How to Do a Proper Pull Up, and Why You Need to Do Them

UPDATE: I’ve written an updated article on “how to do a pull up” that is a must read.

So you want to do a pull up, eh?
wrk_pullups

When many people think of fitness and the gym, they picture meat-heads doing countless arm curls, staring at themselves in the mirror.  Sounds about right to me.  As I stated in a previous blog, I have yet to see a single person in my gym do a deadlift, and I’ve probably only seen a handful of people (in a year and a half) doing legitimate pull ups.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing deadlifts, squats (going all the way down to parallel!), and pull ups and you want to “build muscle,” you’re just wasting your time.

When preparing for their roles in the movie 300, all the actors went to train with Mark Twight, who had them train by emphasizing “athleticism by combining compound movements, lifting, and throwing. Primitive tools – medicine balls, Kettlebells, rings – were used instead of machines. Each session was competitive, with a penalty-reward system tied to performance and results posted daily for all to see.”

Appearance is a consequence of fitness

That’s right, these guys weren’t training to have bulging biceps and chiseled abs.  Their motto, “appearance is a consequence of fitness,” meant that these guys worked on getting in the best shape possible – doing deadlifts, running sprints, Olympic ring push ups, doing pull ups until their arms fell off, etc. – and then doing it all over again.  This type of training really struck a chord with me, because I’ve always been fascinated with turning myself into an absolute machine; if I happen to look good as a side effect, awesome.  There’s a reason you need to do 50 pull ups to complete the 300 challenge: only the fitness elite can attempt such a thing.

You can read Mark’s article on 300 training here. It’s fascinating and highly recommended.

Proper Pull Ups

Personally, I believe pull ups are one of the most important exercises in a routine and I recommend them to anybody that comes to me for advice.  Forget bicep curls; show me a guy who can do 25 pull ups and 25 chin ups and there’s no WAY his arms aren’t well-developed.

Find a bar that will support your weight, anywhere. I don’t care. Just find one. If you have a gym membership there will be pull up bars all over the place.  At your house you might have “the perfect pull up” in your door way.  If you have neither of these things, find a local playground and use their monkey bars.  This is one piece of equipment that NEEDS to be in your arsenal, so find a way to get one.  No excuses, play like a champion.

  • A PULL UP is when your hands are facing away from you.  This will work your back and biceps.
  • A CHIN UP is when your hands are facing towards you.  Although this also works your back, it has more emphasis on your biceps.

Grab a bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width, with your hands facing away from you.  Hang all the way down.  Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar.  Slight pause  Lower yourself all the way back down.  Go up, and really concentrate on isolating your back and biceps.  Don’t swing!

Once you can do a single pull up, work on doing them in sets. Do one pull up, then wait a minute or two and do another one.  Then wait a few more minutes and do another one.  A few days later, try to do two in a row, and do a few sets of two.  You need to start somewhere, but as soon as you can do one, you can find a way to do two.  After that, find a way to do three, and so on.  Remember, don’t cheat yourself by only going halfway down and not going all the way up.  Straighten your arms out at the bottom, and get your chin over the bar!

Want big biceps? Do close-grip chin ups.  I guarantee if you’re banging out 3 sets of 12 at the gym, maybe even hanging some weight around your waist, your arms will be built like cannons.

Remember, appearance is a consequence of fitness.  Pull ups are a true test to somebody’s level of fitness, so where do you fit in?  For those of you who follow the blog, you know my obsession with Ninja Warrior on G4tv.  Here’s a video of a guy on stage 3, which is extremely back-intensive.  I guarantee this guy trains like crazy and as a result has one of the most chiseled frames I’ve ever seen:

Ninja Warrior

Happy Friday!

-Steve

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  • sgttom

    Try eating more.

  • Martine Boulanger

    Besides pullups, push ups, squats and deadlifts, are dips, bench presses, lateral raises, rear delts, calf presses and dumbells rows good to do too? When in a gym, I have a member ship, I do some exercises on the machines, is that bad or good? Most exercises I do are with dumbells and weights. How many exercises may you do or doesn’t that matter at all?

  • happy guy

    lol NINJA WARRIOR!!

  • muhie

    Well try to do it more often . do this all the week and you must be doing something wrong , because i started this say 3 weeks ago and i really feel the difference

  • Nadine Woismeinblistex

    Sooo… I’m not even near doing even one pull up. A lot weight, not enough muscles. I guess I simply go on with my weight lifting until I can dead lift a barbell as heavy as I am? :P

  • Guest

    I can not do one either, but I would love to… I did some research and found a lot of tutorials around regarding this… Try negatives to start with, and also start by just hanging on the bar to improve grip strength. A chin up is easier to achieve, so maybe try training for that first?

