Ahhh, that first pull-up feeling. I’d say it took me about two years from knowing what a pull-up was to being able to do one, which sort of just…happened, in September 2020, on my home pull-up bar.
Technically, it was a chin-up, my palms in a supinated grip. But then I turned my palms around and did a pull-up, making it official.
As someone who used to be almost totally sedentary, bar yoga classes during summer holidays and swimming lazy laps of the local pool, it’s strange now to consider myself an active person.
I decided to start looking after my health just before university, but then gave up on it during my studies. I returned to exercise after I left, finding fitness classes in my early twenties, and gradually ramping those up in frequency and intensity. Almost without me realising, fitness became necessary, mentally and physically.
So with pull-ups and chin-ups featuring fairly frequently in my workouts currently, usually in reps of three to five, I’d say I’m largely happy with the move, though I know my form can be (is?!) sloppy.
Cut to October 2023: I’m not sure what to expect from the challenge of doing 10 pull-ups every day. I’ve never tested my max; I estimate it to be around eight.
I normally try to do one or two – occasionally three – 45-minute classes, six days a week at Gymbox. I feel lucky to be in London, which makes going to the gym so convenient. The classes are a mix of cardio (cycling, rowing), basic Olympic lifting technique, the occasional powerlifting technique, and functional fitness. I’m planning on doing the pull-ups either before or after a class (probably after, given my punctuality).
My prediction is that they will be broken up into groups of around three or four, and those will stay pretty consistent throughout. If the class hasn’t required me to use a lot of grip strength or do a lot of overhead work, perhaps I’ll manage more, but I’m not expecting ever to do all 10 in one go.
One study concluded that doing normal pull-ups was a good way to increase your rep count, however, which gives me hope.
In terms of preparation, perhaps some extra lat activation work with a band. [Note: this did not happen. The band never made an appearance.]
Of course, these results and learnings are my own and are not be indicative of any one else doing the same challenge.
But first, let’s clarify what perfect pull-up form looks like.
How to do a pull-up?
‘To perform a pull-up:
- Find a sturdy horizontal bar at a height where you can hang freely.
- Stand beneath the bar, reach up, and grip it with your palms facing away from your body (overhand grip).
- Hang with your arms fully extended, shoulders pulled down away from your ears.
- Pull your body up by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Continue pulling until your chin clears the bar, keeping your chin tucked in downwards.
- Lower your body back down smoothly with control until your arms are fully extended, maintaining your shoulder tension you started with.
Try to keep your core engaged and your body straight
Pointers for good form and technique for pull-ups include:
- Maintaining a firm grip with your hands shoulder-width apart;
- Keeping your core engaged and your body straight to avoid swinging;
- Using your back and arm muscles to lift your body, not just your shoulders or momentum; and
- Lowering yourself in a controlled manner to build strength evenly.
Which muscles are worked from pull-ups?
‘Pull-ups are a compound exercise,’ says Cowan. Compound exercises (or lifts) are moves that work multiple muscle groups and joints, such as deadlifts and squats.
Cowan continues: ‘Pull-ups primarily target the following muscle groups:
- Latissimus dorsi (lats): These are your large muscles in your back, often referred to as your ‘wings’. Pull-ups are particularly effective for developing your lats;
- Biceps: Your biceps brachii, your muscles in the front of your upper arms, play a significant role in the pulling motion of a pull-up;
- Rear shoulders (posterior deltoids): Pull-ups engage your rear deltoid muscles, which are located in your back of your shoulders;
- Trapezius (traps): Your traps, both upper and middle, are involved in stabilising and controlling the movement during pull-ups;
- Forearms: Your forearm muscles are activated to grip and hold onto the bar; and
- Rhomboids: These muscles, located between your shoulder blades, play a role in your movement and stability.
Cowan continues: ‘When properly performed, they also engage your abs, including your deep transverse abdominis’, a muscle which wraps around your trunk.
What are the benefits of pull-ups?
‘Pull-ups are the perfect example of an exercise that can be used as a benchmark of your fitness,’ says Cowan.
1.Upper-body strength and muscle development
‘Pull-ups are a highly effective exercise for developing strength in your muscles of your upper body,’ Cowan advises. In fact, a 2014 study found that up to 21 muscles in your back, arms, shoulders, chest and core are engaged when you do a pull-up.
‘While many tend to focus on your muscles in your front of your body – abs, chest, biceps, and shoulders – working your back of your body is equally important to keep balanced,’ continues Cowan.
2. Improved grip strength and functional fitness
‘Consistent pull-up practice strengthens your muscles responsible for gripping. Grip strength assists in everything from opening a jar to racquet sports, climbing, and lifting heavy weights,’ explains Cowan. Moreover, a study showed that grip strength was a great indicator of longevity, as it was inversely associated with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality and stroke.
‘You may be able to lift more weight or complete additional reps in other resistance exercises, as grip strength is often a limiting factor at the top end of sets.’
