’s take it one step at a time. Slowly lower yourself down until your arms are FULLY extended and repeat.

Remember to inhale as you lower yourself down and exhale as you pull yourself up. Proper breathing cannot be overemphasized! If you are only able to do one rep with 90% quality or better, than congratulations! You just did your first official pull-up. Do five or six sets of one and walk away. The next time you hang out at the bar try to do more. THAT is how you build your volume.

If you follow my steps and still find yourself struggling, strap a wide, full-length resistance band over the bar and make a big loop at the bottom. Shove one knee inside it and then practice your pull-ups. The resistance from the band will make it easier to pull yourself up. Just be aware that you might need a spotter for assistance.

Well, I have to head down the road. Go practice your pull-ups and report back to me if you should need any further assistance. In the meantime, park the ego outside the gym and never ever ever pay attention to how others are doing pull-ups, unless they are being done with picture perfect form.

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