Pullups have a reputation amongst even the most experienced fitness lovers for being one of the most demanding exercises you can do. But don’t let the movement’s difficulty dissuade you from trying it all together! According to fitness professionals, pullups are 100 percent worth the work. To help you finally master them, here’s a refresher on why pullups are so hard in the first place, what a proper rep looks like, and five common mistakes that may be ruining your pullup game.
Why Pullups Are So Hard
First of all, let the record show that you’re not alone in finding pullups just plain difficult. “The [strict] pullup is known as being one of the most difficult movements because it requires a ton of pure strength,” says Wickham. After all, “you have to physically pull all of your bodyweight vertically upward, against gravity.” Meaning, if you weigh 150 pounds, you literally have to tug 150 pounds of weight up through the air.
The fact that pulling movements are used somewhat infrequently in our day-to-day life also contributes to how hard pullups feel, Wickham adds. In addition to leading to less-developed pulling muscles, this lack of familiarity can also make the movement pattern feel foreign.
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Two other factors that can impact how easy or hard the movement is: your body type and shape, notes certified strength and conditioning coach Mia Nikolajev, C.S.C.S. The reason? Physics. “The more weight someone carries in their lower half, the harder the movement will be because the bulk is further from the anchor point,” she explains. Since cisgender women tend to carry more weight in their lower bodies compared to cisgender men, pullups are generally harder for them.
“There’s also a loaded social framework that says women should be dainty up top, while men should have a big upper body,” she adds. Over time, this can lead to women having less-developed upper-body muscles compared to men, another disadvantage.
Why Pullups Are Worth The Effort
Hard as the movement may be, the pullup offers an impressive list of benefits. Most notably? The number of muscles it strengthens. “From top to bottom, the pullup strengthens your grip muscles, traps, forearms, biceps, lats, rhomboids, rotator cuff muscles, and core,” says Wickham. Basically, everything above your waist.
From this list, the most notable are the back and core muscles. “Strengthening your back and core muscles helps counteract the side effects of a sit-sit-sit culture,” she says. When you spend all day slouched in front of the computer, the back and midline muscles weaken, leading to poor posture, neck pain, and positional headaches. “Building up your core back muscles can help improve your posture and keep you upright while you sit,” she explains. In fact, some people notice their lower back and neck pain disappears entirely as they strengthen these muscles.
How To Do A Pullup Correctly
This should go without saying, but to reap the rewards of the pullup, you need to do it correctly.
“You start by grabbing the pullup bar with your palms facing away from you, hands just wider than your shoulders,” explains Nikolajev. Engage your midsection to stop yourself from swinging and pull your shoulders down away from your ears.
From there, “Initiate movement by thinking about drawing your elbows down to touch your hips,” Nokilajev continues. Maintain the hollow body position as you continue to draw your elbows down and pull your chest up to graze the bar. Then, slowly straighten your arms.
The Most Common Pullup Mistakes—And How To Fix Them
Mistake #1: You Forget To Brace Your Midsection
Your midsection connects your top half to your bottom half. If it isn’t engaged while you attempt a pullup, your lower back will arch and your legs may flail. “This puts your body in a suboptimal position and changes the way your body moves against gravity, making it harder to pull yourself up,” Wickham says. Not ideal.
The Fix: Before you initiate the pull, “think about tucking your rib cage under your body,” Wickham suggests. This gesture automatically activates the muscles in your core.
For extra practice bracing your core, he recommends perfecting your hollow hold, hollow rock, and high plank positions.
Mistake #2: You Use An Open Grip
Quick lesson: When grabbing a pullup bar, an “open grip” refers to when your thumb is in line with your other four fingers, explains Nikolajev. A “closed grip,” is when your thumb wraps around the bar to meet your other fingertips on the opposite side.
While it might sound like a minute difference, using a closed grip goes a long way. “Wrapping your thumb gives you a greater sense of security while on the bar,” says Wickham. It also helps your lats stay engaged at the bottom of the pull-up, which supports strong form across multiple reps.
Another perk: “If you are competing in Olympic lifting (or doing CrossFit, which incorporates Olympic lifting), practicing using a closed grip is also going to have the added bonus of carrying over to your lifts,” he adds. Think better cleans, barbell snatches, and more.
The Fix: Position a box, bench, or stack of weight plates under your bar so then when you stand on them you can (easily) reach it with straight arms. Step up and grip the bar with your hands just wider than shoulder-width. Keeping your feet on the step, position your thumbs under the bar before wrapping your other fingers over it. Once you’ve gripped it, try to do a pull-up.
Mistake #3: You Don’t Set Your Shoulder Girdle
The first thing you should do to start pulling yourself up out of dead-hang is to pull your shoulder blades back and down, which helps protect your rotator cuff muscles, which stabilize your shoulder joint.
“One of the most common mistakes I see is people pulling with their lats before setting their shoulders,” says Wickham. Yes, you do want your lats to engage, but getting that shoulder placement comes first.
The Fix: Think about your initial pull as a two-step movement. “Engage shoulders and then immediately engage lats to pull yourself towards the bar,” Wickham says.
To get comfortable with this initial engagement, practice scap (scapular) pulls, suggests Nikolajev. To do them, start from a dead hang on the bar. Then, without bending your elbows, pull your shoulder blades back and down. Hold for three seconds, then relax. Repeat for 10 reps.
Mistake #4: You Short-Change Your Range Of Motion
Especially common amongst people who think they can do pullups well, “failing to work a pullup through its full range of motion short-changes the benefits,” explains Wickham.
Each rep, he says, should start from a dead hang and stop when your chest grazes the bar. While partial reps have their time and place, “if you only do partial reps, you can exacerbate strength differences and mobility imbalances.” So, if you only lift or lower halfway during your sets, you’re selling yourself short.
The Fix: If you have the strength to complete a full rep, start doing it! (Yes, even if you can’t accumulate as many reps). If not, Wickham recommends strengthening the weak portions by doing pullup negatives, which involve starting from the top of a rep (you can jump up off a box, if needed) and slowly lowering yourself back down to a dead hang.
Mistake #5: You Get Chicken Neck
In case there is any confusion: Moving through a full range of motion during a pullup means using your upper-body muscles to pull your chest towards the bar; it does not mean hyper-extending your neck to peer over the bar.
“It’s common for people to crane their neck as they near the top of a rep,” says Wickham. Unfortunately, doing so can not only lead to neck discomfort but also throws your shoulders out of optimal position, making it challenging to complete the rep with sound form.
The Fix: Strengthen your pulling muscles through the top portion of the pullup with pullup negatives, banded pullups, or isometric holds at the top of the rep.