3. Improved bone density
‘Weight-bearing exercises like pull-ups can promote bone density and health,’ Cowan advises. ‘Resistance training exercises loads your bones, signaling them to lay down more cellular and mineral components.’
4. Other health improvements
‘Resistance training exercises like pull-ups can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, lower visceral fat and waist circumference, and improve blood sugar control and body composition,’ says Cowan.
One 2015 study supported the health benefits of this exercise, finding an association between performing pull-ups and an improvement in several fitness measurements including body mass, lean body mass, and fat mass.
To stress again, I can only speak for myself when I present these results – they have no bearing on how anyone else might do. I kept these variables the same:
1.I only performed bodyweight pull-ups
For the sake of consistency, I stuck with bodyweight pull-ups; the challenge was about the standard pull-up, after all. However, I have previously done weighted versions in classes (2kg – 5kg), which are a progression that can involve ‘a weight belt or a weighted vest to increase the resistance and make pull-ups more challenging’, according to Cowan.
2. I only used the traditional, overhand, grip
Again, for consistency, especially since I was already doing them at different times of day and after a variety of workouts, I stuck to a conventional, overhand grip where your hands face away from you and your palms point out, and about shoulder-width apart. It’s the grip you’d think of using when doing a pull-up.
However, Cowan also notes that there are other grip versions that target different muscles:
- Wide-grip pull-ups:
- Muscle focus: Wider hand placement engages your lats and upper back more.
- Benefits: Excellent for broadening your back and targeting your outer lats.
- Chin-ups (underhand grip):
- Muscle focus: Targets your biceps and front part of your shoulders.
- Benefits: Great for bicep development and overall upper body strength.
Day 1 – I manage seven reps, then three. I do these after a 45-minute functional fitness session and a 15-minute break.
Day 2 – After a 90-minute workout, which involved a 45-minute cardio session, lots of walking lunges, burpee broad jumps, and about a 10-minute break, I do two sets of five reps.
Day 3 – After three classes – one basic Olympic lifting technique, and two functional fitness sessions – with 15 minutes of rest after each, I manage six pull-ups, then three, then one.
Day 3 – Believe it or not, I’m trying to engage my core to avoid swinging ‘
Day 4 – I’m starting to care how many I can do in a row? Not to sound flippant, but my attitude up till now, I realise, has been pretty blasé: que sera, sera. After a lifting technique class, plus a 15-minute break, I manage six, then four.
Day 5 – I come back from a Pilates class and nearly forget to do my pull-ups! I do them just before bed on my home pull-up bar, which means I have to tuck my legs – six reps, then four.
Day 6 – I do a functional fitness class, come home and do them on my home pull-up bar, which again means my legs are tucked. I manage 10! The longer break after the gym seems to be helping…
Day 7 – I do a functional fitness class and a rowing session with dumbbells, then come home and have a little nap before doing them. I manage 10 again!
Day – one of a few days of home pull-ups. I have to tuck my legs behind me when I’m on the dead hang’
Day 8 – It’s another home pull-up bar one. I haven’t been to the gym today. I’m getting ready to go out and do them in my outfit. I manage 10! What is happening.
Day 9 – I decide to do these in the gym to check if it’s tucking my feet on my home bar that’s causing these flukes. After one cycling class and a functional fitness class, which involves a lot of pull-ups already, I decide I need a break. Post-shower, I sit in the sauna for a little while – are these nerves I’m feeling? I then return to the bar and, to my surprise, manage 10.
Day 10 – Three classes again on Sunday. The last two involve quite a few pull-ups. Specifically, the last one includes five rounds of five. I have a 10-minute break and then manage seven, then three.
Day 11 – After my lifting technique class (we do power jerks today) and 15 minutes rest, I then manage technically 10 but I was craning my neck so badly and my legs were swinging up. So let’s say…nine?
Day 11 – more legs moving upwards and swinging
Day 12 – Cycling class in the morning, and then at the end of the day, I do the pull-ups at my home bar. 10 dodgy reps again, as I was definitely craning my neck and swinging up for the last three.
Day 13 – Do these in the gym after a 45-minute rowing class and a 45-minute functional fitness class that involve too many hang snatches. I manage seven, then three.
Day 14 – I do these before a functional fitness workout, and once again, manage a shaky 10, which decrease in quality as the reps go on, as was to be expected.
1.I’m surprised I managed 10
I think day six was the turning point when I started to be able to do 10. I know, I know, you’d expect some progression, but as someone who exercises mainly for maintenance and not to gain strength or for hypertrophy, and who frequently experiences plateaus, I really did not have high hopes for my rep count increasing. So it was definitely a pleasant surprise to be able to feel them getting easier – six was usually when it started to get icky – and to feel those initial reps become less of a strain, even if they were far from perfect.
What’s more, apparently doing more pull-ups is not the way to get better at pull-ups, which makes my increase even more surprising. As Cowan advises, ‘Many people have fallen prey to the mindset that in order for them to get better at pull-ups, they have to do pull-ups, and literally nothing but pull-ups.
