Half reps might give you a good muscle pump, but they aren’t getting you stronger…
Often referred to as the “king” of upper body exercises, pull ups are a great exercise for building upper body size and strength. They are one of my favorites, and probably the exercise I hear most people say “I wish I could do that!”
As great as they are, pull ups are a challenge for many. You need good upper body strength and shoulder mobility just to be able to do them! This makes pull ups particularly challenging for beginners, women, and those of us with long arms.
Still, the challenge makes conquering the exercise that much better. There’s nothing better than the feeling after your get your first full pull up. If this is a goal for you, let’s make it happen!
With some practice, you can master this movement too! Here are 5 tips to help you get better with pull ups.
1.Control the lowering phase.
You can lower more than you can lift, so take advantage of this and build strength through the eccentric phase of your reps. This gives your muscles a chance to work, protects your shoulders and elbows, and gives you more control of the movement since you’re less likely to swing around.
2.Learn to use your lats!
To do a pull up, all you have to do is grab the bar and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Sounds simple, right?
Simple isn’t always easy, though. You might end up making things harder by using muscles not meant for the job. For example, pulling yourself up by flexing at the elbows or with a pullover movement. This might get you a rep or two now, but long term this isn’t the way to go.
Solve this potential issue by learning to use your lats!
Start your pull ups by depressing your shoulders. This turns on the lats and makes sure you move from the shoulder first. Imagine you’re doing a reverse shrug and pushing your shoulders down toward your hips.
In the clip below, you’ll see me coaching a client to depress his shoulders. There’s no audio, but I’m instructing him to “shrug his shoulders towards his ears, then push them down to the floor”.
Do this hanging from a bar, like you’re about to do a set of pull ups. 2 sets of 10 with a short pause at the top should get you working a little. You can also perform this seated with a band or cable machine like the video above.
This will be hard if you’ve never done it before. As you gain control of the movement, increase the range of motion. I like to use this as a warm up for my “old man” shoulders before upper body workouts.
3.Start with the grip that is easiest for you.
A fast, simple way to improve your pull up strength is to change your hand position.
There are three main hand positions for pull ups:
Prone – Palms facing down or away.
Supine – Palms facing up or forward.
Neutral – Palms facing each other.
Your lats are involved no matter which grip you use, but the neutral and supine grips involve more of the biceps and brachialis, making you stronger in these positions. If you struggle to get multiple reps in a set, start with one of these grips.
I recommend using all three hand positions in your training. This small change is a way to provide a different stimulus to the muscle without adding more reps, sets, or exercises to your workouts. (add more)
4.Use less difficult versions of the same movement.
Assisted pull ups are great for improving form and getting more reps. The benefit of using a less difficult version is you learn to contract your lats, practice, and strengthen the muscle (and your technique) by doing more reps.
You might be familiar with the assisted pull up machine at the gym, but you don’t need a machine for this exercise.
All you need is a pull up bar, or a squat rack with adjustable pins.
I prefer these over the band version because the set up is much easier. There’s no swinging to worry about, which allows you to focus 100% on contracting your lats. It is also much easier to adjust the difficulty. Keep your feet on the floor to start, and lift your feet to make the exercise harder.
You can also use these toward the end of a back workout to really pump your lats! Try it and see how it works for you, just remember to focus on contracting your lats!
All the technique improvements and activation exercises in the world won’t make a difference if you’re not strong enough to perform the exercise. Make sure your training program includes multi-joint exercises for the upper and lower body, and use enough weight to make the exercise challenging.
Don’t go too heavy on the weight though. Find the sweet spot where the weight is challenging but you can perform at least 3-4 sets with good form.