There is one exercise that a lot of gym goers can’t do but once they learn to do it with proper form their physique changes quite dramatically. I remember when I qualified as a PT 6 years ago and I couldn’t even do one. Very embarrassing! Coming from a sport background I only used to practice my sport which was Basketball and whilst I don’t like making excuses having long arms and being heavier does make this exercise harder. And that’s just the point, it’s all about relative strength (how strong you are for your body weight). I didn’t know back then that this exercise would have drastically improved my strength and performance on the court but like they say ‘hindsight is 20 20’! It is in my opinion one of the best if not the best exercise for the upper body. Have you guessed it yet? Yes it’s the pull up (and chin up).
The pull up is when you use a pronated grip (see pic to right) and is the harder option with the wide grip being the harder and a narrow grip easier. It recruits quite a few muscles on the back (teres major, lats, rhomboid major and minor, biceps brachi, brachioradialis, brachialis, pec major and it also works the abdominals very heavily too which people often forget. Awesome exercise to give you that V shape and better looking arms! If you can’t feel it working your lats then think about shoving your hands outwards whilst you do the exercise. I learnt this from Ben Pakulski and it works a treat.
The chin up is different in that you use the supinated (underhand) grip and is slightly easier to perform. It recruits similar muscles to the pull up (lats and teres major) and it targets the biceps brachi and brachialis harder. Even though it is predominantly a back exercise it does recruit your pec major which is why it’s common to feel it in your chest also. Narrow grip is harder and shoulder width is slightly easier.
The easiest version of all pull ups is the neutral grip (palms facing each other) pull up where your body is in a better mechanical advantage. It recruits the forearms slightly more so than the others and is friendlier on the shoulders as some people find pull ups can give them shoulder pain.
My personal favourite is using the gymnast rings to do pull ups as they put even less strain on your joints and they help you recruit more muscle fibres due to the instabiity of the rings. This is one of the hardest of all the pull up versions.
Unfortunately I see a lot of people in the gym perform chin ups and pull ups incorrectly and a lot of dudes train with their ego instead of their brain. Bad idea when it comes to weight training! Make sure you go ALL the way down and ALL the way up so your chin is above the bar. As is the case with most exercises the idea is to fully lengthen the muscle and fully shorten it! Too many gym goers don’t perform the full range simply because they can do more reps and they’re worried that people might laugh at them. It’s much better to do 3 full range reps with good control than do 5 half reps. I remember the days when I would do 10 sets of 1 and it was mentally tough but I knew it had to be done to get better at pull ups. I also see a lot of people swing their legs up to give themselves a push to get up. This is only acceptable when you want to prolong the set performing ‘eccentric’ reps taking advantage of the fact you’re stronger on the way down in the case of the pull up. With the chin up and neutral grip pull up think about pulling your elbows down to your side as if you were elbowing someone behind you.
So the takeaways are
1. Full range of motion – Start with arms fully lengthened and come all the way to the top so the bar is at your chest.
2. Control the movement - The body should stay fairly still and you should control the eccentric phase (lowering) for at least 2s.
3. Play with the grips – Vary the grips you use to stimulate different fibres and if you suffer from shoulder pain try using some rings or neutral grip! Rings do actually recruit more muscle fibres due to the unstable environment that they create.
4. Add weight – Once bodyweight is too easy add weight between your legs with a dumb bell or belt.
And that’s it my compadres.
Strength and salud!