Pull Ups are a staple of functional strength and a testament to the versatility of bodyweight training. You want crazy upper body and core strength? You want toned and ripped shoulders, arms, back, and abs? You want to escape a hazardous situation by pulling yourself to safety? Time to hit the pull up bar!
In addition to being used as a vital exercise by fitness enthusiasts for the last century, pull ups are used by most military and law enforcement organizations to test the strength and conditioning levels of soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, and other individuals in physically demanding professions. You might also remember how the evil PE teacher from your childhood would line everybody up and record your pull up count? The reason for this pull up-testing obsession is simple: pull ups are a necessary movement for survival and an indicator of a person's overall fitness level because they require the strength and coordination of muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, and core (and that's just in standard variations!).
So what muscles are worked by performing pull ups and how? Let's start with the grip. When performing a standard pull up, you'll be utilizing what's called a "œhook grip." Similar to the grip you would use during a Farmer's Walk, the pull up will require a hook grip capable of holding your entire bodyweight. This involves finger, hand, and forearm strength. In addition, if you were to perform any one of the variety of explosive pull up variations (such as Clap Pull Ups, Switch Pull Ups, or Walking Pull Ups), the effect of launching and catching your bodyweight demands even more grip strength.
Let's move up your arms to the biceps and triceps. While standard pull ups require more back (trap and lat) strength than bicep and tricep strength, there are plenty of variations that involve more. Typically, the farther your head is away from the bar, the more upper arm strength each repetition will require. Chin Ups are a good example of a more bicep-intensive exercise. Chin Ups involve having your palms facing your body, then using your upper arms to perform each repetition. If you want a good burn, try holding a Chin Up for 30-60 seconds in the middle of a repetition with your upper and lower arms at a 90 degree angle, or "œpump" in a small motion around that point. You can also perform partials to hit your arms in different ways. Try performing a set of 10 reps going from a hanging position to the halfway point then back, then immediately perform another set of 10 reps going from the top position to the halfway point then back, and finish with a set of 10 full Chin Up reps.
Onto the shoulders! Pull ups demand shoulder strength, flexibility, and agility in order to perform safely and correctly. The muscles in the front of the shoulders are used to stabilize each repetition, especially when performing explosive pull up variations. If performed correctly, the stress to your shoulder joints by high Pull Up reps should be minimized, however, it's extremely important to warm up your shoulders prior to long sets and cool down with a series of shoulder stretches following a hard workout.
Back attack! More than anything, the focus of Pull Ups should be your back. The back muscles worked by standard Pull Ups include the latissimus dorsi, teres major, the rhomboids, and trapezius muscles. The primary mover for Pull Ups is the latissimus dorsi, normally referred to as the "œlats." This group of muscles, located in the middle of your back, must be utilized during each repetition. Over-reliance on your arms and shoulders for Pull Ups will severely limit the maximum amount of reps you are able to perform. Refer to the Pull Up Form & Training Techniques section for tips on how to "œactivate" the lats.
Finally, get ready for some killer abs! It may seem strange, but properly performed pull ups require a lot of core strength to stabilize each repetition. In addition, variations of the pull up exercise, such as the L-Sit Pull Up, Burpee Pull Up, or Knee-Raise Pull Up can help you get a killer core workout while performing sets of Pull Ups.
A Simple List of Pull Up Variations
No matter what you're trying to work, there's probably a Pull Up variation to fit the bill! Check out this short list, then look them up on MyMadMethods.com to see how to do them!
Pull Up Grip Variations
- Pull Ups
- Chin Ups
- Mix Grip Pull Ups
- Wide Grip Pull Ups
- Narrow Grip Chin Ups
- Narrow Grip Pull Ups
Explosive Pull Up Variations
- Explosive Pull ups
- Clapping Pull Ups
- Switch Pull Ups
- Mix Grip Switch Pull Ups
- In & Out Pull Ups
- Walking Pull Ups
- Foot-Touch Chin Ups
Strength Pull Up Variations
- Weighted Pull Ups
- Sternum Chin Ups
- One-Side Pull Ups
- Side-to-Side Pull Ups
- Circle Pull Ups
- L-Sit Pull Ups
- Burpee Pull Ups
- Towel/Rope Pull Ups
Pull Up Form & Training Techniques
1) Save Your Joints! You might have seen or experienced trainees giving each other crap about not hanging completely at the bottom of each rep, don't get involved in this! Rather than simply hanging at the bottom of each repetition (which puts unnecessary strain on your tendons and ligaments), start each rep with your shoulders tucked into their sockets and your elbows at a slightly bent position. This will allow you to perform more reps without the joint pain that comes from complete hanging lock outs.
2) Activate Your Back! Standard Pull Ups should be performed with a focus on the lats, rather than the arms and shoulders. If you can't feel your back being used, try warming up with a set of Kettlebell Rows, Double High Pulls, Body Rows, or Extended Push Ups. You can also have someone poke or slap your lats to "œwake them up."
3) Complete the Reps! Make sure you're performing full reps; don't stop when your eyes are level with the bar, get your chin over it each time. If you find that by the fifth rep, you're barely making it, it might be time to stop or switch to an easier variation (Chin Ups or Neutral Grip Pull Ups).
4) Mix It Up! As you try to increase your Pull Up numbers, remember to mix up your technique. You need to hit all the muscles involved in Pull Ups from every angle in order to improve. Check out the list of Pull Up Variations to the right and look at the how to's at MyMadMethods.com
5) Grease the Groove! This is a popular strength training technique that I've used in the past to increase my pull up and pressing numbers. It's simple: perform a set of Pull Ups (or a different variation each time) every 2-3 hours during the day. Even if you're only able to do a couple at a time, you'll be able to perform dozens over the course of a day. Again, shoulder joint mobility training is essential for using this technique.
"Your First Pull Up" Workout Routine
Alright! You now have a variety of pull up variations and other exercises to help improve your pull up numbers. Here is a simple routine that you can do 2-3 times a week (in addition to your regular workout routines) to help improve your pull up numbers or allow you to perform your first one. This workout has a simple structure that you can mix and match with different exercises in the Pull Up Building Exercises above.
A1: Pull Up Negatives - 2 x 5 reps with a 5 count down
A2: Hanging Leg Raises - 2 x 10
B1: Chin Up Negatives - 2 x 5 reps with a 5 count down
B2: L-Sit Hangs - 2 x 30-60 sec
C1: Extended Push Ups - 2 x 10
C2: Bar Hangs - 2 x 30-60 sec
D: Farmer Walks - 2 x 50 feet
|This article was featured in the December 2010 Issue of the My Mad Methods Magazine. "All Around Strength & Power!" was written by Mark de Grasse. You can purchase this issue by Clicking Here.|
Mark de Grasse is the founder and owner of My Mad Methods, an organization (online community & published magazine) dedicated to unconventional training methods like kettlebells, sandbags, battle ropes, macebells and more. Mark has been a demonstrator in several workout DVDs, co-founded the MBody Strength Kettlebell Gym, and currently travels around the country attending certifications, interviewing trainers and other professionals, and learning as much as possible about unconventional training. Find out more.
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