Pull ups – the most underrated back exercise

Pull ups - the most underrated back exercise

Remember pull ups? You know that exercise where you grab the monkey bar and pull yourself up? Yeah, that one, the one soldiers do. Well, it’s time to stop ignoring them and include them into your upper body workout routine.


In this age of fancy equipment and well thought out gym workouts, people often forget the basic, bodyweight movements that people used to do for centuries before the first gym was ever built. And guess what? They were also big, healthy, strong and athletic. In this age of cables and machines, treadmills, and protein shakes, people tend to underappreciate the beauty of the whole body movement. If you really want to impress the people around you – do this exercise: a set of 20 pull ups. It’s guaranteed to make their jaws hit the floor. Once being regarded as THE exercise, it has slowly been replaced by the pulldowns and other machine workouts. Luckily, thanks to the internet, it started gaining momentum with extremely popular Callisthenic Movement that started in local outdoor recreational parks and aimed to restore the “cool factor” of the pull ups. Well, besides having some extremely cool looking variations, pull ups are a fantastic exercise to build a strong and thick back as well as arms and grip strength, and a great way to improve your overall conditioning.

Pull ups are a fantastic measure of your overall physical ability, and whether you are training to enter the NFL, a bodybuilding competition, or just to get in better shape you should do them. Here is why you should include this old school exercise into your workout routines.

First, of all, pull ups require little to no equipment. If you have access to any kind of ledge, you can do them. You can find bars everywhere, or you can just use a tree branch. The pull-up works almost every “pulling” muscle in the upperbody.  You don’t have time to hit the gym? Great, hang on the bar and do a couple of sets of pull ups.

See, the reason why pull ups are so good is that your whole upper body needs to work in order to execute them. They will work your arms, upper back, lower back, forearms, grip strength and abs, among others. The beauty of pull ups lies in their simplicity. And as great Henry David Thoreau once said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”


You can do pull ups anywhere
You can do pull ups anywhere


How to do your first pull up?

If you can’t do a single pull up, it can mean two things – you are either overweight or simply weak (possibly the mixture of both). If you are overweight, it would be best for you to cut some of that weight, as being too overweight might put too much stress on your muscles and joints. Once you deal with excess baggage, you can start working out on your first pull up. The pulldown machine is not on the same level as the classic pullup but if you are a novice this is a good way to build up strength and prepare the correct muscles for the true pull ups if you have pulldown machine available. After you spend a few weeks increasing strength on pulldowns there are numerous ways you can practice for your first pull up, but your best bet would be to start with negatives. To perform the negative portion of a pull up simply stand on a small platform or jump and grab the bar (the pull is the harder part of the pull up), and then slowly lower yourself down. Try to lower yourself as slowly as possible. After a couple of weeks, you should notice the increase in strength. At this point, you can start doing assisted pull ups to speed the process. If you have exercise partner or personal trainer, ask them to hold your legs for you while you keep them bent. It will distribute a significant amount of your weight to them, making the exercise significantly easier. After a while, you should be fairly comfortable with negatives and assisted pull ups, meaning that you are ready to do your first pull up. At this point, you shouldn’t be too concerned with the form, as you still lack the strength to do them properly. Just hang yourself on the bar, grip it firmly and pull yourself up while keeping your back as straight as possible. If you can’t touch the bar with your chin, that’s perfectly fine, you’ll be doing it in no time. Continue doing them for as long as it takes to do a couple of them in a single set. At this point, you will be comfortable doing them, and that means it’s time to work on the form.


Women tend to have less upper body strength than men but it doesn’t mean pull-ups are out of their reach.  It may just take some extra time to build up the proper strength.  Don’t think it isn’t possible.  With a little patience and hard work you can get there.


Pull ups are for everyone
Pull ups are for everyone


How to execute your first PROPER pull up?

You’d be surprised by how many people fail to do proper pull ups. If you have just started doing them, it’s perfectly normal that you swing a lot or kip a lot, but as soon as you build up enough strength, you should start paying attention to the form, as doing it incorrectly decreases its effectiveness and increases the chance of injury. What you want to do is to hang yourself from the bar (the so-called dead hang position) and start lifting yourself up. Your core should be tight, and your legs locked and straight or bent if you are too tall. Slowly pull yourself up in a controlled manner, touching the bar with your chin. Pull up in a manner that your elbows are going towards your ribs. When lowering yourself, keep the same controlled form and do it rather slowly. Keep lowering until your arms are almost straight, and you have a full repetition. Always remember to keep a good posture and avoid swinging at all costs.  You are trying to work your muscles, not simply swing up to a bar to get reps with poor form.


At this point, it’s pretty much straightforward. Include pull ups into your workout routines and do them regularly. A nice way to become proficient in pull ups is to install a pull up bar in your door frame. They are relatively cheap, and you can gain a lot of strength by practicing the “grease the groove” method. Whenever you pass through the door with a pull up bar installed, do a small quick set of pull ups. It won’t put a lot of stress on your body, but you’ll notice a lot of improvement in a relatively short period. After some time, you should be doing sets of proper pull ups without any problem. At this point, they slowly lose their effectiveness, and you will have to find a way to challenge yourself further. You can do L-sit pull ups to further challenge your core or you can start working towards harder pull ups variations, such as the muscle up (possibly the coolest looking exercise, and surely one of the most challenging). If you just want to continue doing regular pull ups, start putting some extra weight by adding the weight belt. Your progress is limited only by your imagination, and this is what makes pull ups so appealing.