I’ve always liked pull-ups, partly out of spite. In the fitness world, there’s a popular saying that women can’t do them, and I don’t like being told what I can’t do, especially if the reason is my gender. As a teenager, she pushed lawn mowers and hauled wheelbarrows of rocks just to prove that just because she was a girl didn’t mean she was weak.
I love how I feel doing pull-ups: strong, powerful. There is nothing like the feeling of lifting your own body. The pull-ups, or pull ups, they are also beautiful for their simplicity. You don’t need more than a fixed bar and activate at least 12 muscles, from the latissimus dorsi to the glutes. Experts claim that this exercise strengthens the upper body, shoulder mobility and core stability, and also helps improve coordination.
Pulling up is “a wonderful feeling,” described Chilasa King, a weightlifter and trainer at LiftedMBK in New York. “It is a simple exercise that is very difficult to do.”
Therein lies the paradox of pull-ups: they are simple but difficult, and many of the people who think they can’t do one could, if they put the effort and time into it.
It’s quite possible for anyone to pull up a pull-up if they train for it, said Meghan Callaway, a fitness trainer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and creator of the Ultimate Pull-Up Program. Most people who fail to do pull-ups face complications not from lack of physical ability, but from inadequate training, she said. The trick is to focus on the correct technique and to approach the training with patience and intention.
focus on the form
The first thing to understand is that pull-ups are a full-body exercise. “A lot of people think that the pull-up only involves the upper body, and they overlook what happens from the chest down,” Callaway said. Your body should be stiff, not loose. Which would be easier to move, a stiff board or a limp sandbag of the same weight? Callaway asked. If your core, hips, and lower body are tight, it’s much easier to lift them than if you let them loose as a deadlift. (Kip pull-ups, in which you swing your legs for momentum, are a different exercise, she explained.)
Take the bar and spread your hands a little outside the width of your shoulders, palms facing forward. (If you turn your palms toward you, you’d be doing a pull-up, or chin up, which is a different and, according to some people, easier exercise). Your body should be in a relatively straight line with your feet angled slightly in front of your body so that you form a very small arch. It’s best if you can reach the bar while standing on your toes, but if you’re doing the pull-ups in a doorway, you can bend your knees and bring your feet behind you, Callaway explained.
To start the pull-up, draw your shoulder blades toward your spine (think of it as the opposite of shrugging) and at the same time lower your elbows toward your ribs. Keep your glutes and abs firm. As you go up, don’t lift your chin, Callaway said, instead keep your chin down, neck in a neutral position, and gaze straight ahead.
practice the components
Not everyone manages to do a pull-up on the first try. Even before making a pull up complete, you can break the movement down into its components and train to master each one. Use these four exercises to get stronger and perfect the fundamental parts of the pull-up movement.
hang from the bar
The first step is learning to hang in a rigid position, rather than limp. King has beginners practice hanging from the bar, abs and glutes engaged so the body is solid as a board, and holding for 30 to 45 seconds.
This is one way to practice the opening movement of the pull-up. Start by hanging from a bar, then engage your upper and mid back muscles to move your shoulder blades toward your spine. As you do this, you will feel yourself lift a bit. Hold this raised position for a moment, then slowly lower back to the starting position. Don’t bend your elbows. Your arms should be straight throughout the movement.
Start in the high chin-up position with your head above the bar (you can use a chair to get there if you need to), then slowly lower yourself to a hanging position in a fluid, controlled motion.
This exercise strengthens the back and improves shoulder mobility. Get under a bar as if you were going to do a strength exercise lying down. But instead of lying on a bench, stand up and hang from the bar with your heels on the ground. Keep your body in a straight, rigid line, then pull your body toward the bar, starting the movement with your back muscles, rather than your arms. Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled movement. Imagine your shoulder blades moving away from your spine and around your rib cage.
Take your time
“Be patient,” King recommended. Achieving your first pull-up “takes time and a lot of perseverance; It doesn’t happen overnight.” Consistency is crucial, he said: “There are no shortcuts. You must train, week after week and month after month.”
For Casey Johnston, science and health writer and author of The Weightlifting Guide Liftoff: Couch to Barbell, pull-ups were just one part of a larger journey to get stronger. He lifted weights for a year or so before finally lifting one, but it was worth it for the satisfaction of having mastered this supreme display of strength. “No one is forced to do pull-ups,” he says. “I have long arms and I’m relatively big, and both are challenging.”
It’s true that pull-ups are easier for some people than others. “In general, as mass increases, the strength-to-weight ratio is lower,” said Greg Nuckols, founder of StrongerByScience.com and a weightlifter who has held three world records. A tall person is likely to have more mass to lift than a shorter person, even if their physical build is similar. Some people may never get a pull-up no matter how hard they try, and others just decide it’s not worth it.
I will never break a pull-up record with my long arms and legs and above average height. But I do have a few advantages: good upper-body strength from years of cross-country skiing, and a few extra pounds from middle age. I still have to train to do good pull-ups, but the reward is too satisfying.
“Lifting your body over something — a bar, a fence, a wall — makes you feel like a superhero,” Callaway said. Not only that, she added, but it also makes the railings in the park close to home that much more fun.
Christie Aschwanden is a writer living in western Colorado and is the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.