Friday 7 September 2018

Pull-ups - My journey to the perfect rep

Pull-ups, also spelt as pullups or pull ups, are one of the hardest and most sought after exercises for people to achieve. That ability to be able to pull your entire bodyweight up towards the bar against gravity is something that cannot be replicated by any machine or free-weight. It's amazing to see people who can shift literally tons of weight on a bar but absolutely fail to lift their body off the ground on a bar.

Ultimately the pull-up is for the upper body what the squat is for the lower body: an all-round exercise that targets many muscles incorporating almost, if not, all major muscles of the upper body. For more on how to properly perform a pull-up check out this article!

Table of contents

Overview of the pull-up

Firstly let's quickly go over what a pull-up and what muscles it primarily works. Firstly a pull-up is any movement where you pull yourself up on something such as a bar, ledge, wall etc. Secondly pull-ups primarily targets your latissimus dorsi (or "lats") followed by the biceps. A vast multitude of other muscles are also involved in the movement, mostly in your forearms and upper back region however not involved to the same extent.

That's the ultimate basics of it. Yet for so many muscles being involved include the very large lats, it is still a very hard exercise for most people to master.

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Starting out

I can still remember the first time I tried to do a pull-up. It was incredibly hard and I failed. I was able to do 100kg on the lateral pull-down machine, which was well above my bodyweight at the time of roughly 72kg, but I couldn't pull up myself more than half-way up a bar. I wouldn't try them again for another few years, mostly due to a hiatus from working out.

When I did return to training I started to work on pull-ups using an assisted pull-up machine. It was hard going but I eventually was able to build up to doing unassisted pull-ups. At my best I once spent a whole hour doing sets of pull-ups and racked up a total of 116 repetitions over 10 sets with several minutes between sets for recuperation.

To try that many repetitions again is something I have never done or tried since, and other than sounding like an amazing number to hit it really matters little unless they are done properly. In this case they were not, all it proved was that I was good at doing what were technically "half reps", which is what almost everyone you see doing pull-ups are actually doing.

Another issue was that whenever I got injured and couldn't perform them for a month or two I always found I had to return to the assisted version for a few weeks to get back into the swing of things.

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Proper pull-ups

After abandoning machines and free-weights altogether around 5-6 years ago for calisthenics only workouts, my pull-up ability and strength grew and grew until I had to do harder variations versions such as side-to-side and inverted (upside down) pull-ups, with what I assumed was great form.

I can't remember how I came across it but when I did I realised I was doing pull-ups inefficiently and most importantly I realised I was doing them wrong. Whilst I was able to once do 116 repetitions in one session, looking back I admit that they were not full range of motion (ROM) and involved using compromised bio-mechanics to get the leverage I needed to do them especially as I got further into the session.

What did I learn? I learnt that the two most important elements of the pull-up are doing them with a full ROM and doing them strict, with as perfect a form as possible. Most people never start at the proper "dead hang" bottom position or go down the whole way in a pull-up and lock the arms out. What they are doing are only half-reps. Once I started doing full ROM pull-ups the number I could do in a set dropped by at least half. The long neglected parts of the muscles involved in the pull-ups had never had to be involved in the movement and tired quickly. It was hard.

Another aspect of my calisthenics workouts that turned out to work hand in hand with pull-ups are dead hangs. Whilst these primarily work to strengthen your scapula (rotator cuff and shoulder) and forearm muscles and also hits your lats as it is also the starting bottom position of a proper pull-up. After getting used to doing full range I started doing them from the dead hang position.

Full ROM also works hand-in-hand with strict form. Performing pull-ups with a rigidly straight body, with no bio-mechanical advantage such as kipping, leaning, legs tucked up backwards, or momentum from the dead hang bottom position to the top in a controlled manner really hits your body far more effectively than the "pull-ups" you'd see the majority of people and CrossFitter's doing.

Before long I was able to "hang out" in a dead hang position for a minute as a workout for my scapula and grip and finish it off with a full ROM strict pull-up or two simply because I could. It felt great and I knew it looked more impressive than banging out 116 "half-reps" in one session.

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Some people might argue that you need to use the compromised bio-mechanical methods listed previously to build up to strict pull-ups, but that is a load of nonsense. Beginners can build up to full ROM strict pull-ups far more effectively and quicker by following proper progressions rather than compromised bio-mechanics.

As an example, starting out with the heavier resistance bands to assist allows you to focus on perfecting your technique and form, eventually moving onto lighter bands and then no bands at all. Indeed I found and still find resistance bands quite useful for doing high repetition slow tempo pull-ups to build greater joint, ligament and tendon strength.

There are also those who would advise against doing exercises all the way to a full elbow lockout as it increases injury risk, however this is a common misconception that is only for those who try to do it without being able to control the weight they are doing. It is this lack of control that increases the risk of injury not the actual lockout. A full lockout is needed to work a muscle and its associated joints and ligaments to their full potential.

Full elbow lockout in the bottom position of the pull-up is also the best way to help you learn to engage your scapular muscles, which aids massively in doing proper pull-ups as well as helping build and maintain scapular strength and health. Scapular health is a vitally important but oft neglected aspect of health and fitness.

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Just how superior can proper pull-ups be?

In January/February 2018 I was told to stop doing exercises that involved my arms above my head due to an injury to the long-head of my left biceps. This meant no more pull-ups. To target my lats I had to start using weights again that involved pulling actions such as barbell rows and seated cable machine rows.

To my surprise with the seated cable machine I was able to do perfect form with the maximum amount of weight the machine allowed (100kg) for 12 repetitions at a time no sweat from the first go at it. How after never using machines or doing this specific exercise for about 6 years? From the power and strength I had developed from strict full ROM pull-ups.

By July 2018 as my injury subsided thanks to shoulder rehabilitation exercises and keeping everything below head height I started integrating pull-ups back into my workouts. Whilst I might have been only able to do low number repetitions, I found that unlike the last time I was unable to do unassisted partial ROM pull-ups from the off, I was able to go straight back into full ROM strict no problem. Indeed not even a month back after reintegrating them into my routine, I have been able to do weighted strict full ROM with no bother.

What do I attribute my ability to go straight back into doing them? Simply put, by focusing on performing as perfect a form as possible working out the required muscles throughout their entire ROM.

Obviously the principle of use it or lose it will come into affect at some stage and if I was unable to do them for say a year or more I might have not have been able to, but it became quite clear to me that training proper form and technique can help build resistance to this principle and offset it somewhat.

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Closing thoughts

I hope that sharing my own story on this amazingly great exercise has helped encourage you to seek out performing them as strict as possible from the dead hang position with a full range of motion. Even if you can only do a few repetitions of them at a time, it will work your body far better than doing a dozen "half-reps".

If you have any questions or queries about pull-ups or bodyweight exercises in general then feel free to leave a comment below or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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