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How to Do a Proper Pullup

how to do a proper pull up

A pull up is a classic exercise. Anyone who went to high school in the United States will remember the dreaded Presidential Fitness Test and its pull up component. For those few days of testing, pull ups represented our greatest achievement or our most humiliating defeat.

However, pull ups remain an important fitness benchmark as well as an excellent exercise for multiple muscle groups. According to the standards set by the Presidential Fitness Test, adult males over the age of 18 should be able to complete eight pull ups to be classified as being in “borderline shape.” Similarly, pull ups continue to be a featured exercise within military training — one of the most grueling and effective physical training regimens used in this country.

borderline shape

While gyms advertise new workouts designed to be performed on expensive machines, in the end, a simple pull up bar is all you need for an effective and body-defining upper body work out. In fact, machines tend to isolate muscle groups, while body weight exercises like pull ups require you to engage multiple muscle groups at one time — meaning you’re working more than just your arms every time you do a pull up!

Additionally, a recent study from Arizona State University has indicated that strength training — such as pull ups —is actually a lot more effective at burning calories than previously thought. For pull ups specifically, it was initially believed that doing pull ups burned 4.03 calories per minute. This study, however, showed doing pull ups actually burns 9.95 calories per minute. That is an increase of over 100%!

calorie burn

So we thought we’d take some time and help guide you toward the perfect pull up. While it is certainly an effective exercise, it is also strenuous, meaning it presents a number of opportunities for injury if done incorrectly. Furthermore, pull ups can be infamously frustrating to those who are just getting started on a commitment to total physical fitness.

With that in mind, follow this guide and you will soon see just how powerful a pull up can be!

Getting Started

The problem with pull ups is that if you can’t do them, you can easily grow discouraged and give up. However, most people don’t realize there are effective exercises you can do that will help you train your way toward the perfect pull up. Here are a couple options:

  • Assisted pull ups. Using a bar that is three or four feet off the ground, assume a pull up position, bending your knees only as much as required to keep your back straight. Do a pull up just as you would if you were hanging from an overhead bar, using only as much leg strength as you need to bring your chest up to the bar.

    Of course, this exercise requires a little bit of self control. If you rely to much on your leg strength to accomplish the exercise, you won’t see results in your upper body. The key is to minimize the assistance provided by your legs. Eventually, as your arm, shoulder and back muscles develop, you will find you need to use your legs less and less, until finally you can stop using assistance all together.

  • Dumbbell rows. Although this exercise doesn’t necessarily simulate the motion of the pull up, it will allow you to strengthen the required muscles, while also giving you greater control over the amount of weight you are using.

    Dumbbell rows are a simple, one-armed exercise. Placing one knee and arm on a bench, almost as if you are kneeling on all fours, let your other arm hang while standing on your other leg. Holding the weight in the hanging arm, lift it straight into the air, making sure to keep your back straight.

    When you reach the height of the lift, slowly lower the weight back to the ground. After repeating this exercise the appropriate number of times, complete the same exercise with the other arm.

  • Bicep curls. For bicep curls, use either hand weights in each hand or a full bar. Stand with your arms straight and down in front of you with your palms facing away from you. Lift the weight, flexing your bicep while bending at the elbow. Repeat the exercise an appropriate amount of times.

If you are diligent in completing these exercises, you will soon discover that full pull ups are possible, maybe for the first time ever! But, as always, make sure you are doing your exercises properly or you might risk injury.

The Perfect Pull Up

Now that we’ve established you can do a pull up, let’s make sure you do them with the proper technique. To make sure you are doing them correctly, we are going to break down each step with specific instructions on how to accomplish the exercise in a way that minimizes injury and maximizes results.

For the perfect pull up, you’ll want to:

steps to a perfect pull up
  • Grab the bar. This may sound simple, but to do this workout perfectly, you need to start perfectly. Begin with a full grip, locking the bar in your hand with your thumb on the opposite side of your fingers. If you look at your hands, you should see their backs. If you are looking at your thumbs, then you are actually doing a chin up (which is easier).

    Also make sure your hands are shoulder width apart. Although advanced pull up exercises may instruct you to either widen or narrow your grip, a shoulder-width grip is best for the basic pull up. It will make sure your work load is divided across the various muscle groups and help prevent injury.

  • Hang. Again, this may seem obvious, but it is important. A perfect pull up begins with a straight arm hang. If you jump up, grab the bar and continue without starting from a dead hang, you will be aided by the motion of your jump, making the pull up easier — and robbing yourself of the strength-building benefits of this exercise. So before you start, bend your knees, take a breath and make sure your arms are completely straight.

  • Pull. Now we’ve arrived at the hard part. But the truth is, you could be making your work harder, less effective and risky by trying to pull yourself up incorrectly.

    While pulling yourself up, you should imagine yourself pulling your elbows to the floor. If you stick with this motion, you should see that your elbows are not flaring inward or outward, but instead they are staying directly under your hands.

