What is a Pull Up?
Hang in there, because we're going to look in on the Pull-up and how examine how someone wanting to do pull-ups can get the help they need. We're here to assist you in your muscle madness!
Quit simply, there are multiple ways to hold your hands, multiple bars, grips, holds and ways, but, in a nutshell, a pull up is going from hanging by your arms extended to elevating your chin, head, neck or chest up to (or just over) where your hands are holding said bar, branch or pole.
No worries. This is why I'm writing this Hub!
The Standard Pull Up
Why are they so important?
Functional strength vs Image. How you look in the mirror is one thing. Having the strength to elevate your body is something quite different. Ironically, if you get really good at pull ups, the whole mirror thing suddenly improves too. Win/Win, right?
The pull up is an exercise that requires total upper body strength and the practice of the pull up will teach you how to use your entire upper body as a unit and not just your arms.
Every elite military unit has pull ups as part of their training and testing.
- Navy Seals: Minimum of 8. 15-20 is average.
- Green Berets work up to 7-10 sets of 10 every other day.
- Russian Spetsnaz demands 18
- SWAT is minimum of 6 with much higher average
- Sayeret Matkal (IDF's elite) are knock to knock out 45 before breakfast
This list goes on and on. Pull ups are the measure of strength because it shows your strength to body weight ratio and exposes any asymmetries and also develops strength endurance.
So often the Push Up becomes the measure of a man when the reality is a pull up will separate the men from the boys.
But what about the ladies? What separates the women from the girls? Come on, we're not all G.I Jane over here!!!
Clearly there's a gender difference in this situation and I will address that. Muscle fiber type and hormonal levels effect the strength, endurance, and size of a muscle. That being said, ladies, it doesn't mean you can't do a pull up. With training and practice, a pull up can be with in your reach...
Can't do one? We'll fix that!
It's all in your head... "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're absolutely right."
Do you know who said that? Henry Ford said that and nothing could be more apripoe when it comes to you're ability to do a pull up. A pull up is, as most strength based exercises are, first and formost, a skill.
Anyone who tells you something like, "you either got it or you don't" or "it's all genetics" is excusing themselves from accomplishing the task at hand. Do NOT allow another person or your own ego to tell you you're limited.
If you're not strong enough, get strong enough. If you've got too much junk in your trunk, start dropping the junk and the trunk will rise to meet the bar. Who cares if it takes a week, a month, a year. If you set your mind to it, especially this, it can and will happen.
But, that is a decision you must make.
The Lats in the Deadlift
Getting to Know Your Lats
The Lats or Latissimus Dorsi are the largest muscles of the back. This is the muscle group primarily responsible for that "winged" look so common with pro bodybuilders. But never fear, you won't need big wide wings to do a pull up. That being said you do want to get to know your lats a little bit because they are the prime movers and shakers when it comes to elevating your body up to a bar.
- Isometrics. Briefly, this is what Charles Atlas prescribed for skinny kids who were tired of getting sand kicked in their face. Basically, isometrics, as Charles Atlas also called it, is dynamic tension. So instead of lifting an object through a range of motion, your going to hold a position and flex or your going to work against an immovable object such as a door jam. For the purpose of establishing a relationship with your back muscle, I'd like you to find a pole or door jam and grab a hold of it. Your hands should be slightly over your head and elbows should be close to a 90 to 110 degree angle. Basically stand in front of said pole or door jam, put your hands together as if you were about to pray, elevate the hands slightly over head, now reach out and grab the pole or door jam. Once you have that begin to pull down. Do you feel the wings kicking in? Those are the lats and they are the star of the pull up show. The arms are like the back up vocalists. Practice feeling these muscles and tightening the lats. Hold the tension for a few seconds and then release. Shake your arms and wave them around to release the tension and do it again. Practice this until your comfortable with it.
- Virtual Pull Ups. OK, so now that you and the lats are getting acquainted, let's step away from the pole, wall or whatever you found to use and let's pretend! Yup! Pantomime a pull up. Generate the same amount of tension as you did with the pole but assume the pull up position grip with your hands, visualize yourself actually doing a pull up and really use those lats. This is an exercise in getting familiar with the muscle and the beginning steps toward strength. Tension creates strength. When you really get into it, you'll feel your whole body getting involved to support your lats.
