Pull ups explained

Is one of your goals to perform an unassisted pull up?

Maybe you’ve tried one, failed miserably, and thought ‘how on earth am I ever going to do one’.

Just like anything else. Practice makes perfect. And prefect comes from a little bit of research, an understanding of the details and steps in place to achieve the ultimate goal.

Read on for some definitions, the textbook pull-up and some build up exercises to performing the almighty unassisted, body weight pull-up.


What are they?

Pull Ups are an upper-body compound (compound meaning two or more joints used) exercise that involve pulling your entire body up to a bar until your chin passes the bar, then lowering yourself down again.


Key Benefits

  • Recruit a maximum amount of muscle fibres and can help gain muscle mass efficiently
  • Compound exercise that works muscles of the back, shoulders, chest, arms, abdominals and lower body
  • Improve forearm and grip strength
  • Improve shoulder stability when performed correctly
  • Easy to perform anywhere there is a bar – playground, ceiling beams etc.


Main muscles worked

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Deltoids
  • Pectoralis
  • Brachialis
  • Triceps


Textbook Technique

  1. Grip the bar with hands approx. shoulder width apart, or slightly wider
  2. Hang off the bar with straight arms, legs extended or knees bent
  3. Pull yourself up to the bar (until chin passes bar) focusing on drawing your elbows into ribcage and sliding your shoulder blades down your back. Ensure you don’t do the ‘chicken neck’ and jerk your chin up over bar, your chin should come up with the rest of your body.
  4. Lower yourself all the way down in a controlled manner until your arms are straight. Take a deep breathe in then breathe out as you pull up again.


Common errors and how to remedy these

  • The ‘chicken’ neck – The chicken neck involves tilting your head back and jerking your neck forward to try and get your chin over the bar. This can strain your neck muscles and damage the spinal discs in your neck.  To avoid this keep your eye gaze straight ahead and head in line with your torso as you pull up.



  • Tipping shoulders forward – Rolling shoulders forward during pull ups can result in shoulder damage and pain. To help keep your shoulders back you can think of leading with your chest as you pull yourself up (think about aiming for your collarbone to touch bar though you don’t have to pull quite this far).


  • Tensing neck muscles – Another common error people tend to make when straining to reach the bar is overusing the upper traps and tensing the neck muscles to try and get the chin to the bar. To remedy this ensure you keep your neck muscles relaxed, keep chin gently tucked in and neck long, and focus on drawing your elbows down in towards your rib cage.



  • Hyperextending through the lower back – It is important to keep a neutral spine position when performing pull ups. If you over extend/over arch your back this will apply pressure to your spinal discs and may result in back pain.  To avoid this make sure you are engaging your abdominal muscles during pull ups and try straightening your legs as you pull up.



Struggling to get your chin past the bar?


Here’s some strengthening exercises and progressions that will get you on the road to smashing out your unassisted body-weight pull ups.


Lat pull-downs using strength bands – These will strengthen the key muscles involved in your pull ups whilst allowing your body to remain on the ground. Just like during a pull up, focus on keeping your shoulders back and drawing your elbows down toward floor to engage lats, until your elbows are a little lower than shoulder height.



Bodyweight horizontal/incline rows – Using an overhand grip, strengthening muscles of the back and arms required for pull ups.



Bar-hangs with shoulder blade retraction (strengthening) – In a dead-hang position from the pull up bar.  Draw shoulder blades down towards floor, raising chest slightly toward bar. Lower and repeat.


Band assisted-pull ups – Pull ups using a strength band attached to bar which the foot or knee can go into for extra assistance.


Rotator cuff activation exercises

  • T-rotation push ups – Perform a normal push up then twist onto one arm, extending the other toward ceiling. Repeat alternating sides.
  • Side plank switches – Rotate from one side plank to the other, placing both forearms on ground as you shift to the other side.

  • A, T, W Raises on a swiss ball – Lying front on swiss ball, raise chest and arms off the ball into each of the ‘A’ ‘T’ ‘W’ shapes, activating external rotators.

By having knowledge around the pull up exercise you’ll be able to perform them well, without the risk of injury. Not to mention by doing it properly will give you the best chance at getting stronger.

Feel free to practice and even get a bit more coaching from one of us next time you’re in.