Tuesday, January 31, 2017

10 Ways to Improve Your Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups

I used to really hate pull-ups as a kid because I had really long and skinny arms. They were my Achilles heel in the Presidential Fitness test. If I jumped really high on the first rep, I might get one or two kicking and screaming. Overtime with more training, things got better. I believe everyone has the capability to perform this exercise, unless they have an injury that makes it impossible. The time it takes to get there is irrelevant, since no two people are the same or lead the same physical lifestyle. The following are nine pieces of advice that I have found beneficial.

Train all the muscles involved

Pull-ups and chin ups are more than just a lat exercise. There are many different muscles involved, and if one muscle lacks the strength to keep up with the others, it will hold you back. Consider what the body does during the exercise.

The scapulae are retracted by the traps and rhomboids. These big muscles in your upper middle back pull your shoulder blades back and together as you pull. Keeping these muscles strong will prevent your shoulders from rolling during the movement, which can stress the rotator cuff. Some effective exercises to train these muscles are various standing shrugs, shrugging with your chest pressed into the pad of an adjustable bench set at 30-45 degrees, and various row exercises.

The elbow joint flexes. It’s not always popular to train your biceps, but your elbow flexors are very important to do both movements, with the biceps brachii emphasized more in the chin up and the brachioradialis emphasized more in the pull-up. Any type of curl with your palms facing upward will emphasize your biceps, while using a neutral grip like a hammer curl or palms facing downward like a reverse curl will also develop the brachioradialis. The brachialis will benefit from most curls.

The humerus adducts, meaning your upper arm is pulled closer to your body. Your lats insert into your upper arm. Due to this, your lats play a role when your upper arm moves. They are a primary mover for humerus adduction. Developing this powerful muscle group will help with your pull-ups and chin ups. Aside from pull-ups and chin ups, nearly every back exercise will help develop your lats, although it's beneficial to take the muscle through its many functions. Vertical pulling, like lat pulldowns, horizontal pulling, like different rowing exercises, and pullovers are all great ways to train your lats.

The teres muscles and posterior deltoid also play a role in humerus adduction. Face pulls and reverse flies with both overhand and neutral (palms facing each other) grips are good exercises to develop these muscles.

Consider training secondary muscles and your core.

Strengthening your abdominal muscles can be helpful, as they contract isometrically to keep your core/ trunk stable.

Use an assisted pull-up machine

Along with number one, using an assisted pull- up machine was the biggest implement that helped me achieve pull-up success. It allows you to maintain proper technique in the exercise with a lighter load, so you can develop a proper movement pattern and focus on training the muscles through a full range of motion instead of using improper technique/ momentum. You can also fully control how much assistance you're receiving, so it's easier to progress as you get stronger in the exercise; you just lower the assistance pin, until you are using no assistance at all.

Use static holds and negatives

Your body is capable of much more strength during the eccentric (negative/ lowering phase) of an exercise, and even greater during an isometric (static hold) contraction. Using negatives will help develop the muscles involved, as well as teach your body the proper movement pattern for an exercise. One way to incorporate these would be to use a bench, chair, or another stable surface that allows you to start at the top position of a pull-up or chin up. Static holds are also great for teaching your body to use the right muscles and get stronger. Also, weighted negatives using a weight belt or dumbbell between your legs can help you get past a plateau.

Use longer eccentrics by taking a longer time to lower your body back down to the start position.

This tip is especially helpful if you can already do several pull-ups or chin ups. Increasing the time you take to lower your body to the starting position does several things. First, it will improve your technique. Second, your body will recruit more muscle fibers because of the longer time under tension. Lastly, since it is much more difficult to perform a pull-up using a 5 second count to lower your body to the starting position than a 1 second count, as you get stronger in this method, you will be significantly stronger doing pull-ups and chin ups at a normal pace.

Use a chair for assistance

This is especially useful if you lack access to an assisted pull-up machine or train at home. Set the chair close enough to the bar so you can perform the pull-up motion with one or both feet on the chair. The great thing about this exercise compared to having someone hold your feet is you can control the amount of assistance you are receiving every rep.

Train with a higher frequency

Can you imagine Mozart practicing the violin once a week, especially when he first started playing? Or Ted Williams taking batting practice once a week? Why the mentality of training an exercise or muscle once a week is still popular is beyond me. True, there are some extreme cases where training each muscle once a week is beneficial, but that seems to apply more so to an elite level strength athlete like a world class power lifter. This is because nervous system recovery, especially when using very heavy loads, can take longer than actual muscle recovery, which many studies have found to take 36-72 hours for full recovery. When training pull- ups and chin ups multiple times in a week, it is a good idea to use a variety in all your training methods to prevent over training, emphasize good form, and monitor your recovery.