- Push Ups. Push Ups? Yes Push ups. Here's the "trick." At the bottom of the push up, flex the lats you just met as if you're bending a steel bar like Superman and watch what happens. This technique alone has helped many a Grunt increase his push up numbers and develop strong lats as well. My wife uses this to aid in her push up requirements for her martial arts training.
So hopefully you've made a new friend in your lats there. Let's move onwards and upwards (pun intended)
Pull Ups - Who's In?
Hang in there
So now it's time to hit the bar. If you thought of whiskey or beer, you might be on the wrong Hub! Find a bar to hang on that is higher than arms reach but not so high you can't manage ably reach it. Something ruffly 2-3 inches taller than you.
- Dead Hang. Grab the bar and hang. This is you feeling a stretch in your back, your spine getting longer, your abs stretching. Your grip is tight but your body is relaxed. Your breathing is calm. How long can you hang in there? Can you beat your time? Having a solid grip will aid you in the pull up. As the relationship between you and your lats becomes more intimate, you'll find that activating them can be as easy as a hand shake... try it next time you meet someone you want to impress with your wiry strength.
- Flexed Hang. So like the dead hang, same idea but you want to engage your lats by pulling your shoulders into their sockets and literally see if you can pull the bar towards you. No need to pull yourself up yet. Work on creating that tension and visualize the bar coming to you as you did earlier in the pantomime skit! Hang flexed for as long as you can without cramping out or losing your grip. Take a break, shake it out and practice, practice, practice. Now if your strength is there and your abs are braced for a punch and you commit to the lats and really generate enough tension, you might accidentally do a pull up. If you do, congratulations. If you do not, don't worry, it'll be there soon enough.
- Flexed Hang at the Top. So for this one, you'll need a spotter, a chair or a bench. Stand on the stool or have your spotter help you up to the top of the bar as if you just did a pull up. How long can you stay like that? Can you go for more than 15 seconds? If so...
- Negatives. Now it's time to do the other half of the pull up in a slow as possible controlled fashion. For this get into that flexed hang at the top and slowly lower yourself down. Take a break. 1 to 3 minutes then get back up to the top and repeat. If at any time you feel the strength and ability to pull yourself back up unassisted, please feel free to do so... practice these negatives off and on but do not train to failure with this in a way that could compromise your safety or over tax the muscle.
When training for strength, it is better to finish stronger than when you started. Stay fresh and rest often.
Assisted Pull Ups
At the Gym: So if you go to the gym and they have a pull up assist machine, here's your chance to practice what you've learned so far. The secret will be finding the magic weight that will make it hard and challenging while not totally impossible. What this machine does is it takes you through the range of motion and the actual process of performing a pull up. Why not just do a lat pull down? Yes both exercises involve the lats and pulling, but take my word for it, they are two very different animals that might even warrant a Hub of its own. For now just focus on the logic of, if you want to do a pull up, do pull ups not downs.
So the first time you meet with this machine, select a weight that is roughly 50% of your body weight. Can you do a pull up? If yes how many? Now adjust the weight accordingly until you can do 5 good solid pull ups without failing. However, if you just did 5 but think you could have got 8, then add some more weight. Get 5 but not 8. Comprende?
What you're about to work on is called a ladder.
Now on your pull ups days (2-3 times a week), practice with this weight. Do 1 repetition, then rest a moment. Now do 2, then rest. 3, rest. 4, rest, 5, longer rest. Got a partner? You do 1, they do 1, you 2, them 2. You 3, them 3... and so on and so forth. Continue on like this until you can't go up to 5.
When you can get 3 rounds of this (each round is 15 total repetitions per person) or 45 total reduce the weight on machine and start over. Test yourself on a real pull up every 10 days or so.
The next thing or if you're already at the almost got it point you can switch methods or just start with this method...
At the Park, Playground or Home: Same idea, but since you don't have the machine, you'll need a little creativity and a plan. You can use jump stretch bands or a partner. In the case of the jump stretch bands, you could have an embarrassing moment or two akin to something from an I Love Lucy episode so be careful. If you have a partner, then have them help you past your sticking points. You can also help yourself. By that I mean you're hanging on the bar with your legs behind you. When you pull up, your partner will apply pressure to your legs to help you up. You too can press with your quads and abs to pull yourself up through the range of motion. But it's all you on lowering yourself down. Take a break, get refreshed and do it again.
