The Power Of The Pull-Up
The pull-up in my mind is the ‘squat’ of the upper body. The pull-up is a fantastic compound mass builder for the back, biceps, core and shoulders.
However, unlike the push-up, squat, sit-up and dip, the pull-up is a slight bit harder to get right.
With exercises such as the squat it’s quite obvious when a mistake is being made – your knees coming over your toes, your depth not quite being up to scratch… easily identifiable by yourself and others.
Unfortunately when it comes to pull-ups, that’s not the case.
You may be pulling yourself up and clearing your chin over the pull-up bar, however that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re performing the pull-up correctly, minor adjustments in range, hand placement, tilt, elbow positioning and more separate a poor form pull-up from a picture perfect pull-up.
Here’s How A Good Pull-Up Should Look…
Using correct form and ensuring you’re activating the right muscles requires conscious effort without a doubt.
At the beginner of each set I ensure I lean back and have a slight arch in my back to ensure I’ll be driving through my lats to row the barbell or pull myself up to the bar.
Sitting completely upright or hunching forward is a sure-fire way to set yourself up to struggle the weight through your arms.
The video below demonstrates Ido Portal, Connor McGregor’s movement coach performing strict form pull-ups, note the leaning back and the engagement of the lats while pulling his chest up to the bar. Incorrect form would show a perfectly straight torso pulling through the arms and barely clearing the chin over the bar.
Now Let’s Compare That To A Poor Form Pull-Up…
Below are the 5 biggest mistake I’ve seen being made (and have personally made too!) when it comes to performing pull-ups.
Poor pull-up form or injuries sustained doing pull-ups are almost always a result of at least one of the below…
Kipping & Using Momentum
Kipping and swinging pull-ups are absolutely pointless.
You may be clearing your chin over the pull-up bar and technically be ‘performing the exercise’ however, you’ll never reap any of the benefits of the exercise as you’re relying on momentum to move your body from a dead hang to your chin clearing the pull-up bar.
Both strength and size cannot be built when kipping and using momentum to rep out your pull-ups.
Strength and size are a result of progressive overload, and progressive overload is only possible via constantly increasing the tension placed on your muscles (by adding reps to your bodyweight pull-ups, adding a weight belt with additional resistance etc).
Poor Elbow Positioning
If your elbows are in front of you you’re essentially replicating an overhand chin-up.
Your elbows should be tracking downwards and backwards, instead of remaining close together in front of your torso.
You’ll find that incorrect elbow positioning makes the makeshift ‘pull-up’ that much easier as your biceps are able to muscle in and take over when your back begins to struggle.
To ensure you’re pulling back and down widen your grip, a narrow grip makes it more preferential by default to position your elbows incorrectly.
Chin-ups are a fantastic exercise, there’s no doubt they can be used to add mass and peak to the biceps, but when we’re trying to build pull-up strength and a wide cobra-esque back they’re not ideal.
Not Contracting The Back Muscles
If you’re pulling directly up you’re pulling your body through your arms and you’re not going to be able to contract your back muscles – rendering your pull-ups ineffective.
In order to ensure your squeezing your shoulder blades together your chest should be puffed forward and you should have a slight arch in your back – allowing you to pull back and down while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Watch Ido Portal’s demonstration video again above for a perfect example of this form being practised.
Utilizing A Partial ROM
A pull-up should start from a dead hang position. Your arms should be fully extended, no exceptions.
The pull-up ends when your shoulder blades are contracted and your chin clears the pull-up bar.
This is the absolute minimum range of motion you should be utilizing.
As your strength and mobility improves so should the height to which you’re pulling yourself – aim to touch your upper chest on the pull-up bar.
Not only will you get more out of your pull-ups, but you’re also ticking off one of the perquisite boxes to perform muscle-ups.
Attempting To Do Pull-Ups When You Can’t Do Pull-Ups
If you’re not strong enough to perform strict form pull-ups you should not be settling for poor form pull-ups.
As mentioned earlier, the momentum, pulling through the arms and lack of contraction that encompasses a poor form pull-up will not build any strength or skill to allow you to magically clear the bar with a strict form pull-up.
Instead of kipping off the bar focus on exercises that will build the necessary strength to do strict form pull-ups.
What exercises should you be focusing on?
Bent over rows.