Improve body composition

The greater your muscle to body fat ratio, the stronger you'll be. Also, to some extent, the lower your body weight in general, the easier these movements will be.

Practice good form

Your technique is the foundation of everything. Not only will proper technique prevent injury, but since it will allow you to properly train the muscles you are trying to train, you will progress much faster. Also, you will become better at pull-ups and chin ups faster by using proper and consistent technique, since your body will learn and adapt to what you're trying to teach it. Imagine a baseball pitcher trying to use a different delivery every time they throw a pitch. It just wouldn't be effective. Once you develop proper technique for your body, the movement will become almost automatic. While there will always be some differences in what constitutes proper technique, there are some universal principles. First, never roll your shoulders during the movement. Doing so can cause rotator cuff or labrum injuries. Second, avoid using too much momentum. Allow your muscles to do the work.

Use a variety of hand placements

Getting stronger through one hand position can help you get stronger in another. Using multiple grips is a great way to develop all the muscles involved in the movement as well, since different hand positions will emphasize different muscles. Varying your hand placement can also prevent overuse injuries. Weighted pull-ups and chin ups. High rep and low rep training can compliment each other. In addition, changing the amount of weight used in an exercise can be a great way to speed progress and overcome plateaus. If I can do 4 pull-ups, I can probably do multiple sets of 1-2 reps with 5-10 pounds of additional weight using either a dumbbell between my legs or a weight belt. By gradually increasing either my total weighted reps or the weight used, I will be able to perform more reps at my body weight. Since this is a different loading parameter, it can prevent overtraining and overuse injuries when alternated with higher rep training.


There are a lot of different ways to apply these tips to your regimen. The most important thing to remember is to listen to your body as you progress. Make sure you give it a heck of a workout, but are also recovering properly through good sleep, nutrition, and programming. An example of a workout regiment designed with the goal of improving pull up performance may look like this:

Day 1 (Monday. Emphasis on Heavier Weight)

-Warmup. 5-10 minutes sauna. 4 light sets 12 reps lat pull downs. -Pull- ups over hand grip or assisted machine pull-ups. 4 sets 5 reps. (use weight if needed). Then one 10 second negative using a heavier weight/less assistance than you used during your sets. Rest periods 1.5-2 minutes. -Lat pulldowns (close neutral/palms facing each other grip) 6 reps superset with cable rows (10 reps) and dumbbell reverse flies (15 reps). 3 sets 1.5-2 minute rest periods. Goal of this is muscular development, so really focus on slow controlled movements and "feeling it”. -Incline chest to pad dumbbell rows superset with dumbbell shrugs. 3 sets 6 reps. Use a 5 second count to lower the weight to the starting position. -Preacher curls. 4 sets 6 reps 30-60 seconds rest between sets. -Standing EZ bar curls (6 reps) superset with hammer curls (10 reps) and cable curls (20 reps, handle on each side of the pulley system, the movement looks like you're doing a double bicep flex), 3 sets, 90 seconds rest between sets. -Behind the back wrist curls 3 sets 12 reps. -Abs and stretch

Day 2 (Tuesday. Heavier chest, shoulders, and triceps)

Day 3 (Wednesday. Higher rep legs and abs)

Day 4 (Thursday. Higher reps)

-Warmup 5-10 minutes Sauna, 4 light sets 12 reps lat pull downs. -Pull- ups using a neutral close grip. 3 sets max reps. (If you are using an assistance machine, use an assistance that allows you to complete 12-20 reps). Use 2 minutes rest between sets. -Lat pulldowns superset with face pulls on the pull down station. 4 sets 12 reps 45 seconds rest between sets. -Dumbbell rows superset with dumbbell reverse flies and dumbbell shrugs. 3 sets 12 reps 45 seconds rest between sets. -Chin ups/ machine assisted chin ups. 3 sets 10 60 seconds rest between sets. -Standing dumbbell curls 6 sets 10 reps 20 seconds rest between sets. -Reverse curls 3 sets 8 reps. 45 second rest between sets. -Abs and stretch

Day 5 (Friday. Higher rep chest, shoulders and triceps)

Day 6 (Saturday. Heavier legs and abs)

Day 7 (Rest)


Of course this program is flexible, based on your needs, time available, etc. As you emphasize doing what's right for you, you will achieve great results.

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