This method will help you get that pull up and if your strength is there, simply blast through your sticking point and into the pull up proper.
The Tactical Pull Up
More Good Stuff
- Beyond Bodybuilding by PAVEL
Smash Your Training Plateaus, Overcome Injuries, Make Unprecedented Strength Gains and Grow More Muscle with a Classical Education in the Wisdom of the Past and the Scientific Breakthroughs of the Modern Day Masters
- Convict Conditioning -
How to Bust Free of All Weakness-Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength By Paul "Coach" Wade - Book
The Tactical Pull Up
There is a technique out there called "kipping" which has taken the Crossfit world by storm and allowed many a would be pull-upper to do pull-ups. It is generating force to get yourself up and has very little tension in it. You may also see hardened men at a local park of rec center kipping their way through pull ups and dips to get in a few extra reps.
This style has its place and purpose but in my humble opinion using this technique to get you into the pull-up game is asking for joint problems, muscle tears and a host of other problems not to mention it's cheating... even the Crossfit junkies admit it's cheating. However, this is an advanced move and until you can do a lot of proper pull ups, leave kipping on the back burner for now...
Enter The Tactical Pull Up.
First brought to my attention by Pavel Tsatsouline in Beyond Bodybuilding, the Tactical Pull-up in my opinion is the best and most desired way to do your pull-ups. It is a full pull up. Beginning from a dead hang, hands over the bar, no thumbs (meaning, don't wrap your thumbs around the bar); now bring your elbows to your side and get the chest towards the bar and the chin over it. Return under control to a dead hang. No kicking, flailing, swinging. Controlled strength and power generation is the name of the game.
HINT: Engage your abs. A tight mid-section will go a long way at developing tension and strength.
Plans and Goals
Your plan and goal should be devised on your current level of strength. Set a realistic goal with a time line and then set up a plan to achieve that goal. Commit to it and then work it. Plan your work and work your plan as they say.
If you can't do a pull up, set a goal to not only do one, but shoot for one first then a set of 3. Like so many other things, once you hit that first marker, so much more comes quickly. The question is, are you willing to put in the work?
If you can do a few, how many would you like to do? What specifically needs to happen for you to get to your number?
So once you have your goal and plan in place, the next step is commitment and action. Commit to it, stick to it, and then take the necessary action to hit it. Where does you commitment lie? Will you conquer the challenge you gave yourself or will the couch over rule your desire? It's one thing to want, it's another thing to do. Desire is a spark. Action is the fire.
Any Questions? Comments? Concerns? What do you think?
David R Bradley (author) from The Active Side of Infinity on June 29, 2016:
Get after it! Keep me posted on your progress!
Deborah Demander from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on June 29, 2016:
Great article. Thanks for writing. It was not only educational, but also inspirational.
I have been doing negative reps, three sets of ten, for a few months now. After reading your article, I feel inspired to try harder to engage my lats and do the whole thing. Thanks!
David R Bradley (author) from The Active Side of Infinity on December 18, 2010:
Susan, that's awesome! Congratulations on that. I know more than a fair share of boys who can't do 12 pull ups. Keep going and best wishes. Your posting here will inspire many!
susanmarion from Bunnell on December 18, 2010:
I'm a 51 year old woman and I did p90x two years ago. I got up to 12 unassisted pull ups. Unfortunately now,my only pull up bar is in a doorway so I wouldn't be able to do a tactical pull up as I'd whack my head. I have done 12 unassisted in the past few months, but lately it is about 7 or 8 and I probably don't go all the way down to a dead hang. Your hub gave me more to shoot for. I'd like to have a higher bar not in a doorway, but for now, it's all I got.
Vernon Bradley from Yucaipa, California on November 22, 2010:
Congratulations on #100--not pull ups, but hubs!
Wow, you are such a wonderful teacher. Love the way you take us through all the various exercise routines you have posted here over the last year or so. So very clear and encouraging and plenty of pictures and videos to help those of us who sometimes say, "UH?"
Looking forward to your next 100.
In case anyone is wondering that picture of Uncle Franco is really me!!