Although it could be argued that the deadlift is the ultimate back builder, I would definitely have to say the pull up is on a par for developing strength, hypertrophy and shoulder health. Show me a guy who can do multiple sets of 10 plus reps on pull ups and you’ll also show me a guy with a wide, thick, muscular back. Barbells without a shadow of doubt build mass, but nothing screams athleticism quite as much as being a master of controlling your own body weight.
The Pull Up: What to do and what not to do
The pull up, or chin up (depending on your grip preference) is a fantastic exercise. This being said, an exercise is only as good as it’s execution. If you don’t do it correctly, it’s benefits are impaired. Before I go into my top 5 tips for pull up technique and progression, lets first establish what a good pull up entails.
A correct pull-up starts with the arms fully lengthened and the shoulder blades elevated. The lats are fully stretched and your body is hanging from the bar. You contract the back muscles lifting yourself up until your sternum touches the bar and your shoulder blades are fully retracted. This is the end range of the movement. From start to finish, this would count as 1 repetition. The best way to progress is to do things properly. If you execute all your reps like this, with no partials or swinging momentum, you will reap all the vast rewards the pull up has to offer.
Now for the cues.
1. Breathe, brace and inflate first
So, you may notice that the “brace, inflate” cue had featured throughout all of the compound lifting cues. This has been done intentionally as you can’t master weight training unless you master your core. By breathing into the abdominals, tensing, then inflating, you are signaling to your spine that it’s safe to create more tension. The more tension you can create the more strength you can produce. Rather than just thinking “I need strong arms to pull myself up” think “I need a strong body”. The added bonus of this is that with time, you’ll see a lot of abdominal development as well. Guys who can do pull ups for fun usually sport a rippling 6 pack as well. In my opinion the pull-up is a very underrated core developer.
2. Think “Lats” for the first half of the movement
If you’re unfamiliar with the Lats they are a huge muscle on your back. They start at the top of the pelvis and lower back and insert into the upper arm. To maximally stretch them, you’d need to put your arms directly above your head and hang from somewhere (like the start of a pull up). I like to cue the initial movement and engage the lats first (after bracing of course) and use these muscles to break inertia. By doing so, you will be maximising lat development and adding to the width of your back. When starting the movement think, “am I initiating the pull with my back muscles”.
3. Think “Biceps” for the second half of the movement
Once you have used your lats to get to half way, the arm flexors will take over the movement to help you fully reach the top of the bar. Make sure you lean back, pushing your sternum to the ceiling during this portion, this will prevent your shoulders from rounding. By thinking “squeeze the biceps” during the top half of the movement, you’ll naturally bring your shoulders closer to your hands. This makes for a cleaner finish and targets all the correct muscles. Doing it in this manner may sacrifice weight or reps, but it will be worth it in the long run.
4. Keep the head back and think “long spine”
The strength of a movement is dictated by your ability to keep the spine in a strong position. This is just as true for the upper spine as it is for the lower. A common issue I see when people do pull ups is going into rounded shoulder posture as they try to complete the movement. This is good for neither strength or joint health. Keeping your head back naturally elevates the sternum. This will allow the shoulder blades to retract more and therefore develop more mid back musculature. I like to think I have a piece of string attached to the crown of my head which is pulling my spine up making it as long as possible. This cue emphasises posture, technique and optimal spinal alignment.
5. Crush the handles
If I were to pick my top 3 features that make a strong, injury free athlete they would be; strong core, strong feet, strong grip. Grip strength potentiates your ability to gain strength and muscle. If you can white knuckle a barbell or handle, all your lifts will improve. It’s very common during pull-ups to find yourself fatiguing during the last rep or top half of the movement. Just when you think you don’t have any more left in the tank and can’t get another rep, squeeze the handles like your life depends on in. This procedure “jump starts” all the muscles along the chain, giving them that last little push to complete the rep.
Want to learn more about back building? Check out my other article in the mastering of the compound’s series: The Deadlift.