Compound exercises 101: Pull-ups and chin-ups

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“How many pull-ups can you do?”

This question is most often met with silence. Nobody does pull-ups. They are among the most neglected exercises in commercial gyms. And the reason is this: pull-ups are hard. Very hard. Not even their slightly easier cousin the chin-up finds its way into many fitness routines. In my 10+ years of going to gyms, I can remember exactly one person who I saw do pull-ups with good form as part of his regular workout.

That’s why when you can do them, it is a true testament of your strength and endurance and a feat to be proud of. Pull-ups are also among the best exercises for upper body strength. There is a reason that professional groups whose job it is to be physically fit, such as firefighters, policemen, and the marines, make them part of their screening test for new candidates.

Before I signed up for a gym over the winter, I worked out outdoors a lot (the gym is everywhere, remember?) Because there wasn’t too many choices in the park, I did a lot of pull-ups. Well, “a lot” is a lie. Let’s say I did them “often”. Because it took me a long while to work up to doing more than a handful.

Because of this emasculating experience, it is now one of my goals is to master this exercise. If you want to give it a shot as well, here’s why and how to do it.

The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups

For those who don’t know, let me quickly explain the difference between the two exercises. Mechanically the two are in principle the same: You find something you can hang yourself from with both hands and then pull your own body weight up until clearing the height of your hands.

The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is in the grip. Pull-ups use an overhand grip, chin-ups are done with an underhand grip. Overhand means your palms are facing away from you during the exercise, underhand is the opposite with the palms of your hand facing toward you. The two grips emphasize other muscles and therefore make for a different difficulty level.

What pull-ups can do for you

KlimmzügeThe exercises basically trains your whole upper body with an emphasis on your arms and back. The back is a part of the body that is often omitted in training. Most people like to concentrate on what my physiotherapist once referred to as “beach muscles”.

However, back training is important. Not only for muscular balance to develop a counterweight to the front muscles developed during lifting (your shoulder joints will thank you), but also for overall stability and good posture.

Especially in our times, where most of us are “desk warriors” who spend the majority of their days hunched in front of a computer screen, is it important to protect your spine by surrounding it with strong muscles.

Plus if you get better at pull-ups and chin-ups, it will also help you get stronger with the opposite movements such as overhead press and bench press. In addition to that they will improve your grip strength and therefore help with any sport which involves gripping, grappling and pulling such as MMA and rock climbing.

Pull-ups are also good news for everyone working on their “gun show” as they directly target your biceps. Forget about curls (there is a saying: “If you can’t complete at least 10 chinups, you have no business doing arm curls”). Show me someone who can do 20 pull-ups and 20 chin-ups and there is no way his t-shirts aren’t tight around the arm area.

How to do a proper pull-up

As already mentioned, there are two different ways of doing this exercise: as a pull-up or as a chin-up The ladder emphasizes the bicep more than using an overhand grip and is therefore easier to perform in the beginning.

One of the disadvantages is that pull-ups are one exercise that definitely needs equipment. You need something to hang from. But don’t let that turn into an excuse.

If you are a gym member, there should be pull-up bars everywhere in your fitness club (and since nobody does this exercise, they are usually empty). Otherwise you might find them on playgrounds, public workout areas, or maybe a strong beam in your home. The gym is friggin’ everywhere. Just keep your eyes open. Alternatively there are contraptions for inside your door or to hang onto a wall, like this one and this one (affiliate links).

So without further ado, I give you the pull-up:

  1. Grab a bar slightly wider than shoulder width with your hands facing away from you.
  2. Hang all the way down. Your elbows will be straight, your chest up, eyes trained on the bar, shoulders back and tight.
  3. Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, pause slightly.
  4. Lower yourself in a controlled movement all the way back down.
  5. Done, you just did one pull-up. Now rinse and repeat.

Side note for big arms

If you want to work on your guns, try close-grip chin ups. That means you do the pull-up with your hands facing towards you and planting them very close to each other. If you can get to a point where you do three sets of 12 of these babies, you will need to buy wider t-shirts.

Pull-Up – the fine print

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  • Starting position: Start in a dead hang, meaning you hang all the way down as far as possible WITHOUT letting your shoulders loose so that they go up to your ears. That way your whole body weight will hang on your shoulder joint and the surrounding ligaments. Not a good idea.
  • During the pulling phase: Keep your eyes focused on the bar and pull yourself towards it. Drive your elbows toward the floor. Squeeze the bar tight to involve more muscle fibers. Keep your body neutral. Don’t swing your hips to generate momentum (using momentum is the main reason most people don’t get stronger). Bend your legs and cross your feet.
  • Clearing the bar: Keep your head in a neutral position. Don’t extend your neck or lift your chin in order to get it over the bar. You might pinch a nerve or cut off muscular strength. Plus you don’t want to cheat yourself. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it. It just means you have to work more.

As always: Rather do a few slow repetitions (or just one) with good technique than forcing more fast once with lousy form. First learn the technique, then up the difficulty. Enjoy!

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing pull-ups? Are you stuck? What is your experience? Tell me about it in the comments.

Bilder: Tyler Bolken/Flickr, David Shankbone/Flickr, Okko Pyykkö/Flickr

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