Pull ups are hard, but they're the best upper body exercise. So how do you master them?
Several years ago, I bought a new house. I thought I'd thoroughly explored the entire property, but once I moved in, I discovered a narrow strip of land between my neighbor's house and my house that I hadn't seen when I was viewing the home. That's when I really knew the house was meant for me. Nestled between the wall of my house and the chain link fence, I found this:
Yes, I needed to rake the leaves. And yes, I needed to throw out that old wading pool. But the point here is I now had access to an shaded, outdoor pull up bar, which was much better than doing pull ups on the squat rack in my garage. Jackpot! (Side note: It almost made the surprise roach infestation worth it. Almost.)
I was stoked, because over the previous ten years, pull ups had become my favorite strength exercise. Why are they still my favorite? Why should you be doing them? And how can you conquer them? Read on to find out.
Pull Ups Make You Feel Strong
Yes, pull ups are hard. But that's what's so great about them. Master them, and you'll feel a great sense of accomplishment. There's a reason why pull ups are used as part of the U.S. Marines fitness test. They are one of the best indicators of real, practical upper body strength.
The minimum number of pull ups to get into the Marines varies by age, but is generally four to five. Four to five. That's not that many! Just think, if you're able to do ten pull ups, you're halfway to the maximum pull up standard for the U.S. Marines!
Pull Ups Look Cool
There aren't great statistics out there on pull ups, but it's safe to say that a significant portion of the population that can't do a single pull up.
The closest we can get are estimates for youth fitness norms. For 17-year-old males in the 50th percentile, the norm is seven pull ups. For males of the same age in the 95th percentile, the norm is 15 pull ups. Unfortunately, these norms aren't inclusive enough, because they haven't tested females for pull ups.
That said, it's clear that pulling your own body weight and getting your chin above that bar will set you apart from a lot of people. Ripping off a few sets of pull ups in the gym just looks cool. Honestly, who doesn't like to show off every now and then?
Pull Ups Work Your Entire Upper Body, And Make You Look Good
The list of muscles worked by the pull up is impressive. It includes:
Parts of the shoulder
Arms (Biceps and Triceps)
There's also clinical evidence that pull ups work the abdominal muscles. Really, what does the pull up not work? (The answer is...your legs.)
I began doing them in the late Aughts, and I started from nothing. I wasn't able to do one pull up. At the time, I was thinking of them as primarily a back exercise, and I'd always done things like lat pulldowns and dumbbell rows for my back. Once I started doing pull ups, I noticed a huge change in the way my upper body looked. For the first time in my life, I started to have more of a "V" shape with my back muscles. My arms also looked stronger.
How to do a Pull Up
Now that you're sold on why pull ups are so great (note my confidence here), let's start from the beginning. If you can't currently do a pull up, I can share with you how I got there. It was actually pretty simple. I added two exercises to my upper body days. First was the Australian pull up.
The second was the negative pull up.
I did three to four sets of these a few times a week for several weeks. My reps varied, but I usually did them until my muscles felt relatively fatigued. Once you've practiced these exercises for a while, you can start trying to do a regular pull up. Here's what your form should look like.
If you find the Australian pull ups and the negatives aren't getting you there, here's a few more foundational exercises.
Chin Ups v. Pull Ups
This isn't as controversial a debate as the Oxford comma v. no Oxford comma dispute that's been tearing people apart for years.
Chin ups will have more of an emphasis on your biceps. Pull ups will have more of an emphasis on your back. I find the pull up to be the better all around exercise, and I've noted that chin ups tend to cause more tension in my elbows, but that's just my experience. You can experiment and incorporate both into your workouts.
But There's More...
It doesn't end once you've mastered the standard pull up. You can play with as many variations of the pull up as you'd like.
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