The pull up is a fantastic muscle & strength building exercise that requires zero fancy equipment; only your own bodyweight and something to hang from. Much like the push up, it is a very valuable, easily accessible upper body movement that should be a staple in most people’s strength training regimen.
However, something else it has in common with the push up is that there are some often overlooked technical errors that can be the difference maker between the pull up being a mediocre exercise and a great exercise.
Whether you’re working towards your first pull up or you’re doing sets of 10, correcting these common flaws in technique can help you get more reps (or your first), build more muscle, and reduce the risk of injury.
1. Crossing your legs behind your body.
This is the way you’ll see 99% of people doing chin ups/pull ups at the gym. It’s the same way I did them for years. But it’s not ideal. By letting your lower body dangle in the air, you’re creating an energy leak by allowing yourself to swing around uncontrollably. Try keeping your legs straight while flexing your glutes and quads hard. Think “full body tension”. You could add 2 to 4 reps with this hack alone.
2. Relying on momentum.
Banging out a set of 10 quick pull ups is cool. Coming to a dead stop at the bottom of every rep before pulling yourself back up is a whole different workout. Initially, you’ll do less reps, because your body is no longer cheating itself — but that’s okay. The reps will be back where they were in no time, and they’ll be of a higher quality.
Remember: if your goal is to train the muscle, minimize the momentum.
3. Pulling with the arms.
Especially in the case of a chin up, the biceps are going to be involved to a certain degree — but some will try to pull themselves up entirely with their arms, which makes the exercise much more difficult than it should be and neglects to activate the musculature of the back altogether.
Your lats — the large, triangular muscles covering the lower area of the back — are much bigger and more powerful than your biceps, and once you learn how to engage them, you’re going to see a night and day difference. This can take some time for beginners and even intermediates to perfect, but that’s completely normal. You can practice by thinking of your arms merely as hooks that are transferring the force you’re generating from your lats and upper back into the pull up bar. Concentrate on actively driving your elbows down towards your chest.
4. Not depressing the shoulder blades before pulling.
Ever had shoulder pain from pull ups? A lot of people have — myself included — and this is usually the reason why.
It’s very normal to see somebody grip a pull up bar and proceed to jerk themselves up with little to no preparation prior to their first rep. This is a problem because at this point, you’re just hanging from tendons and ligaments; there’s no preset tension on the target muscle, which will both diminish the quality of the exercise and cause undue stress to the joints — namely the shoulder complex.
One subtle cue that can save your shoulders is to try to drive your shoulder blades downwards after you’ve gripped the bar and before your first pull up or chin up. This is known as a scapular pull up and it’s a very beneficial activation exercise to maximize the leverage of the muscle and minimize the stress on the joints.
As someone who has spent more time than I’d like to admit on the pull up bar, flailing around like a fish out of water in my initial struggle to complete even a single unassisted rep, I can confidently say that I’ve made every single one of these mistakes on my path towards “pull up proficiency”, and taking the time to address them makes a big difference in your ability to make serious progress with one of the absolute best upper body exercises you can be doing.
Keep full body tension, minimize the momentum, engage the lats & upper back, and incorporate the “scap” pull up — four easy tips to improve your pull up.
Thanks for reading! Have a question? Want something covered in a future article? Let me know in the comments!
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