    It is also important that you continue to look forward at this point. If you look up toward the bar while you pull yourself up, you will end up bending your neck awkwardly, increasing your risk of back injury.

  • Go past the bar. It might go without saying, but make sure you are rising above the bar during your pull up. This exercise is effective because it works a number of muscle groups. If you only do a half-rep by simply getting your chin above the bar, you are missing out on a number of those benefits. When you rise above the bar, you are engaging more of your back muscles, while the beginning of the pull up works your biceps more.

    So don’t just get your chin above the bar. Instead, work toward getting your chest to touch the bar. While those final inches may be exhausting, getting there will maximize the effectiveness of each pull up.

  • Drop down, slowly. While you may feel like you’ve finished the pull up the moment your head gets above the bar, the way down is just as important and should not be neglected. Don’t just release and drop down. This rapid descent can cause injury, especially to your elbows and shoulders. Instead, let yourself down slowly, keeping your muscles engaged. This controlled descent not only ensures your safety, but it also increases the effectiveness of each pull up.

  • Hang and repeat. Once you’ve returned to the full hang position, you are ready to start again. So take a breath and pull yourself up once more.

The nice thing about pull ups is you don’t have to necessarily count reps. Instead, you should do as many as you can, taking only quick breathers between each rep. So if your maximum is three, then do three. If your maximum is twenty, then do twenty. Just make sure you are doing each one with the correct form.

More Specifics on Form

While we have described the correct form for the basic pull up, we do want to take some time to dig deeper into the specifics of correct form. That way, as you develop your ability to do more reps, you will be doing so in a way that is effective and safe. Here are what various parts of your body should be doing during this exercise:

  • Elbows. It is important to always keep your elbows directly below your hands. If you allow your elbows to flare out, you run the risk of injury while simultaneously making your job much harder. So focus on always keeping your elbows close to your body.
  • Chest. You want to lead with your chest, not your chin. This will ensure you don’t strain your neck and also engage the correct muscle groups. So think less about getting your chin over the bar and more about touching the bar with your chest.
  • Head. Your head should not be involved in this exercise. If you feel yourself straining any part of your head or neck, relax and look straight ahead.
  • Shoulders. Keep your shoulders back and make sure you are not squeezing your shoulder blades. Doing so can strain your back muscles.
  • Lower back. Your lower back should not be engaged during this workout. If you are arching your back in any way, you are doing it wrong. Instead, imagine a straight line from your shoulders to your hips.
  • Legs. Make sure your knees are bent but not strained. Flex your glutes while crossing your legs to ensure your back is straight.

The Benefits of Pull Ups

benefits of pull ups

Now that you’ve perfected the form, here are some of the benefits you’ll see:

  • Arms. One obvious benefit is more arm definition. A pull up forces your biceps to lift the weight of your body. However, your forearms and triceps also join in the action. Your forearms are especially active during those last few inches as you rise above the bar. Similarly, as you pull your chest to the bar, your triceps become engaged as your elbows move in toward your chest.
  • Upper back. Your arms aren’t doing all the work, though. Your upper back is also strongly involved. Specifically, your lats work hard to stabilize your arms as you pull yourself up. These muscles are the back muscles that help give you that desired “V”-shaped definition.

    In addition, your traps are engaged, along with a number of other smaller back muscles. In fact, when it comes to back definition, nothing can compare with the effectiveness of a pull up.

  • Abs. This is why proper form is so important. If you let your back arch while doing a pull up, you miss out on all of the benefits in your abs. Your abs are responsible for keeping your back straight, so with proper form, your stomach should be engaged during the entire pull up.

For Advanced Pullers Only

If you feel like taking your pull ups to the next level, you can consider adding some weight to your reps. However, do not attempt this unless you have plenty of experience with pull ups. If you add weight without mastering the proper technique, you can easily injure yourself. That’s why we only recommend adding weight once you can easily do ten pull ups without weight.

The best way to add weight is with a dip belt. This allows you to safely chain free weights to your waist. The weight hangs between your knees, increasing the weight you have to lift without putting high levels of strain on other parts of your body.

But do not attempt to add weight to your reps unless you have the proper equipment. Dip belts are designed to add weight without hurting your back. Using a makeshift system can be dangerous.

Getting the Most out of Your Workouts

Now you’ve developed the perfect technique for the pull up and have begun blasting reps, but you also want to make sure you have the nutritional and metabolic support you need. You will only begin to see real results if you are cutting the fat while upping your protein intake, helping you transform flab into rock hard muscle.

That’s why we offer a wide range of nutritional- and workout-focused snacks and supplements. We make sure to stock a wide range of flavors and products so you can satisfy your cravings while also supporting your exercise efforts.

Don’t counteract your workouts with careless snacking. Instead, eat foods that boost metabolism while supporting muscle growth and workout recovery. If you combine proper form, consistent repetitions and quality nutrition, you’ll begin seeing powerful and dramatic results in no time! So grip that bar, lift that chest and punch out some reps of the perfect pull up. You can thank us when you’re done.


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