Pull ups (and chin ups) are absolutely awesome exercises. They are also difficult, and many people are working towards getting their first one. This time of year a lot of people set goals for the new year, and many of our gym members set goals around pull ups, including several people wanting to get their first ever pull up. If you are in the same boat, I want to share a few tips to help you along the way.
First off, what is the difference between a pull up and a chin up? The only difference is the grip you use. A pull up will have your palms face AWAY from you. Chin ups will have your hands face any other direction – if you have a straight pull up bar (the regular kind) then a chin up will be with your palms facing you. However, other bars exist where your palms might face each other, or at a variety of different angles. Basically a pull up is palms facing away from you, and a chin up is the same exact exercise with palms facing any other direction, with the most common being your palms facing directly back at you.
Is one better than the other? I would argue not really. Pull ups are typically more difficult than chin ups because the angles make it more difficult to recruit as many muscles, but more difficult does not equal better. My advice is typically to train with several different grips on a regular basis to develop well-rounded strength evenly and at all angles within your muscles. This is especially true for people who have a lot of “mileage” on their bodies and might be more prone to overuse injuries. Of course, do not do variations that do not feel safe on your body. For example, due to a collection of elbow and shoulder tweaks and injuries from Jiu Jitsu you won’t find me doing many pull ups (the angles are painful), but I train several different chin up grips consistently.
OK, now that the groundwork is laid out, where do you start? The first two steps are the most important:
- If you are carrying excess bodyweight (and who isn’t this time of year) then try to reduce that. Quite obviously when you do pull ups you are lifting your own bodyweight, and the heavier you are the more difficult pull ups will be.
- Get generally strong – read on for details.
What do I mean by “generally strong?” Well, the opposite of general strength is specific strength. In order to get your first pull up the primary recipe is to be at a good bodyweight for your frame and to get generally strong. Contrast that with someone who is already pretty good at pull ups and wants to get even better, then they need to train specifically to move the needle farther. However, to get your very first pull up general strength (especially in your core and upper body) usually gets you 90% of the way there.
Let’s look at a couple examples:
- General Strength as it pertains to pull ups: Push ups, Turkish Get Ups, bench press, military press, TRX rows, rows with free weights or cables, planks, stir-the-pots, biceps curls, skull crushers, and I’d even say farmer walks. There are many more exercises that could be included here, but the idea is that a wide range of common movements will all be helpful here.
- Specific Strength as it pertains to pull ups will usually involve movements that are more similar, just with subtle variations. Examples could be changing the grip, adding weight, how you hold your legs, adding pauses to the reps, doing the reps more explosively, and so on. Again, that isn’t the primary purpose of the post here, but I still think it is helpful to have some context.
Key takeaway thus far: don’t stress about needing to “train pull ups” a whole bunch in order to get to your first one. Your time will be better spent training a wide range of strengthening exercises. That said, you should do at least SOME specific training for it; it just doesn’t need to be that much. When it comes to specifics of getting your first one, here is a formula I like:
FLEXED ARM HANG
The flexed arm hang (FAH) is a simple and effective exercise that is the best place to start. It is important to note that I STRONGLY recommend using a chin up grip for this, and not a pull up grip. To do the FAH, use any assistance you need to get to the top of a chin up bar as if you’d just finished a rep (so your chin is over the bar, and the bar is more or less touching your T-shirt as shown in the photo here). Common forms of assistance here are to use a step-stool or sturdy box to get up to the top, or even to have a friend help you. Once you are on the bar your instructions are to hold yourself up there as long as possible while trying to execute the following:
- Look straight ahead or even slightly down – avoid looking up
- Squeeze the bar tightly in your fingers
- Keep your legs a little bit out in front of you – if your heels go backwards that is not optimal
Stay up there as long as you can as long as your chin is clearly above the bar and you are making an honest effort at the three cues above. Keep working on these until you can hold it for at least 30 seconds – once you can do that, you are on to the next steps:
To perform negatives start the exact same way you did with the FAH above – use whatever assistance you need to get up to the top. Once you are up there, the instructions will now change. You will now lower yourself down to the bottom position (straight arms) under control, while still focusing on the same three cues as the FAH. Your goal should be to do this “isotonically” which is a really fancy word that means to move while keeping your muscles under a constant / consistent amount of tension. A visual might be helpful: let’s say I told you to take 10 seconds to get from the top to the bottom of the exercise – you would want to move at a constant rate of speed for the entire 10 seconds, so that the movement is evenly distributed over the entire 10 seconds. This will provide a great stimulus for your muscles to get strong at every part of the motion, and it has the added benefit of being very safe. What you want to avoid is spending a disproportionate amount of time at the “easy” positions within the motion, and then spending less time / moving without control at the “harder” ones. Not only is the latter less effective, it is also more dangerous.
I recommend somewhere in the range of 5-10 seconds per repetition, and aiming for about three (3) repetitions per set. Between each repetition give yourself a short break (10-20 seconds) to help ensure that your technique stays strong from one rep to the next. After you have done a set of three (3) of those, take at least 5min before doing your next set. During the time between sets be sure to avoid other exercises that are taxing on your arms – feel free to do some lunges, but avoid push ups.
GETTING YOUR FIRST FULL REP
Once you have done several weeks of negatives and you feel like you are making progress on them, now it is time to get your first full rep! Since you have been training with a chin up grip so far, I encourage you to keep that – nothing good will come from changing it now. Use a box or step stool to help you get to the bar with STRAIGHT arms, and make sure you squeeze the bar TIGHT in your fingers. Once you have a strong grip set, step off the box slowly and pause for a moment with both feet dangling out in front of you (not behind you). Stepping off slowly will help you avoid swinging on the bar – a common obstacle a lot of people run into. Once you have achieved a brief moment of control, then start pulling! Make sure to pull all the way up until your T-shirt touches the bar. Congratulations! You just did your first chin up!
Now, if you didn’t get quite all the way up on your first try that is OK – I have one more exercise for you that will help get you there. For this one you’ll need a friend to help. You’ll get on the bar like you are going for a full chin up, and your friend will stand behind you with their hands on the underside of your shoulder blades. They will give you a gentle push (note: gentle) to give you just enough boost to get to the top, and then let you come down on your own “isotonically” as you did with the negatives. Do these for the same sets and reps as the negatives, and do them for a few weeks. Before you know it you’ll be at your first chin up!
I know a lot of people have aspirations of getting to their first chin up, so if you have a friend who might find this plan helpful I encourage you to please forward them the link