  • Nadine Woismeinblistex

    Thank you. :) I just started last week to do weight lifting at the Gym. My first goal is to complete the first 6 weeks of basic training, which is designed to prepare me for training with free weights. Like, first, I need stronger core muscles and the muscles on my left and right side have to get on the same level and work together smoothly. Right now, some exercises are easier for my left arm (my “holding-stuff-arm”), others are easier for my right arm (my “moving-stuff-arm”). :P Which is to be expected. F.e., I do upright rows and benchpresses at the Smith bar until I can safely lift (and balance) a real barbell, or at least the bar.

  • Prasanth

    Hey friends,
    I’m new 2 gym…. Can any one please tell me wat should I do regularly everyday…. And can anyone tell me on which part of the body these pull ups and chin ups works on…. Please help me, I dont hav a proper trainer…..

  • Mateen Asad

    Hi!
    I will be honest I can’t do even a single pull up. i try to pull my self up but I can only manage to shrug my shoulders. I tried to use the machine in my local gym, the one that has weights at the bottom, and still no luck! How can one start with pull ups?

  • Matthew Gibble

    Just an added comment to a great read. Pull ups actually work the brachialis, not the biceps. But the brachialis lies deep to the biceps so building it helps to make the bicep more pronounced. Just an observation from a massage therapist.

  • Stefan…or Stephan,Steve, ect

    at the end of the ninja warrior clip I thought of monty python, “just a flesh wound!”

  • Daniel Carpenter

    I need some help. I found out I had low T. Got it fixed, Im 46yrs old and never felt like this in a long time. I am currently doing pushups two sets of 25 with a twenty pound vest. I then walk with it a mile. Cant go far becuause I have a hernated L5. I started doing pull ups but cant even go all the way up. Starting slow and I wont give up. Just need some guidance. Is there anything I can do other than the pull up itself to help with the progress? Or should just keep trying until I get it?

  • punith

    My shoulders are nt broad enugh, so plz guide me with some exercises.. and also I need to gain mass, give me some tips to gain mass.

  • Nivedita Dhage

    While you guys are talking about reps and sets, I have a slightly bigger problem. Truth is I’ve never been able to do an actual pull up. Is there any way to build up to it? You know like one step at a time.

  • GQ

    You’ve probably found this already, but: http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2011/04/25/do-a-pull-up/

  • T-Flip

    Tips on minimizing swings? I can do a few without swinging but then it starts and I have to break my rhythm to stop it.

  • Samir

    Finally did a pull up yesterday! I’d been working up to it using inverted rows, bent over rows and barbell curls.
    The first couple of times I was able to lift from bottom to middle and middle to top.
    The third time I was able to sequence the contractions just right to pull to the top from the bottom.
    Thanks for the VERY useful progression guide :)

    360 Twist jumps still scare me a bit :P I was able to finish 3-4 a few weeks ago, but then slipped 2-3 times after that and hit my knees on concrete.
    Will probably resume on grass or sand.

  • christopher schreiber

    Slow down a bit and try to stay as under the bar as possible, lifting straight up (arms close to chest – don’t hold them straight out)

  • Chris

    I am 14 and i can do 25 pull ups and chin ups but my arms are skinny. They only look good when I flex them.

  • Roy S

    After reading your article on nerd fitness, I have decided I could never get to your standard, so I’m not going to be an actor I am sticking to my day job.

  • SharBear

    Just stumbled on this now. As a 25 year old female (I’m 5’1″ and 112lbs) training in a Muay Thai gym, everyone did pull ups and chin ups. And the fancy one-armed, legs straight out kind. There I was hanging there trying to do just one. But bit by bit I was getting a centimetre closer to that bar after doing negatives and using a resistance band or friend to assist me. I’m now at 3 sets of 4 reps, full range. Everyone starts somewhere :)

  • RR

    What if you can’t do even 1 how do you start?

  • Katherine Hornsby

    Start by doing negatives. It takes weeks of commitment just to get to doing one pull-up, but it’s so worth it! I started by doing 3X5 negative chin-ups three or four times a week. When I could do chin-ups, then I started to do a few sets of those AND negative pull-ups. It really just takes persistence! I’m working on getting beyond three pull-ups right now, so I can’t advise on that… But definitely do negatives!

  • Saurav

    if pull-ups seem too simple, do them like Frank Medrano does(see youtube).Really slow. By the way he is not paleo but vegan.