Pull-ups have long been used as a measure of fitness and upper-body strength. From those gruelling middle-school gym tests (remember ParticipAction?) to military training, pull-ups are tough enough to humble even the most dedicated gym buff. It doesn’t matter if you bike 80K per day and can hold a plank for ten minutes; pull-ups will still be hard. If the squat is the King of Exercise, as many fitness experts agree, pull-ups rival planks for the title of Queen. Here’s why:
Pull-ups are known in fitness terms as a multi-joint compound exercise; they strengthen many muscles in the trunk and upper body, including —
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Biceps Brachii
- Pectoralis Major
- Erector Spinae
- External Obliques
That’s a whole lot of muscles targeted in one exercise! Which means a lot of bang for your workout buck. These are important for athletes playing sports such as baseball, and develop the musculature of the back, an important but often neglected part of the body. (Plus, they are super show-off-worthy in the gym or at the playground!)
Pull-ups can be done with an overhand grip (palms facing away from the body) or an underhand grip (also called Chin Ups). Both are great, and work many of the same muscles, albeit in different ways.
We women are often told we don’t have enough strength to do pull-ups, but I’m here to tell you that with practice and patience it is absolutely possible for us to master them.
People who have strong upper bodies, shorter arms and lower body fat will generally have an easier time doing pull-ups, regardless of gender. Women generally have higher body fat and less lean muscle than men, but those levels can be altered with proper training, too.
Here are a few steps to learning a pull-up. This version uses an underhand grip and is sometimes thought to be a bit easier to learn. Remember, you’ll need to grip the bar tightly, which can eventually lead to calluses. Personally, I like having tough hands, but if you prefer yours soft and smooth use weight lifting gloves!
- Hold the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing your torso), slightly closer than shoulder width.
- Maintain a neutral torso, activate your core and draw your shoulder blades down. This is your starting position.
- On an exhale, pull yourself up until your elbows are at the sides of your body. Focus on using your biceps and back muscles in order to perform the movement. Keep your elbows close to your body.
- Squeeze your biceps in the contracted position, then inhale as you slowly lower yourself back to the starting position until your arms are fully extended.
- Repeat as many times as possible in good form!
Learn on a machine: Develop the necessary strength using a pull-up assist machine if one is available where you work out.
Stay grounded: Try keeping one foot on a platform and maintaining as little weight on that leg as possible
Recruit a friend: Have an experienced spotter support your legs for you.
Just hang out: Simply hanging by your arms can help develop the grip strength needed to complete a pull up. Once you can hang there for a while, try swinging back and forth — monkey noises optional!