Whether your aim is to become a pull up ninja or simply develop your pull up to support other movements, we’ll teach you how to perform it efficiently, and when you’re ready, progress to more advanced variations.

In this month’s tutorial, we take a closer look at the pull up, and how to become more skillful at it. Alongside pushing, pulling is a fundamental movement pattern that is developed early in life.

As young children, our first experience of pulling is when we learn to grab objects and pull them towards us, as well as pulling ourselves up to a standing position. Once we are upright, pulling movements demand more strength and skill, as we learn to hang and climb.

As adults, we’ve become obsessed with pull ups (and variations of) but it’s important to first take a step back and consider some of the building blocks and set-up elements.

Body position

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that the pull up in this tutorial will be performed with a overhand grip. While some may refer to this as a chin up, we feel the overhand grip offers more flexibility for progression to advanced movements. Note that the pull up will work the entire body, including much of the lower body – and this is dependent on proper body position.

Hands

  • Shoulder width apart, overhand grip
  • Thumbs under the bar will provide a stronger grip; thumbs over the bar will require additional forearm strength. This can be useful when considering pull up variations, such as the wall pull up

Shoulders

  • Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Imagine turning the armpits to face forwards – this action will stabilize the shoulders during the movement

Head

  • Neutral position with chin tucked in

Spine

  • Assume a hollow shape with the torso – abdominals and glutes engaged. This tight midline position will minimize swing

Lower body

  • Hips and legs in a straight line, with legs pulled together tight

From the side, the above position will appear like a slight concave (hollow) shape of the body – held together tightly with correct muscle activation. This will protect the joints and reducing energy leakage during the movement.

Performance

  • Maintaining the above shape and tightness, squeeze the shoulder blades together and think about pulling the hips up to the bar while simultaneously pulling the elbows back and down to the hips. Aim to pull the top of the chest to the bar.
  • When you get to the top, slowly lower your body to the start position, keeping the hollow body shape
  • Repeat, and focus on keeping a tight body shape, so the whole body moves as one unit.

Tips and progressions

  • Outside of your pull up training, keep the wrists strong and mobile through specific conditioning exercises. Read our article on ‘Protecting your wrists’.
  • As your skill improves, learn to engage the forearm muscles by turning the wrists over the bar a little. This will begin to prepare the forearms and wrists for advanced movements like the muscle up.
  • Include isometric exercises in your weekly training program, such as hollow body holds, on the floor and in hanging. This will develop the required levels of body tension to support your training.
  • Simple bar swings can help to learn control of body shape, and improve endurance and joint stability for skillful pull ups.
  • While pull ups can be performed with a swing (kipping) – a technique used to increase volume – your initial focus should be on lower reps with strict technique.
  • Once you have a good level of control in the pull up, play around with hand position and speed. Progressions include the close- and wide-grip pull up, explosive pull up, and pull up with knee/leg raise.

Summary

The pull up is a simple and highly effective foundational movement, serving as an essential building block for advanced skills, like the muscle up. To enjoy injury-free movement, don’t forget to focus on the pull up elements, including isometric training and swinging.

When progressing with the pull up, remember that it’s not about scoring points, but instead to develop skill and efficiency. Make pull ups an integral part of your training program, and watch your strength and control improve in a short space of time.