Pull-up tips around the Interwebz run the gamut from totally asinine to absolutely legit.
And here in Part 2 of my pull-up series, I’m detailing the technique and finer points of getting your chin over the bar for the first time.
If you haven’t already, go back and read this first…How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1. It covers key drills to practice for learning to hold a hollow body position.
And be on the lookout for Part 3 which will discuss modifications and accessory work to help you get your first pull-up.
I said this in Part 1, but it bears repeating: Anyone can do ugly pull-ups with broken body positions. They’re not physically impossible. In fact, thousands and thousands of horrible pull-ups are performed every day around the world.
Does an ugly pull-up still work muscles? Sure. Can you build strength with ugly pull-ups? Yep.
But if you’re a novice who’s working on her first successful chin-over-bar moment, dialing in your technique with these pull-up tips will make it more efficient and therefore, easier.
And, it’ll keep your joints moving through the safest ranges of motion so you stay injury-free. After all, there’s no sense in hurting yourself in the process and having to sideline your efforts.
So, aim for pretty movement. For good technique.
And please, if you see a website that offers pull-up tips with half naked women, click away. Nobody has time for that shit. (Screenshot from an article written by a guy. Not hating on the women themselves, but most chicks reading that won’t relate to these body types…or worse, they’ll think they need to weigh 115-pounds and get extremely lean to even get a pull-up. Plus, that mega-wide grip and crossed legs ain’t helping beginners get their first pull-up. Fitness writers, do better.)
Let’s break this down piece by piece.
Pull-Up Tips & Techniques*
*As always, don’t do anything that feels gross in your body or causes pain. You know yourself best.
It may seem obvious, but there’s only one point of body contact for a pull-up – your hands – so grip and hand width become critical.
Let’s start with hand position.
Your palms can face toward your body in what’s an underhand, supinated, or chin-up grip.
In a chin-up grip, you can recruit more biceps – thus requiring less lat involvement – as you pull, making the movement a bit easier. If you’re still working toward your first pull-up, I recommend starting with this narrow grip. You can gradually scoot your hands outward as you get stronger.
Or, your hands can face away from your body. That’s usually called an overhand, pronated, or pull-up grip.
This grip requires more lat – latissimus dorsi – involvement. Those are the wide sweeping muscles that fan across your mid-back and attach up at the head of your upper arm bone, the humerus.
Many novices don’t know how to activate the lats…or the development isn’t quite there, so this type of grip is often more challenging for your first pull-up.
You can also mix your grip, one hand over and one under. I’m not going to cover that one as I find it slightly uncomfortable…but it may be an option for you as you progress.
Knuckles On Top
Enter one of the most underutilized pull-up tips ever. (It’s something I learned from gymnastics dynamo Carl Paoli.)
The difference “knuckles on top” can make in your pull-ups is huge. Yet, it’s something people often wanna argue about. I think that’s because they don’t understand physics.
Here’s the take-away if you want to skip to the next section:
Getting your knuckles ON TOP of the bar makes pull-ups easier.
Now, let’s pick this apart if you want to know why.
In the photo below, my knuckles – where my fingers meet my palm – are on top of the bar. I also have my thumb wrapped around the bar and over my index finger which strengthens my grip.**
This actually shortens the lever arm of the movement, helping me externally rotate my shoulder joint…
…and that allows me to more easily generate torque and initiate the movement by pulling my shoulder blades together and down.
It’s also far easier to hold a hollow body position when my knuckles are on top. Click here for Part 1 where I explain the hollow body.
**You may not be able to wrap your thumb around if the bar is fat and your hands are small. If that’s the case, you can still get your knuckles on top instead of hanging from your fingers. If the bar is standard diameter and your hands average, there’s no excuse.
Compare that to the photo below. Here, I’m hanging from my fingers. It essentially lengthens the lever arm and decreases the torque in my shoulders, which makes the movement harder to initiate.
If you don’t believe me, give it a try for yourself. Hang from the bar with your knuckles on top. Then hang from your fingers. Which is harder and feels more taxing? Which one are you able to maintain more body tension with?
Are fingertip pull-ups a thing? Yes. They’re an advanced technique. Remember, this tutorial is for novices working on their first pull-ups.
Now let’s look at some pull-up tips related to grip width on the bar.
