If your upper back is strong, but yet pull-ups are still a struggle for you, fixing a few simple things can make all the difference.

Ahhh the bodyweight pull up. Some shudder at the thought, others jump up on a bar and start swinging around like gymnasts. What makes pull ups so difficult? And why can some people do them seemingly without effort, and others never at all? While the pull-up exercise is a great (arguably the best) indicator of overall upper body strength, there are other important factors to the lift. Your back, arms, and forearms must have impressive strength to hoist and support your entire body. So countless single-arm rows, dumbbell curls, and wrist curls later and you approach the pull-up bar…still nothing…or you wish you could do many more. Keep reading to learn about some of the techniques we use at Precision to coach the bodyweight pull-up that will help you improve everything.

What muscles do pull ups work?

If you can’t complete a pull up YET, we can provide your missing link.  Pull ups predominately use the lats and upper back muscles to perform the movement.  However, the pull up exercise does not just involve your back muscles. We see many people with significantly strong lats that struggle on the pull-up bar. Why? You will always struggle with pull-ups if you have a weak core. The missing link to the pull-up is maintaining a stiff, rigid mid-section throughout the lift. To allow your shoulder blades to move freely and in their full range of motion, the torso must be stiff and strong as the shoulders and arms pull it up against gravity. So, our first step on the road to your perfect pull up, let’s train the core. We have many different core exercise examples and demonstrations on our NCPrecisionFitness Youtube page. One of the many exercises we feel are important for core strength is the most basic:

Once you master this basic core exercise, you can progress to other more challenging exercises (see our YouTube page for video’s of other exercises).

There are also some mobility factors that come into play as you attempt your perfect pullup. If, like many people, you have tight chest muscles and/or tighter lats then your shoulder mobility may be limited.  A common mobility exercise to open the chest and shoulders is this one:

Begin to increase your range of motion by completing the assisted hanging lat stretch. With an overhand grip, grab a bar above you that you can comfortably reach without leaving the floor or a stool. Slowly start to transfer your weight from the floor to the bar as you feel a stretch in your back and sides. You will find that your grip strength and hang time will both increase over time. If you don’t have the assistance of an overhead bar, you can use a door frame to stretch your lats:

  1. Grasp door frame with arm around waist/abdomen height.
  2. Squat back into your hips while lowering chest toward floor
  3. Allow arm to straighten – this will allow a stretch to happen in the lats.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds
  5. Repeat for other arm

Also, beginning to foam roll your lats, chest, and back will help to increase mobility and range of motion for you as well. Many foam rolling techniques are provided on our Youtube page.

There are so many movement components that are involved in a complex lift such as the pull up. You will need a strong core, great shoulder mobility, and efficient scapulae (shoulder blade) control. Good control of your shoulder blades means you are using the correct muscles from the start. Pull-ups begin with shoulder blade movement, not arm initiation: During the video, watch the  shoulder blades come together during the movement.

A well-trained eye and helpful coaching cues will make your pull up goal a reality. Patience, consistency, and hard work are all you need to complete the perfect pull-up!

authored by kenny palmer

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