If just hearing “pull-up” brings back memories of dangling from a bar in gym class, desperately trying to will your muscles to work, you’re not alone.
You might even have a similar anxiety reflex as an adult, seeing every fitness Instagrammer posting their pull-up #fitspo, and feeling like it’s way out of your grasp.
“So many of us, men and women alike, view pull-ups as an exercise that is only for other people,” nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach Sylvie Tetrault told us. “We feel like they are for elite athletes, military personnel, or the ex-gymnast. That they are for the people that can already do them, but not for us.”
To find out why we should all be hanging at the bar (see what we did there?), we turned to Tetrault and her Ginja Ninja partner in crime, trainer Jamie Snow. The pair launch the first leg of their Ginja Ninja Strength Series today with a focus on – you guessed it – the pull-up.
So, the pull-up is a cool party trick for Instagram, but is it actually something I need to master from a functional strength standpoint?
It’s hard, it requires activating a whole bunch of muscles, and there are approximately zero boutique fitness studios dedicated to mastering it. But the pull-up is pretty much the gold standard in overall strength.
“Of course pull-ups look cool,” says Snow, “but in terms of upper body strength, they are one of the best bang for your buck exercises.
“Even if you can’t do a true bodyweight pull up, the process of training towards one correctly can help to improve overall body awareness, posture, and core strength. And if they happen to also increase your overall cool factor on Instagram – all the better!”
I do back to back spin classes and can bang out a few pushups. Why can’t I do a single pull-up?
So your tap-backs are textbook and you can do a bodyweight back squat. And yet it’s the basic pull-up that still seems elusive.
“Pull-ups are an exercise that needs attention and consistent hard work,” says Tetrault. “They do not come easily to most people if it’s not something they practice. This is especially true for women, who will genetically take longer to build upper body strength and mass.”
“It should also be mentioned that naturally in our day to day there are a lot more movements in life that require pushing as opposed to pulling,” says Snow. “This means that for most of us our strength baseline is already set, favouring the muscles that push things away rather than pull them towards us.”
What goes into executing a pull-up?
You mean it’s not as simple as just gripping the bar and going for it?
“The pull-up is a full body exercise, meaning that it requires recruiting several different muscle groups.” says Tetrault. “Of course, we have the obvious – our backs and arms – but in order to master a pull-up you have to also focus on mastering the full body connection that ties together the core, glutes, and legs.”
“To makes things even more complicated beyond this,” adds Snow, “to correctly achieve a pull-up it is crucial to also focus on the mobility of joints involved in the movement. The proper mobility allows you to access the full range of motion of the movement and keeps you injury-free in the process.
What’s the main difference between a chin up and a pull-up?
“We often use the term ‘pull-up’ to describe any type of bodyweight vertical pull movement, regardless of the grip,” says Tetrault. “But if we break these down properly, in a chin-up an underhand grip is used (meaning palms are facing you) and in a pull-up an overhand grip is used (meaning the palms are facing away from you).”
“Everyone is different but typically it is easier for most to start with the chin-up and progress to the pull-up. Although both are vertical pulling, the different grips slightly alter the main muscles involved.”
What’s one basic exercise I can do to work on building pullup strength?
Instead of just grabbing the bar and pulling without going anywhere, Tetrault and Snow recommend starting with something simpler.
“It is not as simple jumping up to the bar and going for it because there really is a need for all the accessory work that goes with the pull-up,” says Snow.
“The best place to start when you’ve set your eyes on the pull-up prize is a simple hang,” she continues. “This may seem silly but it is often overlooked, and building the capacity just hang for a longer period of time from the bar is a very important first step in building the capacity to pull yourself up.”
And how about the next step?
Once you’ve mastered the hang, the next step is to start working on the movement to initiate the pull. Yep, it’s this intricate of an exercise.
“As you work on your hangs, building the proper movement mechanics of shoulder retraction and depression (setting your shoulders down and back) without flaring your rib cage is also non-negotiable,” says Tetrault.
“Being able to start a pull – horizontal or vertical – is what allows the proper muscles to do their job throughout the full movement. Learning and practicing the proper initiation to the movement in itself is key in making your eventual pull up as efficient and safe as possible.”
Want to learn from the experts?
“Pull-ups are not easy,” says Snow, “but with a commitment to consistent hard work, a good attitude and proper guidance they are entirely possible.”
That’s why Snow and Tetrault launched their pull-up program. It’s designed for all levels and allows you to go at your own pace and add the program as a complement to your existing training schedule.
To learn more about the program or sign up click here.