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  • West London PT

Pull Ups 101: Muscles Used, Benefits, Form & Common Mistakes

Woman athlete at the top of a pull-up motion.

What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Use?

A pull-up is a compound movement, meaning that it's working more than two muscles at once. Pull-ups work the back and biceps. Specifically, pull-ups use your lats, shoulders, biceps and forearms to accomplish a 'downward pull' motion.

What Are The Benefits Of Pull-Ups?

Pull-ups are rich in benefits, including:

  1. Significant strengthening of the lats, shoulders, biceps and forearms.

  2. Improving grip strength for all other exercises.

  3. Building functional core strength through proper use of the glutes and abs. This occurs through the stabilisation required to stop yourself from swinging back and forth.

  4. Reversing the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, and forward-leaning posture. A well-executed pull-up involves engaging the scapula, which leads to the shoulders being pulled back against resistance. This corrects muscular imbalance developed from time spent at a desk.

  5. Reducing back pain. A strong, healthy core alignment wards off the most common causes of lower back pain. Meanwhile, muscular knots (trigger points) are often the result of muscular weakness. Once you strengthen the area, the number of knots reduces.

Correct Pull-Up Form: How To Do A Pull-Up Step By Step

  1. Tuck your pelvis to engage your glutes and abs. This will stop your back from arching excessively.

  2. Hang from the bar with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart and knuckles facing the sky. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and next to your ears. Your core should still be engaged, with glutes squeezing.

  3. Without bending your arms or swinging, depress your shoulder blades. Imagine you’re trying to squeeze a coin between them. This is a crucial step to a healthy pull-up.

  4. From this point, keep the elbows close to you as you pull your chest towards the bar. Think of bringing the bar to you, rather than the other way around.

  5. Once your head is above the bar, retract your shoulder blades and bring your biceps to meet your forearms. Your head should now be above and in front of the bar. It can help to imagine there's a wad of cash that you can only reach with your mouth, just forwards of (and above) the bar.

  6. Hold this position briefly, before returning evenly and under control to the starting position.

Pull Up Step-By-Step With Pictures

Man hanging from a pull-up bar and engaging his core to straighten his back.
Step 1: Engage the core to maintain a straight back

Man hanging from a bar and performing a scapular pull-up.
Steps 2 & 3: Engage Scapula by pulling shoulders down.

Man performing the top half of a pull-up.
Steps 4, 5 & 6: Pulling your chin over and in front of the bar

How Many Pull-Ups Should You Do?

For optimal muscle growth, you should be aiming to complete 3-4 sets of 6-12 Pull-Ups.

4 Sets of 6 Pull-Ups: 2-minute break.

3 Sets of 8-10 Pull Ups: 100-second break.

3 Sets of 12-15 Pull-Ups: 90-second break.

Starting strength will vary, and even one pull-up is already a great achievement. The good news is that once you've done one, it's easy to improve.

If one pull-up is all you can do, try for ten sets of one with a three-minute break in between. You can incorporate lower body exercises during your rest time.

Why Can't I Do A Pull-Up?

In a healthy individual, there are three main reasons pull-ups might not be possible:

  1. Excess body weight. Pull-up ability strongly hinges on your strength-to-weight ratio. If you're 10kg overweight, for example, you'd likely see greater improvements from reducing the load on your back and biceps.

  2. Lack of strength. You may be at a healthy weight, but lacking the muscular power to perform a pull-up.

  3. Incorrect technique. Pull-ups require explosive power and strong core alignment. Sometimes, all the ingredients are there but the execution is lacking.

Build Pull-Up Strength

To build the power needed for a pull-up, you'll need to progressively overload your back and biceps.

If you don't yet have the strength to perform a pull-up, you should use other exercises that strengthen the same muscle groups. Those are the lats, biceps and shoulders.

'Inverted Rows' or 'Lat Pull Downs', are excellent foundational exercises for building pull-up strength. Personally, I recommend Inverted Rows and Dead Hangs as the basis for pull-up training.

Before attempting pull-up variations, you should be able to perform at least:

  1. 30 Inverted Rows.

  2. 45 Seconds Dead Hanging.

Step 1: Achieve 30 Inverted Rows

Day 1: Start by testing how many high-quality Inverted Rows you can currently achieve uninterrupted.

Day 2: The next day, your goal is to achieve the same number plus an additional 40%. For example, if you achieved 10 Inverted Rows on your test day, you must now achieve 14.

