Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2

Pull-up tips around the Interwebz run the gamut from totally asinine to absolutely legit.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

And here in Part 2 of my pull-up series, I’m detailing the technique and finer points of getting your chin over the bar for the first time.

If you haven’t already, go back and read this first…How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1It covers key drills to practice for learning to hold a hollow body position.

And be on the lookout for Part 3 which will discuss modifications and accessory work to help you get your first pull-up.

Pretty Ugly

I said this in Part 1, but it bears repeating: Anyone can do ugly pull-ups with broken body positions. They’re not physically impossible. In fact, thousands and thousands of horrible pull-ups are performed every day around the world.

Does an ugly pull-up still work muscles? Sure. Can you build strength with ugly pull-ups? Yep.

But if you’re a novice who’s working on her first successful chin-over-bar moment, dialing in your technique with these pull-up tips will make it more efficient and therefore, easier. 

Dialing in technique with these pull-up tips will make it more efficient. Click To Tweet

And, it’ll keep your joints moving through the safest ranges of motion so you stay injury-free. After all, there’s no sense in hurting yourself in the process and having to sideline your efforts.

So, aim for pretty movement. For good technique.

And please, if you see a website that offers pull-up tips with half naked women, click away. Nobody has time for that shit. (Screenshot from an article written by a guy. Not hating on the women themselves, but most chicks reading that won’t relate to these body types…or worse, they’ll think they need to weigh 115-pounds and get extremely lean to even get a pull-up. Plus, that mega-wide grip and crossed legs ain’t helping beginners get their first pull-up. Fitness writers, do better.)

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Let’s break this down piece by piece.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique*

Hand Position

*As always, don’t do anything that feels gross in your body or causes pain. You know yourself best.

It may seem obvious, but there’s only one point of body contact for a pull-up – your hands – so grip and hand width become critical.

Let’s start with hand position.

Your palms can face toward your body in what’s an underhand, supinated, or chin-up grip.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

In a chin-up grip, you can recruit more biceps – thus requiring less lat involvement – as you pull, making the movement a bit easier. If you’re still working toward your first pull-up, I recommend starting with this narrow grip. You can gradually scoot your hands outward as you get stronger.

Or, your hands can face away from your body. That’s usually called an overhand, pronated, or pull-up grip.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

This grip requires more lat – latissimus dorsi – involvement. Those are the wide sweeping muscles that fan across your mid-back and attach up at the head of your upper arm bone, the humerus.

Many novices don’t know how to activate the lats…or the development isn’t quite there, so this type of grip is often more challenging for your first pull-up.

You can also mix your grip, one hand over and one under. I’m not going to cover that one as I find it slightly uncomfortable…but it may be an option for you as you progress.

Knuckles On Top

Enter one of the most underutilized pull-up tips ever. (It’s something I learned from gymnastics dynamo Carl Paoli.)

The difference “knuckles on top” can make in your pull-ups is huge. Yet, it’s something people often wanna argue about. I think that’s because they don’t understand physics.

Here’s the take-away if you want to skip to the next section:

Getting your knuckles ON TOP of the bar makes pull-ups easier.

Now, let’s pick this apart if you want to know why.

In the photo below, my knuckles – where my fingers meet my palm – are on top of the bar. I also have my thumb wrapped around the bar and over my index finger which strengthens my grip.**

This actually shortens the lever arm of the movement, helping me externally rotate my shoulder joint…

…and that allows me to more easily generate torque and initiate the movement by pulling my shoulder blades together and down.

It’s also far easier to hold a hollow body position when my knuckles are on top. Click here for Part 1 where I explain the hollow body.

**You may not be able to wrap your thumb around if the bar is fat and your hands are small. If that’s the case, you can still get your knuckles on top instead of hanging from your fingers. If the bar is standard diameter and your hands average, there’s no excuse.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Compare that to the photo below. Here, I’m hanging from my fingers. It essentially lengthens the lever arm and decreases the torque in my shoulders, which makes the movement harder to initiate.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

If you don’t believe me, give it a try for yourself. Hang from the bar with your knuckles on top. Then hang from your fingers. Which is harder and feels more taxing? Which one are you able to maintain more body tension with?

