The pull-up exercise is a hugely popular exercise that develops a strong and defined upper body. This is a staple movement that everyone should strive to achieve.
- Primary Muscle: Back
- Secondary Muscle(s): Biceps
- Difficulty: Intermediate
- Also known as: Pullup
- Optional: Rings, Pull-up Bar, Weighted Vest, Ankle Weights, Power Rack
View Pull-up guide
How to do pull-ups on a bar
- Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and begin from a dead hang (arms fully extended, about shoulder width apart).
- Pull up toward the bar by bending at the arms and clear it with your chin.
- Pause at the top of the exercise and then lower back down under control.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
Pull-up Tips and Notes:
- Keep the movement slow and controlled at all times.
- Ensure the body is tight throughout the exercise and keep the torso straight.
- Minimise 'kipping', rocking or swaying movements for strict pull-ups.
- Pull-ups can be performed on a static bar or gymnastic rings. Using gymnastics rings for pull-ups allows the joints to track naturally due to the free rotation of the rings. Many people find rings a more preferable platform for pull-up exercises. See ring pull-up exercise for further details.
- One effective mental tip to help with pull-ups that many people find helpful is to envisage yourself pulling the bar down to your chest, as opposed to hoisting your body to the bar.
- Don't start your next rep until you've fully extended your arms. Anything else and you're just cheating yourself for rep numbers. Full range of motion is harder but builds incredible strength.
A primal favourite, the pull-up is a functional exercise that recruits multiple upper-body muscles in one swift, controlled movement. The ability to pull oneself up with the arms is a standard bodyweight exercise that sadly, on average, few people can do.
The pull-up demonstrates a superior strength to bodyweight ratio. There's no surface taking any burden of bodyweight, it's just you, the bar, and the coordinated muscular effort of your upper-body muscles lifting you up.
This hugely rewarding exercise develops incredible strength, muscle definition, and builds a body that can climb and pull things toward it with ease.
For those that are less interested in performance and more with aesthetics - regular pull-ups will develop an athletic body, keeping bodyweight down, the waist trim and shoulders wide and full. This increases the waist-to-shoulder ratio which is a key factor to an attractive physique.
Pull-up Progression Exercises
It's not uncommon to be unable to complete a single pull-up. If you’re not yet strong enough there are four main progression exercises on the overhead bar that will help you build up the required strength –
The first pull-up progression exercise is designed to introduce you to hanging from the bar.
Simply grip the bar and hang from it with arms fully extended. This will build grip strength and core body tension.
See dead hang exercise for more information. Once you can hold the exercise for 10+ seconds begin training for flex hangs to continue your progression to pull-ups.
Flexed arm Hang
A flex hang is a static bar hold, which involves simply holding yourself at the top of the pull-up exercise with your chin over the bar.
Once you can hold the flex hang position for 10+ seconds you are ready to start training for negative pull-ups.
See flex hang exercise for further details.
Negative pull-ups essentially involve performing only the lowering phase (the eccentric portion) of the pull-up exercise. This is the easiest portion of the pull-up exercise.
See negative pull-ups exercise for more details.
One of the final exercises in your path to unassisted pull-ups are body rows, which involves using a bar around waist height and having the feet on the ground during the lift so as to employ less of your bodyweight.
Gymanstics rings can be good equipment for this if you do not have a bar available at the correct height.
See the body row exercise for more information.
Assisted pull-up exercises
In addition to the progression exercises above you may find the following assisted pull-up exercise techniques useful if the exercise is still eluding you.
Assisted pull-ups is a basic approach to building the required strength by using methods that employ less of your bodyweight to make the exercise more achievable, but still challenging.
As you build strength you can lessen the amount of assistance until able to perform the exercise on your own.
We outline two approaches to assisted pull-up training below -
Leg assisted pull-ups
Begin with double leg assisted pull-ups - using a bench beneath the pull-up bar to support both legs during the exercise. Use the legs as little as possible during the lift.
As you develop strength you can progress to single leg assisted pull-ups - using the same technique as before but only supporting one leg on the bench, with the other leg hanging.
Band assisted pull-ups
Using resistance bands for pull-up assistance is a cheap and effective technique to building up pull-up strength.
Resistance bands are available in various sizes and thickness to help support your body weight to make the exercise possible. Simply 'choke' the resistance band to a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings (over the anchor point and pull the band back through itself) and place your knee/knees into the band loop.
As you get stronger you can use the lighter resistance bands for less support. Also note that you can control the amount of assistance offered by the band by altering the length. The shorter the band, the more resistance is applied. You can wrap the band around the bar more times before 'choking' to control the band length.
If you've mastered the pull-up and looking for some advanced techniques you can try the approaches below to keep progressing and develop serious strength-to-bodyweight ratio.
Adding additional weight to pull-ups is an obvious way of increasing the intensity of the exercise.
Only think about adding weight to your pull-ups once you can perform at least 3 sets of 10 bodyweight repetitions. Even then, start small and incrementally add weight as you gain strength.
There are a few different techniques to adding weight to the pull-up:
- A weighted vest offers a simple and versatile way of adding weight that's evenly distributed over your body.
- A dipping belt allows you to attach various weight plates to hang below the waist.
- Hold a dumbbell, or medicine ball between your feet for a bit of added weight, but this can be tricky to control as the weight increases.
Advanced pull-up techniques
You can also try integrating the pull-up exercise into a series of seamless movements for combination exercises e.g. the pull-up burpee.
- One-arm pull-up - very few people can do single-arm pull-ups. A seriously impressive and advanced pull-up exercise
- Muscle-up (see ring muscle-up) - the half dip, half pull-up exercise. Commonly performed on gymnastics rings the muscle-up is a great demonstration of both strength and technique
There are many variations and progressions on the basic pull-up exercise to consider:
- Muscle-up - move from below the rings or bar, to above, in one smooth, controlled action. The muscle-up is an excellent, advanced functional movement
- One-arm pull-up - pulling up with one-arm instead of two, for an incredible display of strength
- Kipping pull-up - a CrossFit favourite, a kipping pull-up involves the use of the legs to help with the exercise, in contrast to a strict pull-up where the lower body remains engaged and static. The legs are swung backwards to build momentum, and forcefully swung forward while pulling the body up with the arms
- Chin-ups - the biceps are worked harder during chin-ups, and are slightly easier than pull-ups, which places greater emphasis on the back muscles
- Pull-up burpee - try the standard burpee exercise but during the jumping portion of the movement perform a pull-up, for a complex bodyweight circuit
- Side-to-side pull-up
- Clap pull-ups - explode with such momentum that you can take your hands from the bar and clap together before coming back down
- Grip medley pull-ups - mixing up your grips between pull-ups
- L pull-ups - performing the pull-up exercise in an L position
- Rope pull-ups
When should I move on to weighted pull-ups?
Regular bodyweight pull-ups should be developed first to a standard where you can perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions under strict form.
How can I increase my number of pull-ups?
Do pull-ups - lots of them, and often. Also try performing 3 slow (3-5 seconds) negative pull-ups for each pull-up you want to increase your max reps by.
Always consult your GP before undertaking any form of weight loss, fitness or exercise