Pull Your Weight

Pull Your Weight

A true measure of strength that is often missing from many programs is the pull-up; it is truly one of the best ways to determine and improve upper body strength. It is a multi-joint movement that increases strength and stability of the entire shoulder girdle. Pull-ups build your lats, traps, teres minor, deltoids, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, as well as your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor. Pull-ups are superior for muscle hypertrophy and injury prevention. If pull-ups are missing from your program, be sure to add them in.

If you frequent the gym you’re probably familiar with the gym colloquialism “Monday is international chest day” and there is no lack of benching on said day. For the sake of argument, let’s deem Tuesday “leg day”, wherein we find people committed to squatting and lunging.  And thus, if Wednesday is “back day,” it would be common to see lines forming around the lat pulldown machine instead of crowds at the pull-up bar executing this excellent back exercise. One reason for this is that the pull-up is no easy task with many people unable to perform even one. 

What if I can’t do a pull-up?

If you find yourself unable to execute a pull-up, follow these simple steps to get you started: 

  1. The first thing you need to do is work on your dead hang. This will help build grip strength and a strong grip is very important when trying to lift your entire body-weight. Begin with hanging from a bar as long as possible. 
  2. As your hang time increases, try a thicker bar, add weight to your body, and/or use less fingers in contact with the bar. 
  3. Once you’ve mastered the dead hang position, start working on your isometric hold from the top position (use a step to get up into the top pull-up position).  Hold this contraction for as long as possible. As your time under tension improves, practice the negative portion of the pull-up, by holding that top position for a few seconds, then as slowly and as controlled as possible descend until your arms are straight and you are back into the dead hang. 

Assisted pull-ups are another great place to start. With a partner, assist one another (with minimal support, it should still be a challenge) by holding onto your partner’s ribs or hips from behind to complete a proper pull-up. Your gym may have an assisted pull-up machine that uses the same principle, which is another great way to start building a pull-up foundation.

How to do a pull-up

A proper pull-up starts from a dead hang using an overhand or pronated grip (palms facing away from you). Then you will enter the upward phase or pulling up of your body. This involves flexing your elbows and adduction of the shoulder steadily until the chin clears the bar. The downward phase involves the extension of the elbows and abduction of the shoulder. Alternatively, an underhand or supinated grip (palms facing you) may be used. This is referred to as a “chin-up.” Both exercises strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, back and arms in slightly different ways. Chin-ups are done by extension of the shoulder joint in the upward phase, where the elbows flex and come back and down from the front of the body, resulting in more bicep work. For the most part, individuals are more adept at chin-ups than pull-ups because they are generally easier to perform, which is why one must challenge themselves to conquer the pull-up. Variety is the key to a successful workout plan, so incorporate both pull-ups and chin-ups into your program.

 Some common mistakes when performing pull-ups are:

  • Bending and swinging at the knees and hips to use momentum to propel above the bar;
  • Not clearing the bar with your chin; and,
  • Not reaching full elbow extension between reps.

Once mastered, there are many variations of pull-ups to try. Changing grips, hand positions or adding weight to your body, you can keep pull-ups a challenging and beneficial part of your routine. Make it a staple in your routine and reap the benefits of a strong back and prepare to “pull your weight.”

Dan Edmunds C.S.C.S and Matt Johnson PTS