Conquering the Pull-up

The simplest and most versatile piece of exercise equipment you can own is the humble pull-up bar. The pull-up is the logical home exercise for working your lats as well as most of the rest of your body including your arms, back, abs and glutes.

Pull-ups with a hollow back will really work the lats. This means having your shoulders slightly hunched and the chest caved in. Look straight ahead and touch your neck to the bar to ensure you are doing clean reps. Lower yourself slowly and allow your arms to completely straighten before performing another rep.


If you’re able to perform this movement then have at it, but many people find this difficult. During pull-ups, you have to move your entire body weight. This means that every extra kilo you are carrying around your midsection has to be lifted as well. You can’t cheat with pull-ups the way you can with weight lifting. An overweight person can still lift iron, but pulling your own body means you have to stay in reasonable shape. This makes pull-ups the better choice for fitness, but you may have to diet a little while you’re at it.

If you can’t perform a proper pull-up, start with static holds. This just means gripping the bar and hanging. Brace your shoulders, so it isn’t too easy, and try to hold for ten seconds. Work up to thirty seconds. When you can handle that, try holding the top position with your chin over the bar. If you can hold the top position for thirty seconds, try some negatives. This means getting into the top position, by jumping up or stepping off a chair, and then slowly lowering yourself. Try to pause and hold for five seconds every few inches until you lower yourself all the way to the bottom straight-arm position. You will be able to perform full reps very quickly after this kind of training.

Once you can do a few pull-ups you can continue improving using the same principles. The body will adapt best to work done in a specific and progressive manner. This means doing the same work while making it more difficult over time. Try to do several sets of pull ups a few times a week. When you feel comfortable with your present number of reps, try to increase them. Getting better means going from hard to easy, and then to hard again, repeating this process over and over.


Don’t try to rush ahead too quickly, always strive for perfect quality. A few reps performed slowly with good form are going to increase your strength more than a high number of fast, sloppy reps. Do only half the reps you are capable of in a given set so that you work on the quality of each rep without becoming fatigued. When you can do a given number of reps easily, say ten, then you can move up to a more difficult exercise.


Some variations you can try are wide-grip pull-ups or close-grip pull-ups. When these become easy, try archer pull-ups where you start with a wide grip and then pull up on only one side before lowering and pulling up on the other side. When these become easy, try holding the bar with one hand while the other hand grips your wrist and do a pseudo one-arm pull-up. If these are no sweat for you then it’s time to work on the elite exercise, the one-arm pull-up. Remember, you can apply static holds and negatives with any of these variations until you can perform full reps.


Finally, aim to perform a pull-up session three or more times per week. Some people prefer to do multiple sessions in a day, by keeping the reps low, while other people prefer to do only one exhausting session a few times a week. Experiment and see what works best for you. And don’t be worried about taking rest days, even Olympic athletes rest and recover.


The pull-up is one of the best and most versatile exercises you can do. It is well worth your time to make it a part of your routine.