Are fingertip pull-ups a thing? Yes. They’re an advanced technique. Remember, this tutorial is for novices working on their first pull-ups.

Grip Width

Now let’s look at some pull-up tips related to grip width on the bar.

As a general rule, narrow hand grip is easier than wide. The wider you place your hands, the more challenging it will be.

If you’re working on your first pull-up, start with a narrow grip and slowly increase the width of your hands.

Narrow, chin-up grip

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Let’s go back to the chin-up or supinated grip. Start with narrow hands, very close together. Gradually widen your hands as you gain strength. Once you reach a neutral grip – arms straight above your head – flip your hands to a pull-up or pronated grip.

Neutral pull-up grip

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Now, I’ve widened my hands so my arms are straight up and down, no angle. Note I’ve flipped my hands over. My knuckles are over the bar, and my thumb is wrapped around.

From this position, I can begin to work on engaging more lat – specifically the lower part of the muscle – which takes some emphasis off my biceps. Once you gain proficiency here, you can widen your hands even more.

Wide pull-up grip

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Now I’ve widened my hands past neutral which you can see from the red line. I could go even wider…

For beginners, this wider grip is hard because it requires more upper lat strength. If you’re keen and understand physics, you might conclude this grip would make for an easier pull-up because it shortens the range of motion. Simply put, I’m not hanging as far from the bar.

And while that’s true, the shortened range comes at a steep price: needing super strong lats, something beginners don’t often have. As you can see, there’s a huge trade-off.

If you’re working toward your first pull-up, don’t emphasize this grip until you’ve mastered the neutral grip. Or, save this grip for static holds or negatives. (More on those in Part 3.)

Wide-grip pull-ups are definitely cool and make your back muscles look badass, but they’re not ideal for beginners.

Body Position

To round out our pull-up tips and techniques for efficiency, let’s talk body position.

If you want to review the basics of a hollow body position and how to scale it, see How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1.

Just like a hollow hold or hollow rock, having a tight body with plenty of tension makes for efficient, pretty, less difficult pull-ups. If your meatsuit is floppy or you’re broken at the knees, hips, or neck, your body will feel heavier.

Again, you can do a pull-up that way. But as a novice, it’s going to be harder. And just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Let’s break down this body position on the bar.

1) Neutral grip. Knuckles on top of the bar. Thumbs wrapped around the bar and over my index fingers. (If it’s a fat bar and you can’t wrap your thumbs around, fine. But get those knuckles on top!) Deep breath, butt squeezed, and trunk braced. Neck neutral, feet pointed, and legs glued together.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

2) Here, I’ve begun to pull. Yes, I’m using my arm muscles, but what most beginners miss is that I’m initiating the pull by knitting my shoulder blades (scapulae) together and pulling them down. Part 3 will explain how to begin training this movement. My upper body naturally leans back a little bit here.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

3) Still pulling, and I’m keeping my elbows as close to my body as possible. Note how my upper body continues to go back slightly as my feet naturally go forward to counterbalance my body. Toes still pointed. Butt still squeezed like I’ve got a $100 bill between my cheeks. That protects my lower back from hyperextension.

I see way too many loose lower bodies from pull-up novices. You’ve got a ton of mass below the waist. Tighten it up!

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

4) Elbows close. Body in a really solid plank or hollow position. Chin neutral. No breaking at the neck…or hips…or knees.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

5) Chin over, body still hollow. Elbows close in.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Here’s what it looks like all together:

Watch it a few times. Really pick out the points I detailed in the steps above. Can you see them? Observing someone else do pull-ups and paying close attention activates mirror neurons in your brain for the pull-up itself. Sounds like witchcraft, but it’s not.

(So if you’re gonna fire up those mirror neurons, watch someone who’s doing it right!)

To Summarize

Following these key pull-up tips will help you not only do a better, more efficient first pull-up…

…but also understand it. When you understand why, you can better troubleshoot your own learning process.

Part 2 covered the following:

  • Grip position – underhand/supinated/chin-up vs. overhand/pronated/pull-up vs. mixed
  • Grip width – narrow/chin-up vs. neutral vs. wide
  • Knuckle position – on top of the bar, thumbs wrapped around the bar preferably
  • Body position – hollow body, tension, elbows in

All these pull-ups tips play into the mechanics of getting your first few pull-ups with the least amount of struggle.

