Increasing Strength: The Ultimate Pull-up Exercise Guide
A pull-up is one of the most fundamental strength- and muscle-building exercises. It is also one of the most difficult bodyweight exercises, but essential for developing upper body strength in athletes and clients. However, performing this exercise is not as easy as it might seem.
Factors such as fitness level, goals, and limitations influence a client’s ability to do such an exercise. If you consider the mechanics of the exercise, you understand that holding your body in a dead hang position is hard enough, let alone pulling up against gravity.
As a trainer, it is our job to lead clients to their goals. If doing more pull-ups is one of their goals, then you must understand what your clients want:
- To be able to do a pull-up.
- And then to do more pull-ups.
Simple right? Well, not necessarily. Especially when your client has trouble just hanging from a pull-up bar.
The good news is that there are various techniques other than attempting the pull-up over and over that you can use in your client’s program to help get them stronger for this movement.
What is a Pull-up?
First, let’s discuss what a pull-up is and how to instruct clients to perform the movement correctly. You perform a pull-up by hanging from a bar with an overhand or pronated grip, followed by pulling the body vertically up to the bar. This is a great way to measure strength to weight ratio as it is unique to each client.
To ensure clients perform the exercise with correct technique try implementing these verbal cues:
- Start by hanging from the bar. Pull your body and chin up towards the bar, initiating the movement with your lats. Continue to drive your elbows back and down towards your torso.
- While doing so, keep the spine neutral and core engaged to prevent unwanted swinging during the movement.
- Return to the starting position by extending your arms; lower your body down in a slow and controlled manner.
The pull-up is one of the best exercises due to its ability to target muscles from a different angle than normal. The multi-joint exercise is low impact and utilizes many upper body muscles at the same time, forcing the body to work as one.
What Muscles Does the Pull-up Use?
Pull-ups involve various muscle groups to efficiently perform each repetition. Let’s review a few:
The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in the upper body and plays a huge part in the pull-up. Due to the muscle covering the lower back and extending to the lower thoracic spine, its main responsibility in the pull-up is adduction.
All the muscle actions include adduction, extension, and internal rotation. Adduction is the most involved muscle action during a pull-up. As your client pulls the body upward, the elbows will track down towards the torso, causing the lats to move inward.
When this happens, the latissimus dorsi is performing adduction to help pull the humerus downward and almost behind the body. Then, when a client lowers their body down to the starting position, the latissimus dorsi helps the arms extend.
The rhomboids are another muscle found in the back underneath the trapezius. They are most responsible for allowing the shoulder blades to come together. An important aspect of the pull-up is the downward rotation of the scapula. The rhomboids stabilize the scapula so they can upwardly and downwardly rotate throughout the movement. When pulling the body up, the scapula rotates down. When returning to the starting position, it rotates up.
The deltoid muscle group consists of three parts: anterior, posterior, and lateral. The upper arm muscles’ role in a pull-up is adduction of the arms. The part most responsible for adduction of the arms is the posterior deltoid. The anterior and lateral deltoid muscles act as antagonists to this movement.
Adduction occurs as the arm moves towards the torso or to the side of the body. This happens during the upward phase of the exercise.
Lastly, the biceps brachii is a muscle on the upper arm that helps flex the arm. As you pull the body up, your arm must flex at the elbow. Both the biceps and latissimus dorsi work in parallel to lift the body.
If your clients are doing a chin-up or supinated pull-up, then the biceps will have a higher activation rate. This is because the biceps main function is supination of the forearm.
Best Techniques to Improve Pull-Up Strength
Now that we know about the basics of a pull-up and the main muscles involved, let’s implement the following exercises and techniques into your client’s program.
How to: Instruct your client to hang from an overhead pull-up bar using an overhand grip. Make sure their feet cannot reach the ground and have them hold this position as long as possible. They must keep the arms straight the entire set and avoid swaying the body.
Why: This exercise targets the upper back, shoulders, core, and grip strength—all vital components of the pull-up.
How to: There are various assisted pull-up techniques you can have clients perform. One is a machine-assisted pull-up that supports the body with a knee platform. Adding weight to the machine helps reduce the amount of bodyweight the client needs to pull. Have your client start by placing their knees on the padded platform and allow the machine to assist them through the motion. Share this video with clients to help them visually see the form of the machine-assisted pull-up.
A similar technique is assisted pull-ups with a resistance band. The client will attach a band either to the pull-up bar or J-hooks and place their knees or feet on the band. If the band is hanging vertically from the pull-up bar, then the thicker the band the more assistance. If the pull-up bar is attached to a rack and the band is attached horizontally to the J-hooks, then the higher and thicker the band, the more assistance they will have. Decrease the band strength and or height overtime until they build the strength to do a pull-up without assistance.
Lastly, negative pull-ups are another technique of semi-assisted movements. Instruct your client to stand on a box or bench high enough for them to grab the pull-bar. They will jump up into the top end position and then slowly lower the body down. The goal is to eccentrically train and strengthen the movement and muscles involved. Instruct the client to go as slowly as possible. At the bottom part of the pull-up, the client stands back onto the box and repeats.
Why: All these assisted pull-up variations allow the body to train the movement pattern of a pull-up. Over time this not only builds strength but also improves motor control to help them build up to doing it on their own.
How to: Your client will sit on the lat pulldown machine and grip the bar cable attachment. With an overhand grip, pull the elbows down and back while flexing the arm. Direct the bar all the way to the chest and slowly return to the starting position.
Why: This is a great exercise for targeting the lats and rhomboids while mirroring the same position and motion of a vertical pull-up.
How to: Sitting up straight on a seated cable row machine, grip a straight bar overhand. Once in position, have your client pull the bar towards their lower chest, driving the elbows back. Have them pull the bar all the way to the chest, squeezing the shoulder blades together. Slowly return to the starting position, fully extending the arms.
Why: By driving the elbows back and pulling the bar towards the chest, your client achieves an optimal contraction and activates the rhomboids and upper back muscles.
How to: Start with a neutral grip on two dumbbells located at shoulder height. Press them vertically above the head and lower them back down slowly. Work with a tempo of one second concentrically and four seconds eccentrically. Repeat the overhead presses maintaining a longer eccentric tempo.
Why: Emphasizing the negative portion of the movement mimics the lowering of the pull-up and strengthens the deltoids, trapezius, core and much more.
How to: Set a barbell on a supported J-hook rack at waist height. Instruct your client to hang under the bar with an overhand grip. Ensure they maintain a neutral spine and their core is engaged. Have them pull their chest to the bar moving the entire body as one unit. Monitor and correct any lagging body parts, like the glutes or hips.
Why: This exercise allows the client to be in a very similar position as a pull-up without being completely vertical and hanging. Have them practice fighting against gravity to emphasize shoulder, back, and biceps strength.
Hollow Holds Core
How to: Your client will lie flat on their back, arms and legs straight out away from the body. On your cue, they will raise their legs and arms off the ground. With the shoulder off the ground, they will now be in a v-position and hold for a set time.
Why: To perform pull-ups, you need core strength to help prevent swaying when hanging from the bar. This will help isometrically strengthen the core and transfer strength to the pull-up.
Full ROM Pull-Up Benefits
By helping clients achieve full range of motion pull-ups, you can expect them to experience endless benefits:
- Grip strength
- Improved back strength and posture
- Strength transfer to the squat, bench press and overhead press
- More weight loss
- Increased muscle mass
- Increased training capacity
Now that you have the ultimate guide on how to increase pull-up strength, you can better plan a workout program for yourself and your clients.
Want to learn even more and expand your knowledge in personal training? Check out ISSA’s Fitness Trainer Course!