Pull-ups, performed with a pronated or palms over-grip and chin-ups, performed with a palms under-grip, are mainstays of many people’s workout. Primarily targeting your latissimus dorsi muscles (or lats for short – the muscles to the sides of your back) they also provide a mean workout for your biceps and even your abs, this classic test of strength is a simple if challenging exercise. Some people, mainly lightly built men, are naturals at pull-ups and chin-ups and are able to bang out reps from the get-go with no real problem.
However the rest of us poor mortals may find these exercises a little harder to master. It’s worth saying at this juncture that getting to grips with pull-ups and chin-ups is very worthwhile indeed. For starters, in the gym at least, being able to hoist your own bodyweight up toward the ceiling using nothing more than your arms is an impressive feat and will score you lots of ‘cool’ points. Secondly, any exercise that involves moving your body through space rather than keeping your body stationary as you lift or press a piece of gym equipment is always going to be a superior exercise choice.
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Because that sort of exercise teaches balance, whole body coordination, spatial awareness and stimulates the most nervous system activity and therefore more muscle fibre activation. The lat pull down may look similar, but its effects are vastly inferior to the real deal that are chin-ups and pull-ups.
But what if you can’t do pull-ups or chin-ups?
Obviously this is what puts so many people off these particular exercises. To get good at pull-ups, you have to do pull-ups and if you can’t do pull-ups in the first place how is this possible? The answer is to make yourself temporarily lighter so you will have sufficient strength to pull yourself up. You can use one of those assisted chin/dip machines that use a selectable weight to provide a counterbalance, but personally I don’t like them much. The platform on which you kneel or stand only moves vertically and so these machines are nothing more than the pull-up equivalent of a Smith Machine – they restrict range of movement and take away that vital balance/stabilisation requirement. Like lat pull downs, strength developed using an assisted chin machine does not transfer well to chin-ups and unassisted pull-ups.
Try band-assisted pull-ups or chin-ups. Loop a strong resistance band over your bar, kneel or stand in the loop you have formed and let the band provide some additional lift. Not only will the band offer the most assistance at the bottom of the movement, arguably the hardest part, but it will allow you to perform the exercise using a more natural movement pattern which will result in better strength transference. As you get stronger use progressively weaker bands until you finally wean yourself off your rubber helper and are able to complete your first solo pull-up. After a few weeks of practice, you should be able to progress from your first ever unassisted rep to doing sets of multiple reps. As pull-ups and chin-ups are as much about skill as they are strength, I recommend you do lots of sets of just a few reps so you get plenty of practice without getting too fatigued. You may well be able to do three sets of six reps to total 18 but I bet you could also do 10 sets of 3 to total 30 reps. And it’s obvious which will be the most productive. Spread the sets out throughout your workout and you’ll improve your pull-up ability without having to break a sweat.
So, now you know how to master pull-ups and chin-ups, it’s time to try some interesting and more challenging variations and help you progress from pull-up neophyte to pull-up master!
Performed beneath a Smith machine bar set to hip-height or using a suspension trainer (as you’ll see I’m doing in the accompanying shot), body rows work many of the muscles involved in pull-ups but expose you to a significantly reduced load. This is an excellent exercise if you don’t have access to a strong enough resistance band to perform the band assisted version described above. Sit below the bar, grab it with an overhand grip, straighten your legs and hips and pull your chest up to the bar. Keep your body straight. The more upright you are the easier this exercise becomes. The more horizontal you are, the more challenging it is.
If you still find pull-ups and chin-ups tough (you aren’t alone!) then try doing negative reps. Simply use your legs or a step/gym bench to climb up and then lower yourself down under control using just your arms. Climb back up and repeat. You are 30%+ stronger lowering than you are lifting a weight so make the most of this phenomenon with the technique. Strength developed by performing negatives will soon transfer to increased pulling strength.
Towel grip pull-ups
Loop two hand towels over your pull-up bar and grab the ends tightly. Perform your pull-ups as normal. This variation is an awesome gripping exercise and ideal for climbers and grapplers.
Position your hands as for regular pull-ups but instead of pulling your chin up to the centre of the bar, pull yourself up and over so your chin touches your left hand. Return to the start position and then pull up to the right. For a harder version, pull up to the left and then keep your chin above the bar and traverse across to your right hand before lowering. Reverse your direction of travel for the next rep.
Mixed grip pull-ups
Using a shoulder-width grip, place one hand in a pronated position and the other in a supinated position. Make sure you swap hands set-by-set.
Using a V grip bar or single towel, hang beneath the bar so your body is turned through 90-degrees. Pull up and simultaneously lean back so your sternum touches the bar and not your chin. This places a large emphasis on your middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles in the centre of your back. Be aware that the excessive spinal extension can place a lot of stress on your back so use this variation with caution.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are kings of upper body exercises so do your best to master them and before you say, “Yeah, but they’re just for guys”, my new wife Viki built up to doing ten reps so I see no reason that the ladies out there can’t do likewise. And yes, you can consider that a challenge!