A pull up is the ultimate upper body exercise. Lifting your own body weight takes a lot of strength, which is why not many people can do one. Regular pull up bar workouts will help you build excellent upper body strength, improve your posture and lower the risk of muscle injury.
If you haven’t tried to do a pull up before I challenge you to try one! You will see what all the fuss is about. This article will explain pull up technique in detail, and advise on some common mistakes to avoid. Finishing with advice on the benefits of regular pull up bar workouts.
There are several types of pull up bar, but they are very similar in terms of how you train. If you are thinking about investing in one, details on each kind are included in our pull up bar review article. One of the great things about them is they are so compact and simple it is easy to work out at home.
Pull up technique and variations
Not everyone will be able to pull off (pardon the pun) a pull up the first time they try. After all, this is a very demanding exercise. However do not despair, follow this guide to simple training steps that progress to your first pull up.
How to do a pull up
Getting the technique right is as important as muscle strength when it comes to performing pull ups. Always have technique in mind and focus on doing pull ups with correct form. Poor form leads to lesser results and increases risk of injury.
Grip. Stand beneath the bar and grip it with both hands roughly shoulder width apart. Your palms should be facing away from you otherwise you will be doing a chin up. You need to use a standard overhand grip with thumbs wrapped around the bar, meeting your finger tips if possible. If the bar is too high you can stand on a box or a chair to reach.
Hang. A proper pull up starts from a dead hang, (the lowest point where arms are straight). As you are hanging with arms straight, engage your core and keep your shoulders back. It is important to maintain this position with shoulders back and core engaged, plus start from fully lowered position for each repetition. Do not bounce back into to next pull up using momentum.
Pull. Start by squeezing with your hands to ensure a tight grip and engage the muscles in the upper body and core. Imagine pulling the bar down toward you, your elbows come down to your sides as your whole body rises towards the bar. Resist the urge to strain your neck backwards as that could result in pulled muscles . Pull until your chin clears the bar, once the chin is above the bar the upwards phase of the pull up is complete.
Lower yourself. Ease yourself down gently and avoid any temptation to just drop, this will be bad for your joints, and your muscles will not benefit from the downwards part of the exercise. Keep a firm grip on the bar allowing your arms to straighten slowly in a controlled manor. Return to the hanging position and start again!
Well down, you have completed a pull up!
The following video gives a great guide:
Standard pull up variations
There are a high number of pull up variations you can try out once you have mastered the basic technique. There is a video a little further down that demonstrates 35 of these variations! The most common are:
Wide grip. Hand placement has a big impact on the difficulty of a pull up. Placing the hands wider apart means you rely more on the muscles in the back and get less assistance from the muscles of the arms chest, and shoulders. Wide pull ups will be even more demanding, but in return you will be gaining more strength in your upper back muscles.
Kipping. This form of push up uses momentum to assist the upward movement, which is carried out at a much faster pace. This focuses more on power then it does strength and is useful for those that want to develop this component of fitness over strength. It is important not to let yourself drop, ending with your elbows in a locked position.
Weighted. Once you can perform a number of reps with your body weight you can make the pull up more challenging by adding additional weight. A good way to do this is by attaching weights to a belt around your waist. This is a simple progression that you can keep adding to, but make sure you go up in small increments, maybe 2.5kg at a time.
Chin up. Face your palms towards you rather than away. You still want to use a steady up and down motion similar to a pull up. However this exercise engages the back and shoulder muscles in a slightly different way. More markedly it puts greater focus on the biceps, which means for many it is a slightly easier move to perform. It can be used to build up strength when you are finding a pull up just a little too demanding.
Further pull up variations
Trying to list all of the different ways you can use a pull up bar would go on and on, instead take a look at the short video below for some more ideas…
Common mistakes to avoid
Make sure pull up bar is set up properly
If the bar is not properly fixed on a door frame it could slip off, possibly with you hitting the deck. If a wall mounted bar is not fixed to the wall firmly not only do you risk falling, you may damage the wall as well.
When using a bar for the first time always check to make sure you are happy with how secure it is. Also apply your weight to it gently and with safety in mind. That way if the worst happens you are prepared, and not in for a nasty shock!
Make sure door frame is strong enough to take the weight
For the vast majority of doors a persons body weight will not be anywhere near enough to apply the amount of stress to cause damage. Pull up bars, especially door frame bars, are designed to distribute weight across the structure, rather than concentrate it at one point.
