You want to be able to do pull-ups or chin-ups but you can’t do any just yet. That’s no problem. It’s an impressive feat of upper body strength. Maybe you’ve thought it would never be possible for you. Follow the steps below and you’ll be able to get your first one pretty soon.
The most obvious difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is the placement of your hands. With pull-ups, you use an overhand grip, meaning your palms are wrapped around the bar facing away from you. For chin-ups, you grab the bar with your palms facing you. This makes for some differences in which muscles are worked, but they’re minor. For most people, chin-ups will be somewhat easier. Either exercise is a great way to improve your back strength and develop a great looking back.
Real quick, let’s make a deal: For the rest of this I’m going to use “pull-ups” and you’re going to agree that it means “pull-ups or chin-ups”, even though we know they’re not exactly the same. Deal? Deal.
This is a diagram of your lats (latissimus dorsi). The large fan-shaped muscle ranges from your armpit to your lower back. Its purpose is to move your upper arm down, back, and towards your side. It’s the primary muscle involved when you do pull-ups. The exercise does basically works all the muscles in your back. It also trains your biceps (the muscles on the front of your upper arm), forearms, and grip strength.
Now that we’ve got that covered, we can really get to business. In order to make it happen, you’re going to have to develop a good strength-to-bodyweight ratio. This may mean you have to lose some fat. The leaner you are, the easier pull-ups will be. If you’re not as lean as you’d like, you obviously can still work to get stronger. You don’t have to wait to begin this progression.
You can build pulling strength by doing lat pulldowns and using the assisted pull-up machine but in order to get better at pull-ups, you’re going to have to do pull-ups.
Doing negatives are a great way to make this happen. A negative is when you actively resist the force of the weight as it extends your muscle. That sounds fairly technical. A more common sense way of thinking about it is: fighting gravity as it pulls the weight back down.
Visualize picking a weight up with your hand and bending your elbow to bring the weight towards your shoulder. Now imagine lowering it as slowly as possible. That last part is the negative. You’re going to do that with pull-ups.
If you can jump up and grab a pull-up bar so that you’re holding it tight and your chin is just over the bar, that’s probably best. You’re already in the top position for doing a pull-up.
If you’re not there yet, no sweat. Find something stable to stand on that will allow you to maneuver yourself into the top position. Really make sure it’s stable for safety’s sake. You can also use your workout partner, if you have one, to give you a boost up to the top position.
From there, you extend your arms as slowly as you can to lower yourself to the dead hang position. Really fight the gravity pulling you down. You know you’re doing it correctly when you feel your lats working. You’ll likely feel the stretch in your upper arms also. Once you’re fully extended, let go of the bar and gently drop down to the ground. Then repeat. The first few times you do this you probably won’t be able to resist too long. That’s okay. Just keep working.
Start really easy and just do a couple negatives. You’ll likely experience some soreness the day or two following. That’s okay. As you do the exercise more frequently your body will adapt and you’ll get less and less sore.
I suggest you do this at the beginning of your workouts when you’re nice and fresh. You want to focus on slowing down your descent more over time. Doing just a few high quality reps is better than doing several reps of lesser quality.
Soon you’ll feel more confident and comfortable with the movement. This should happen over a few weeks. Then you’re ready for the next step.
For this you’ll jump up to the bar, same as before. Only instead of slowly lowering yourself down, you’re going to hold yourself up in that top position as long as you can.
There are essentially three ways you can contract a muscle. 1) Contract it: This is what you probably think of when someone tells you to “flex”. You shorten the muscle, as in when you flex your biceps, you shorten it to move your elbow joint to bring your forearm to your shoulder. 2) You resist as you extend it, as in the case of the negative. 3) Isometrically hold it. This is where you’re working the muscle but it’s not actively lengthening or shortening. Picture trying to shove a wall. As hard as you push, it’s not going anywhere. Even though your arms aren’t moving either, you’ll still feel the muscles working.
You will be working your entire upper body in this isometrical hold pull-up. Eventually you’ll fatigue, your arms will start to extend and you’ll end up in the dead hang position. Rest a minute or two and repeat the hold a couple more times. As you keep working this, you’ll notice you’ll be able to hang longer and longer, a sign of improved strength.
Then you’re ready to try doing a pull-up from the dead hang position.
Reach up to grab the bar with your arms fully extended. Raise yourself towards the bar in a smooth motion. Keeping your whole body tight will help this. Brace your abs, flex your butt and legs. Try not to kick or swing or otherwise use momentum. Thinking of the motion more like bringing your elbows towards your sides, than raising your chin over the bar might help you engage your lats. Once you reach the top part of the pull-up your chin will be above the bar. Lower yourself under control to the dead hang starting position.
Congratulations! You did it! Can you do 2?
I know you will soon enough. I’ll wrap this with a couple tips:
- If you find yourself craning your neck to reach over the bar, focus on bringing your collar bone towards the bar instead of getting your chin above the bar.
- Don’t shrug your shoulders towards your ears. There’s a tendency to want to shrug both at the top and at the bottom of the exercise. Keep your shoulder blades down.
As you get more confident doing pull-ups, you can try different variations. Besides an underhand or overhand grip, there’s a neutral grip. That’s when your palms are facing each other. It’s more comfortable for some people. If you have access to rings, you can definitely use them for your pull-ups. Rings offer more of a challenge in terms of stability. But their ability to rotate will help you find your body’s naturally efficient groove to do pull-ups.
These are all vertical pulling movements, meaning you’re moving up and down. For your best progress, you definitely want to include some horizontal pulling lifts, such as inverted rows or dumbbell rows in your workouts also.
Hope this helps! Any questions, leave ‘em below. Thanks for reading.