Remember to take a look back at How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 for drills to help build hollow body strength. And stay tuned for Part 3 where I’ll go over other pull-up accessory work and variations to mix into your routine.

Pin this Pull-Up Tips & Technique tutorial for later.

Pull-Up Tips and Technique: Part 2 | StephGaudreau.com

Have a question about these pull-up tips? Leave them in the comments below.

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1

The pull-up is pretty freaking rad.

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Not only is it a great exercise all-around, but it’s also like a rite of passage on your strength training journey. It’s like you’re wee Mario who just found a magic mushroom and gets leveled up to Super Mario…stronger.

Ticking off that first pull-up is a goal for many women. But it’s more than just that…

…being able to move your own bodyweight is your basic human right.

Being able to move your own bodyweight is your basic human right. Click To Tweet

And if you’re a woman, you can do a pull-up. Any trash mag, stupid ex-boyfriend, or internet trolls was dead wrong when they said females can’t.

The Best…and the Worst

Getting your first pull-up is intoxicating. It’s the best feeling ever. It supercharges your confidence and opens your eyes to your potential.

“If I can do a pull-up, what else can I do?!”

Here’s one of my first successful attempts way back in October 2010. Note the cyclist lycra. I was just a couple months into my strength training journey.

Also note I’ve gained 10kg (over 20 pounds) since then, and I can still do pull-ups. Hell, I can do even more now because I’m stronger.

I don’t want to harp on bodyweight, but recently someone told me they should just try to lose weight to make getting a pull-up easier. I find that to be a depressing proposition. Read Instead of Weight Loss, Focus On This to find out what I recommend. Remember, strong first.

Unfortunately, being unable to get your first pull-up even though you’ve been trying is quite possibly the worst feeling ever. If you’ve been strength training for a couple years and still don’t have a strict pull-up, it’s time to get to the bottom of it.

So in this blog series, I’m going to coach you through how to do a pull-up, including videos, sample accessory movements, and more.

Part 1 will cover body position, Part 2 will be the fundamentals of the movement, and Part 3 will cover drills to practice.

It’s really hard for me to assess exactly why you’ve been struggling with pull-ups especially without seeing you move…

…so there’s going to be some diligence and personal responsibility required on your part to do what’s right for your body.

In other words, if you’re injured or the movements I discuss here give you pain or feel icky in your body, it’s up to you to look out for yourself.

Okay Steph, Teach Me How to Do a Pull-Up Right Now

Hold on there, tiger. I know you’re eager, but we’re going to break this way down.

It might surprise you that Part 1 of this series isn’t going to focus on pull-ups at all. Not even a little.

I look out into the fitness landscape – whether it’s at the gym or online – and I see a massive disconnect between the way we live and the things we expect our bodies to do.

Many of the clients I coach struggle to go below parallel in a squat, for example.

The first conclusion everyone points to is a lack of mobility or flexibility, and while that’s true for some, there’s a bigger, more fundamental problem:

Nobody goes below parallel on a regular basis because of how our modern environments are built.

Just take a quick look around your home or office right now. Chairs, couches, cars…shit, even the toilet only requires us to squat to parallel but never below.

People literally don’t know how to use their hamstrings and glutes to stand up out of a below-parallel squat.

Here’s my loving husband Z demonstrating a very typical body position in today’s modern world:

Sitting at a table hunched over a computer. People work, drive, play video games, text and spend a significant portion of the day like this.

(I’ll give him credit here…he’s sitting more on his sit bones. That way, he’s not squashing his poor hamstrings quite so much.)

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Extrapolate this lack-of-use out to everything we come into contact with: moving sidewalks, escalators, and everything on wheels.

As my very wise friend Jamie Scott summarized so well, modern humans are opting out of movement like never before. And it’s reaching crisis-level proportions.

Modern humans are opting out of movement like never before. Click To Tweet

Our collective kinesthetic awareness is fading in a world that enables us to sit back, relax, and never move. Cue Wall-E.

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Is it no surprise then that even the most well-meaning, motivated people go into the gym and don’t quite know how to move their meatsuits?