As a general rule, narrow hand grip is easier than wide. The wider you place your hands, the more challenging it will be.
If you’re working on your first pull-up, start with a narrow grip and slowly increase the width of your hands.
Narrow, chin-up grip
Let’s go back to the chin-up or supinated grip. Start with narrow hands, very close together. Gradually widen your hands as you gain strength. Once you reach a neutral grip – arms straight above your head – flip your hands to a pull-up or pronated grip.
Neutral pull-up grip
Now, I’ve widened my hands so my arms are straight up and down, no angle. Note I’ve flipped my hands over. My knuckles are over the bar, and my thumb is wrapped around.
From this position, I can begin to work on engaging more lat – specifically the lower part of the muscle – which takes some emphasis off my biceps. Once you gain proficiency here, you can widen your hands even more.
Wide pull-up grip
Now I’ve widened my hands past neutral which you can see from the red line. I could go even wider…
For beginners, this wider grip is hard because it requires more upper lat strength. If you’re keen and understand physics, you might conclude this grip would make for an easier pull-up because it shortens the range of motion. Simply put, I’m not hanging as far from the bar.
And while that’s true, the shortened range comes at a steep price: needing super strong lats, something beginners don’t often have. As you can see, there’s a huge trade-off.
If you’re working toward your first pull-up, don’t emphasize this grip until you’ve mastered the neutral grip. Or, save this grip for static holds or negatives. (More on those in Part 3.)
Wide-grip pull-ups are definitely cool and make your back muscles look badass, but they’re not ideal for beginners.
To round out our pull-up tips and techniques for efficiency, let’s talk body position.
If you want to review the basics of a hollow body position and how to scale it, see How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1.
Just like a hollow hold or hollow rock, having a tight body with plenty of tension makes for efficient, pretty, less difficult pull-ups. If your meatsuit is floppy or you’re broken at the knees, hips, or neck, your body will feel heavier.
Again, you can do a pull-up that way. But as a novice, it’s going to be harder. And just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Let’s break down this body position on the bar.
1) Neutral grip. Knuckles on top of the bar. Thumbs wrapped around the bar and over my index fingers. (If it’s a fat bar and you can’t wrap your thumbs around, fine. But get those knuckles on top!) Deep breath, butt squeezed, and trunk braced. Neck neutral, feet pointed, and legs glued together.
2) Here, I’ve begun to pull. Yes, I’m using my arm muscles, but what most beginners miss is that I’m initiating the pull by knitting my shoulder blades (scapulae) together and pulling them down. Part 3 will explain how to begin training this movement. My upper body naturally leans back a little bit here.
3) Still pulling, and I’m keeping my elbows as close to my body as possible. Note how my upper body continues to go back slightly as my feet naturally go forward to counterbalance my body. Toes still pointed. Butt still squeezed like I’ve got a $100 bill between my cheeks. That protects my lower back from hyperextension.
I see way too many loose lower bodies from pull-up novices. You’ve got a ton of mass below the waist. Tighten it up!
4) Elbows close. Body in a really solid plank or hollow position. Chin neutral. No breaking at the neck…or hips…or knees.
5) Chin over, body still hollow. Elbows close in.
Here’s what it looks like all together:
Here’s another one (with negatives…that’s coming in Part 3):
Watch it a few times. Really pick out the points I detailed in the steps above. Can you see them? Observing someone else do pull-ups and paying close attention activates mirror neurons in your brain for the pull-up itself. Sounds like witchcraft, but it’s not.
(So if you’re gonna fire up those mirror neurons, watch someone who’s doing it right!)
Following these key pull-up tips will help you not only do a better, more efficient first pull-up…
…but also understand it. When you understand why, you can better troubleshoot your own learning process.
Part 2 covered the following:
- Grip position – underhand/supinated/chin-up vs. overhand/pronated/pull-up vs. mixed
- Grip width – narrow/chin-up vs. neutral vs. wide
- Knuckle position – on top of the bar, thumbs wrapped around the bar preferably
- Body position – hollow body, tension, elbows in
All these pull-ups tips play into the mechanics of getting your first few pull-ups with the least amount of struggle.
Remember to take a look back at How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 for drills to help build hollow body strength. And stay tuned for Part 3 where I’ll go over other pull-up accessory work and variations to mix into your routine.