Back to the basics: Mastering the pull-up

Back in the day, if you asked most kids what their favorite subject was they’d reply “gym.” Though I’m one of those weirdos that actually liked the academics of school, I also consider myself one of the kids that loved the fun and challenge that came with gym class. Especially when it was time for the Track & Field unit or the Presidential Fitness Test.

I suppose even as a kid I enjoyed a good challenge. My favorite childhood memories are filled with me climbing trees, running through the woods, playing tag, riding my bike, and rollerblading down the road. Maybe that’s why I like to be active now, I don’t know. But I do think my active childhood set me up with the desire and confidence to push myself physically. At a young age, I learned how satisfying it was to achieve a fitness goal, thanks to the Presidential Fitness Test.

There were certain parts of the test I excelled at and certain parts I did not. The very worst part of the test was always the pull-up, or, since I’m a girl, the bent-arm hang. Arm strength has never been my forte. I remember feeling nervous as I waited in line to be tested on how long I could hold myself up to the bar. I would be nervous because I didn’t want to look weak in front of my classmates and because I knew it was the one test that could prevent me from achieving that coveted blue patch.

I haven’t been tested like that in quite a while but my desire to conquer the pull-up never really left me. I haven’t attempted a pull-up in years but I still see it as one of the exercises that sets you apart. Probably because I find it so difficult. In my book, if you can pump out a few solid pull-ups then you’re awesome.

That is why my main goal for 2017 is mastering the pull-up.


The basic technique

The pull-up works your large back muscles, shoulder muscles, arm muscles, and core muscles. No wonder it’s such a bang for the buck! To master this move, here is what you need to do:

  1. Grip the pull-up bar so your hands are about shoulder-width apart and are facing away from you. You start in a hanging position.
  2. Take a deep breath, tighten your core, and squeeze your glutes. This will help to stabilize your body throughout the movement.
  3. Draw your shoulder blades down and away from your ears.
  4. Leading with your chest, pull yourself up to the bar in a straight line.
  5. Exhale as your chin reaches the bar and then lower yourself back down until your arms are fully extended.

Keep your head, neck, and lower back in alignment throughout the entire movement. Keep your ribs down and don’t allow your torso to rotate. Your body should stay in a straight line from your head to your feet, or your knees if your legs are bent.

Building up to it

Like me, I’m sure many of you would struggle to pull your chest up to the bar. Lucky for us, we can work up to it. This is exactly how I plan to eventually master the move and I invite you to do it with me.

Phase 1: Hanging

Before you can pull your weight up, you need to be comfortable supporting your weight as you simply hang from the bar. This can be a two-step approach. First, just grab hold of a bar and hang on for dear life for 30-60 seconds at a time. Once you build up enough grip and forearm strength, practice keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears as you hang.

Phase 2: Bent-arm hang (flexed-arm hang)

Grip the bar with both hands, hands facing forward (palms facing away from you). Hold your neck to the bar as if at the top of the pull-up position. Grip the bar, squeeze your shoulders together, and bring your chest forward. Hold your chest to the bar for 30 seconds at a time.

Phase 3: Assisted pull-up

Use a box or platform to rest your feet on as you complete the move. As you get stronger, less of your weight should be in your feet and more should be supported by your arms. Assisted pull-ups are a great exercise to help you master your upper body form and general body control before launching into the full move.

Watch this!

For a great example of a pull-up and several tips for avoiding bad form, please check out this article from Nerd Fitness. It includes a video of a proper pull-up with a great explanation on how to execute one.

Nerd Fitness: The Pull-Up

Practice in front of a mirror or use your phone to record yourself so you can verify that you’re using the right technique. Once your form is compromised, stop.

Let’s do it

If I can do this, you can do this. How long it takes to progress from hanging to doing full-blown pull-ups will be different for everyone. Your weight, your current fitness, your athleticism, and  – most importantly – your mentality will all be factors in how long it takes. The heavier you are, the more strength it will require because, well, the laws of gravity. But you CAN do this, no matter how large or small, strong or scrawny you are.

Remember, you conquer it in your mind first. So set that goal and don’t give up until it’s reached.

Leave a comment here or on the Facebook page to let me know how it goes. I’ll keep you posted on my progress as well.

Good luck!




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