Or that their tissues are so bunged up they can’t get into basic body shapes other than the sitting-while-hunched-shape?

Worse still is that the trainers, coaches, and “experts” many people entrust – and pay good money to – are often oblivious to these fundamental challenges. It’s just rah-rah cheering or a lousy prescription for more foam-rolling.

My fellow coaches, you have an obligation to do better for your clients. To get to the root. To realize they need vitamins more than they need ice cream. And to know that putting a loaded bar on someone’s back before it’s time is not doing right by them.

My dear reader, you aren’t to blame for way this modern world is working against your biology and your humanness. It’s not your fault. 

But it’s going to take a conscious effort on your part to opt-out and take a stand for your own health, to ask questions, to move with intention, and to have patience with the process.

/rantoff

Seriously though, it’s important to unpack why so many people struggle with basic, fundamental human movements. Now, I want to give you some practical stuff to walk away with.

It Starts with Body Position

If you’re going to set out this year to do your first pull-up, let’s break it down to the basement level: body position.

See, you can do a pull-up – any movement really – with terrible form. It’s likely to be woefully inefficient, could cause overuse or injury, and is probably ugly as shit to look at.

Or, you can resolve to do a pull-up and practice all the accessory drills to get there with focus, intention, and efficient form. Plus, it’ll be easier.

Here’s a way to picture it: Let’s say you have to carry a 25-pound bag of dog food across a parking lot from the store to your car. Will it be easier to hold the bag outstretched, away from your body or hugged in close to your body? You already know the answer…close!

If your body is flopping around, loose, and in broken positions while you’re doing a pull-up, it’s going to feel heavier. It’s less mechanically efficient.

Practice solid shapes.

Your aim in a strict pull-up will be to keep your body tight. That means squeezing your butt, pinning your legs together, pointing your toes, getting your shoulder blades seated down and back, keeping your neck neutral, and bracing your abs. Got all that?

Even finding this position takes conscious effort. You may be feeling muscles you didn’t know you even had.

Think about Olympic gymnasts. Their bodies are rigid, long, and taut. They point their toes. They maintain tension in their bodies.

Start with a hollow body position on the floor.

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

(I’m not going to delve into all the nuance here. Just know that everything is tight and squeezed. There’s tension in my body. It’s not floppy or soft. I’ll cover how often to do movements like this in Part 3.)

From there, work on hollow rocks.

Now your body is in motion. Can you hold that shape? It’s challenging, but this hollow body position directly translates to you hanging from a bar and moving efficiently through a pull-up.

Then, progress to hanging on the bar. 

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

You’ve got to squeeze!

Maintaining tension is a core principle of all movements from air squats to pull-ups to 300-pound deadlifts.

Here’s another example where you can practice tension: push-ups.

Christmas, if I had a buck for every shoddy push-up I’ve ever seen on Facebook, I’d be retired. As well-intentioned as the 22-day push-up challenge was, it exposed a lot of collective weakness.

Often, people just don’t know what they don’t know. But when these push-ups are happening under the “watchful” eye of a coach, I cringe.

Start with a simple plank position. 

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Can you keep everything squeezed with a neutral spine? No stripper butt, sagging chests, or elbows winging out at 90-degrees, please.

Once you master this, try a push-up, keeping everything the same. 

If you can’t do a standard push-up, increase the angle of your body by propping yourself up on a sturdy bench or box. Start on the wall if you need to. Lower the bench or box as you get stronger.

Notice how my elbows are pinned in close to my body? That’s going to be extremely important for getting an efficient pull-up.

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Lots of people want to poo-poo bodyweight movements like they’re substandard, but trust: Bodyweight exercises can be very challenging when done correctly.

To Summarize

The foundations of getting your first pull-up are rooted in body position. Unfortunately, our modern environments put us at odds with our biology – unless we consciously opt out – making it harder to get into functional positions.

You can start laying the foundations of a pull-up by practicing holding shapes like hollow rocks and planks, feeling like it’s like to maintain tension.

Sound movement patterns are a must if they’re going to translate to efficient, safe movements like pull-ups.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll really pick apart the pull-up mechanics you need to master.

Pin How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 for later

How to Do a Pull-Up: Part 1 | StephGaudreau.com

Questions or comments? Leave them below!