‘Unfortunately, this shortsightedness has led countless people down a path of endless frustration, and driven capable individuals to abort their mission.’
2. When I did them made a difference
It comes as no surprise that the more rest I got after a workout, the more reps I was able to do. However, I didn’t really notice a difference between doing them on a rest day or just after the journey home from the gym. In fact, sometimes I felt strongest when I’d worked out a few hours before, as if my body had still adapted to exercising, but wasn’t so tired that it had no energy at all.
3. Where I did them didn’t make a difference
Even though tucking my legs behind me on the home bar felt, in theory, like I was cheating, the pull-ups didn’t actually feel easier. As Cowan confirms, ‘Crossing your legs behind you can provide more stability and counterbalance during the pull-up. This position engages your core and may help maintain balance. This is typically the easiest to perform, but not necessarily the best or most effective.’ So I was glad that when I went back to the gym, the numbers stayed consistent, showing that bar height wasn’t really a deciding factor.
3. My form can be *very* questionable
One of the reasons I hate filming myself is because I have to see all my flaws – which is obviously the whole point, but still so cringe. But, and especially if I’m following Cowan’s tips, the videos really highlighted all the places I was going wrong and where form was slipping – too much swinging and legs coming up; core not engaged enough to hold a hollow position; and that neck crane.
As per Cowan’s tips, I definitely tried to minimise swinging and keep my legs down. If I was doing them on my home bar, I’d also straighten my legs at the bottom of the rep to feel like I’d done it properly. At the gym, I focused on tensing and engaging my core and tried to use my back rather than my neck to move myself up.
That being said, I still found it difficult to keep all the correct-form cues in mind when I was just struggling just to get up there at all, and if you start to slip, IMHO, that’s totally understandable.
4. My reps decreased in quality as they went on
Linked to questionable form above, trying to crank out reps means that I was focusing just on getting the move approximately right in favour of doing them as beautifully as possible. Pretty reps they were all not, especially as I began to fatigue. I found it so much easier to have better form at the beginning, when I had more energy and certain parts of my body (my neck and upper traps) weren’t compensating for other weaker parts (my lats).
5. In future, I’ll try to do progression exercises to help correct form
I don’t know if I’ll focus in isolation on pull-ups again, but if I do, I think my target will be less about seeing how many reps I can do consecutively, and more on doing on every rep well and making each one I’m proud of, even if it means taking longer rest between them and breaking them up even into sets of one.
That means I’d probably focus on doing some of Cowan’s progression exercises, especially now that I know where my areas of weakness are. Some of the ones I’m considering trying out are:
- Inverted TRX or ring rows with feet elevated on wall
- Grab the rings or TRX handles and lower yourself down so your chest is directly under the rings and your arms are extended.
- Place your feet up a wall. Take a deep breath in and brace your core, tuck your ribs towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
- Using your muscles in your mid and upper back, bring each shoulder blade in towards your spine.
- In the top position, don’t allow your elbows to flare. If you are using a neutral grip, your elbows will be closer to your sides.
- Lower yourself to the bottom position with control.
- Your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked position. Don’t allow your lower back to hyperextend, or ribcage to flare.
- Dead bug with single arm dumbbell presses
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand so it is in line with your armpit.
- Lie on the floor. Lift up your legs so they are in a vertical position, straighten your knees, and point your feet towards you.
- Keep your chin tucked and neck in a neutral position, extend your arms so they are above your chest, and tuck your ribs towards your hips.
- Take a deep breath in and contract your core muscles, and slowly ‘row’ the dumbbell down towards your body, lowering your leg on the same side of your body as the dumbbell, and to a range where you are able to maintain proper form. Return to your starting position.
I feel quite accomplished to have followed through with something that initially sounded a bit daunting. I definitely felt stronger doing the pull-ups as the days went on.
It’s difficult to tell whether it was the longer break post-workout or just doing pull-ups on consecutive days that led to my progress, but I’d like to think it was the practice. Previously, if I’d done pull-ups post-workout as a one-off, I think I would’ve managed fewer reps. I felt like I was recovering better and getting used to the movement.
I’ll definitely keep doing them as they’ll come up in my workouts, but I probably won’t be doing a dedicated program for a while. What’s more likely, however, is that I’ll incorporate more of Cowan’s targeted strengthening exercises, such as the inverted rows and dead bugs.
If you’re struggling with pull-ups, I’d say be patient and don’t get frustrated…and use some of Cowan’s beginner exercises below:
- Dead hang: Start with dead hangs to build grip strength and get used to the bar. Hold for as long as you can, aiming for three sets of 20-30 seconds.
- Resistance bands: Use resistance bands to assist you. Secure one end to the bar and loop the other around your knee or foot. Start with a band that offers enough support, then gradually reduce assistance by using thinner bands.
- Negative pull-ups: Jump up to the bar or use a bench to get your chin over the bar. Then, slowly lower yourself down in a controlled manner. Aim for three sets of three to five negatives.