However you should always look the door over to make sure before attaching a bar for the first time. If there is a sign of weakness (cracks for example) think twice before setting up the bar. Even when it looks solid be careful when you first use the bar.
Check that wall is made out of strong enough material
When using a wall mounted bar you must check that the wall you plan to fix it to is made of strong enough material to support it. Thick brick walls are the best choice and will provide a nice secure base. Beware walls that are made of breeze block which is not as robust as brick. Never attach to partition walls, which are usually made from wood and plasterboard. Potentially the bar will tear straight off the wall as soon as you hang your body weight on it.
Install somewhere where you will be compelled to use it
It is easy to start with good intentions, it is also easy to let good intentions slip away…
Put your pull up bar somewhere you will always see it, for example leave it on the kitchen door, or fix it to the wall in the garage by the car. Seeing in constantly will make it easier to use it regularly. You could knock out a few pull ups while the kettle boils or you are on your way to the car. Out of sight out of mind, don’t let it gather dust.
Giving up because you can’t do a pull up on day one
Lot’s of people will find it hard to do a pull up on day one. Exercises that easy are nowhere near as satisfying to master, or as impressive to show off.
Do not be put off, follow the guide on exercises to build up to getting strong enough to complete a pull up. Imagine how satisfying it will feel once you are able to complete one. Then how much greater still when you are banging out 5, 10, 20 at a time!
Check with doctor or fitness professional
As with any form of exercise it is always important to be confident that you are fit enough to attempt it. If for any reason you have doubts about learning to do a pull up, check with a fitness or medical professional first.
Major benefits of using pull up bars
Strength & Endurance
Pull ups work the whole upper body, the arms, shoulders, chest and back are all engaged throughout the motion. This makes training on a pull up bar perfect for building upper body strength and endurance.
Lifting your body weight achieves the same results as lifting weights – or rather pulling weights. Most people will weigh in the range between 50kg and 100kg. If you imagine carrying out weights exercises with that volume you can see that pulling up your own body weight can be significant.
Using the bar at different angles and with different grips (e.g. hands facing you or away from you) will engage muscles slightly differently. This is a good way to train for all round upper body strength.
You would be surprised by the number of people that train regularly, look muscular and strong, but can not perform a single pull up. A major reason for this is that many people focus on performing pushing exercises such as bench presses or military presses. Often as a result of limited knowledge, but sometimes out of vanity, preferring big chest and arms muscles and neglecting the back!
It is no coincidence that the Marines use pull ups to assess upper body strength. It’s a far more relevant and functional exercise than a bench press.
There are a large range of variations that you can perform on a pull up bar that will engage different upper body muscles in a number of ways. This means this it not a piece of kit that you just use for one exercise and move on to something else. You could do a whole extended routine with just a pull up bar and some imagination.
It is as important to engage your muscles in the right range of motion when doing a pull up as it is to have muscle strength. Many people struggle to carry out a pull up and then make a small change in posture that suddenly opens a huge increase in strength and pull ups become easier. Well it isn’t really strength, it’s just using muscles in the correct range of motion.
Pull ups are a great way to improve posture. Especially if you have a desk based job and your shoulders hunch forward. This exercise can help make your back straighter and open up your chest up, pushing your shoulders back.
If you travel a lot and want to be able to work out wherever you are then a pull up bar is a great way to do so. A telescopic bar would fit into a suitcase and wherever you are there is likely to be a door to fix it to! You can mix it in with other body weight exercises such as press ups and sit ups to stay on top of your fitness routine.
Compact yet sturdy
Think about the amount of space that a weight machine that trains you in a similar way would take up. For example a lat machine as shown to the right. This takes up a lot of floor space as well as being 2 metres tall. A pull up bar can be stored under the bed or at the bottom of a wardrobe. Yet it can still hold your body weight and enable you to get an even better workout than with a machine. It also costs a fraction of the price, so it is easy to invest in one for the home.
Pull up bar workouts – final thoughts
So there we have it, hopefully now you are as convinced as I am that the pull up bar is a fantastic way to train your upper body muscles. It’s also a great way to show off at the gym too!
p.s. if you enjoyed this article or found it useful, please like or share so others can find it more easily. Thanks!