To accomplish this, you're allowed to hang and even rest briefly if you have to. You must get those repetitions out as quickly as possible.

Day 3: On day 3, you must achieve your day 1 figure plus an extra 50%. If you achieved 10 on day 1, it's time to achieve 15 - even if you have to hang or rest.

Day 4: The final day before testing again, this time it's an extra 60% relative to day 1. If you hit 10 on the first day, you should hit 16 today.

Take 48 hours of rest, and repeat this process until you hit 30 uninterrupted Inverted Rows on your test day.

Step 2: Achieve 45 Seconds of Dead Hanging

Dead hanging will give you functional grip strength as well as strengthen your forearms, biceps, lats and shoulders.

All you have to do is brace your core and hang from a secure bar. Crucially, keep your knuckles facing the sky so that you don't end up with a 'finger grip'. Whilst it's tempting to use, a finger grip will inhibit how confidently you can pull yourself up in the long term.

To achieve 45 seconds, hang three times every single session. Your goal is simple: to achieve five seconds more than your previous session's PB on at least one of the hangs.

Keep going like this, until you hit 45 seconds. Alongside your Inverted Row training, you probably won't find it takes long.

Easy Pull-Up Variations

Once you've built your base strength, there are lots of ways to make pull-ups easier:

Use Resistance Bands To Reduce The Load

Use a resistance band to give you an extra boost from the bottom of the motion. Remember that a band will give you less help at the top, unlike an assisted pull-up machine that will be consistent throughout.

Try progressively overloading using the following structure:

4 Sets of 6 Banded Pull-Ups: 2-minute break.

3 Sets of 8-10 Banded Pull Ups: 100-second break.

3 Sets of 12-15 Banded Pull-Ups: 90-second break.

Once you've achieved 3 sets of 12-15 with a band, it's time to switch to a lighter band or even to no band at all.

Use A Box To Reduce The Load

You can also perform assisted pull-ups by resting your feet in a kneeling position and pulling with your feet in contact with the ground. This will reduce the load on your back and biceps.

Practise Eccentric Pull-Ups

Whilst you may not have the strength to pull yourself up, that doesn't mean you can't lower with control. You're still pulling against gravity, and it's a terrific way to build the strength to perform a complete pull-up.

To perform a negative pull-up:

  1. Use a box or step to start with your chin above (and in front of) the bar.

  2. Lower all the way to a dead hang with control. It should take around 8 seconds from top to bottom.

  3. Step back up and return to the starting position.

  4. Repeat 3-5 times.

Harder Pull-Up Variations

If you're finding that more than 10 pull-ups no longer pose a challenge, it may be time to try out some harder pull-up variations..

Use A Weighted Belt or Dumbbell To Increase The Load

If you want to make pull-ups harder, all you have to do is increase the resistance. A weighted belt can help you do just that, but you can use a dumbbell between your feet if needed. A good weight to start with is 5% of your body weight; follow a progressive overload structure as you would with body weight.

Increase Pull-Up Time Under Contraction With 'Super-Slows'

Super slows are a fantastic plateau buster. They'll highlight areas of the motion that you might be lacking strength in, and the massive TUC (Time Under Contraction) offers a huge opportunity for teardown.

To perform a super-slow, make your repetitions last 6-8 seconds on both the ascending and descending phase. Because the TUC is so high, you might want to try the following structure.

5 Sets of 3-5 Super Slow Pull-Ups: 3 minute break.

You can even increase time under contraction by pausing at the top and midway points of the motion.

The Three Most Common Pull-Up Mistakes

The most common pull up mistakes are:

  1. Failing to engage the scapular, at the end of the movement. It's not enough to have your head just above the bar, it needs to come above and in front of the bar, too.

  2. Jump starts. Hoisting the legs up or jumping off the ground to get a boosted start eliminates the need for explosive pulling power.

  3. Failing to engage the lower body. The core must be active and legs flexed to hold form without the back arching or knees bending.

  4. Continuing once grip strength has failed. This means their hands have slipped and they are now gripping with their fingers. Try to ensure your knuckles stay facing above the bar at all times - you may find chalk helpful for this!

Incorrect and correct demonstration of pull-up grip methods side by side.
Incorrect Finger Grip vs Correct Pull-Up Grip With Knuckles Facing The Ceiling


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