by David Sautter
The pull-up is an oldie but a goodie. It has been used since primitive times when we had to pull ourselves up on a tree branch to escape the pursuing lion or bear. It is an all-in-one type of movement and no workout plan should leave home without it. When done properly, the pull-up activates multiple muscle groups while allowing you to conquer your own body weight. Let’s review the form, muscle activation and types of this muscle building classic.
No matter what site you’re on or what magazine you’re reading, fitness gurus always mention proper form. You hear it so much and wonder why it’s still being harped on. That’s because people are still violating the number one rule in weight lifting. Look over at the bench press and, without fail, there will be a guy practicing his two-step and arm swings while holding a loaded barbell above his face. (Think Carlton from Fresh Prince. There ya go. Now ya’ got it.) Notice how that guy will never be seen by the free weights again? You can now locate this individual by the machines still wearing his “Go Big or Go Home” t-shirt. Case in point: Get the form down.
Look at this guy’s face and the huge smile he is sporting. (Yes. That’s what a smile looks like while doing a pull-up.) This picture demonstrates two important things: proper form and muscle activation. For now, let’s stick to the form. Before you jump up to the bar, make sure you warm-up and stretch. Jogging, light plyometrics, and boxing are all great ways of warming up. Afterward, stretch for 10-15 minutes, focusing on your upper body. Once you’re loose and limber, follow these steps:
- Approach the bar
- Wrap hands around the bar and pull yourself straight up
- Allow your feet to dangle (You can bend your knees and stack your feet as well)
- Focus the tension on the lats (See picture above)
- Once your chest approaches the bar, slowly lower yourself back down
- Do not lock out your elbows (Keep them bent)
- From starting position, repeat the movement
*Note- If you’re not able to perform a pull-up on your own, keep reading. I talk about Assisted Pull-ups below.*
Check out the picture above again to see that this one move activates the following: (I’ll keep it simple)
- Lats (Back)
- Pecs (Chest)
- Triceps and biceps (Arms)
- Abdominals (Core) (I know the picture doesn’t show it, but as you are performing the movement, your core is engaged to keep you stable. If you’re swinging around like a third grader on a jungle gym then you’re doing it wrong.)
Now let’s review the different types of pull-ups:
1.) Assisted Pull-ups
For those of you who aren’t able to perform a pull-up with your own body weight (Don’t worry, you’ll get there) then you can choose to utilize some assistance in the form of a chair, box, or partner. Make sure that you transfer some, not all, of your weight to the object to allow you to pull yourself up. Most gyms have a pull-up machine which will offset the weight to allow you to pull yourself up. Don’t be too generous. You need to struggle to succeed. Don’t sacrifice form though.
2.) Wide Grip Pull-ups
Difficulty level increases big time. This slight hand movement focuses more tension on the lats. Position your hands wider than shoulder width. Heavily recommended for those of you looking to build that wide back look.
3.) Close Grip Pull-ups
Close grip pull-ups still work the same amount of muscles but the emphasis is on the lower back. Simply slide your hands close together. Not touching but closer than shoulder width.
4.) Weighted Pull-ups
For those who have mastered the pull-up and need the extra weight to continue building up the tower that is your back. There is a special belt that allows you to add weight plates to a chain. This is sold in most fitness stores. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hold a dumbbell between your feet for extra weight.
No discussion on pull-ups would be complete without the mention of chin-ups. Chin-ups work the same muscles as the standard pull-up; however, the emphasis is heavily shifted to your biceps. Which makes this a great movement for the same day you are exercising your arms.
If a doctrine of manliness was created then the ability to perform pull-ups would be between growing a beard and throwing a baseball. If you aren’t able to perform one yet without assistance, don’t drive yourself nuts. Keep at it and be faithful to yourself. You’ll get there one pull-up at a time. Just don’t over do it on the bronzer once your back is chiseled.