Pullups are one of calisthenic’s basics.
Besides Pushups, Rows, Dips, and Squats they are THE most fundamental move you can master.
That’s why you should make sure you really know how to perform pullups perfectly.
Many more advanced moves are built upon this movement pattern and being a strong puller:
- When starting out everyone sucks – this is the point behind being a beginner. But with the right mindset and moving mindfully a perfect pullup is surely in your reach!
- Perfection comes with time and most importantly practice. Let’s look at how this practice should look and what cues are the most important to look after.
But firstly, let’s address why pullups should be a cornerstone of everyone’s workout!
Why the pullup is an essential move
Vertical Pulling Strength
Pullups are the best exercise to build vertical pulling strength.1They are the cornerstone of every well-planned back and pull workout for a reason.
Learning how to do pullups teaches you proper scapular control.3 Many will have problems feeling their scaps but for later movements, it will be a prerequisite.
Pullups are highly variable – you can do dynamic ones, isometric holds, one-armed variations, high reps, banded reps* low reps, power-specific variations, and a lot more.
Basic preparatory movement
Pullups carve the road for harder skills such as front levers or muscle-ups.
You will never outgrow pullups.
Likewise pushups, there is a variation for any difficulty – ranging from fairly easy, to challenging and finally insanely strong.
Later on, basic pullups are a great warmup or strength-endurance exercise.
How to do pullups – the most important cues!
If you wanna have a closer look at pullups in a video, I can recommend this video by Tom Merrick.
Here are my go-to-tips to improve your pullups – improve them and your overall technique will get better!
Stay hollowed – Hollow Body Hold
While in the hollow body your whole body is tensed and stable. All your joints should be stacked upon each other. Even more, interestingly you can produce more force when your joints upwards and below the chain are active.
Later on this position will be more important for example when performing a front lever. Otherwise, you will pike or arch like a banana.
That’s why learning it ASAP is the better choice than catching it up and forgetting bad technique.
The most important structure? Your scapulae!
Learning the proper mechanics will let you progress quickly and keep injuries at bay.
- Your shoulder blades should be slightly elevated, but active in the beginning position. Never make the mistake of falling into them and letting them slide all the way up to your ears without stabilizing them.
- From this slightly elevated hang, you pull them downwards and together.5 While this might seem counterintuitive in the beginning, it is crucial to learn proper shoulder blade mechanics ASAP.
You can learn this initial movement pattern very effectively with the dead hang/active hang drill or alternatively with hanging shoulder blade CARs.
Look after what your elbows do
When pulling up from the previously described initial shoulder blade position have a close look at your elbows – try to pull them sideways towards your upper body.
This way you make sure to properly use the muscles responsible for this move.
If this works without active thought, try to ‘break the bar’. This will keep your whole upper back active. More active muscles = more force.
This might sound much at the beginning – but it will quickly get down into your unconscious mind after some practice. Just make sure to recheck from time to time, if your patterns are deteriorating.
Grip = tightly with the bar resting below your knucklesGrip the bar* completely – don’t use the monkey grip or other weird variations.
Plus, avoid letting the bar slip forward into your first digital joints. Liquid Chalk* can help you with this.
Your fingers and wrists will be your most valuable, but also injury-prone body parts when starting calisthenics.
If you have no background of climbing or other grip taxing activities this can quickly lead to overuse injuries of the finger’s small muscles. Later on, you can play around with half grip variations, fingerboards, or even campusing if finger strength is your goal.
Different pullup variantions
Variations to get your first pullup
These are my all-time favorites to learn your first pullup. I struggled a long time to learn one – so I tried many things. Some equipment can help you, but you won’t get around practicing the real deal for a long period of time.
Finally getting one is a great feeling, as well as the path until there is a great teacher!
- Dead Hang/Active Hang Drill
A great exercise like previously mentioned. Perform them in breaks, as a warmup or just in between.
- Hanging shoulder blade CARs
They look pretty much the same as the above ones, with the slight difference of circling your shoulder blades instead of simply moving them up and down.
- Pullups using a resistance band
The best exercise to practice the full movement and getting progressively stronger while doing so.
Resistance bands*[/Eal] are awesome and take a set amount of your weight out of the pullup-equation.
- Negative Pullups
These are a gap-bridger and supplement above ones.
You have to find out what works better for you. Make sure here to really exaggerate the negative portion of each rep to around 10s each and lower the amount of reps appropriately.
Variations to improve your technique
Perfection is a myth – likewise Cthulhu or free hugs. That’s why always staying mindful, rechecking your basics and correcting them is necessary.
Corruption has its door in the foot every single second and can creep in:
- All kinds of rows
Rows?! WTF, I thought this post is about how to do pullups?
Rowing strengthens your back in a slightly different, more horizontal movement, but they also have a carryover to them – “Row, Row, Row your Back!” 😀
- More Dead Hang/Active Hang – try them one-armed!
There is no such thing as too much scapulae control and too strong shoulder blades…
Most of the time chinups are easier, because of the other grip. This way your biceps takes more of a beating.
Nonetheless, they have a high carryover to pullups and are a great substitute.
These pullups are my favorites. Of course, there are a 1000 other variants as well. It is an art to choose the ones right for your exact purpose and then get super strong doing them:
- Pullups and Chinups with added weight
What is better than 10 pullups? 10 pullups with [eal search="pull up weight belt"]10 additional kilos*]/eal]! 😀
- Archer Pullups
A great dynamic exercise to build one-armed strength.
- Muscle Up
I always call them a party-trick – or an exaggerated basic exercise.
It is the gymnasts preferred way to get onto the bar and opens a lot of doors into other moves and transitions.
- One-armed Chinups
It is a long way until here and shows brutal pulling strength. Don’t even try until you can pull yourself [eal search="weight plates 10kg"]plus half your body weight* for a few reps.
- Ice Cream Makers
Sorry, these have nothing to do with ice.6This dynamic exercise combines the front lever and the pullup. You either hate them or love them – there’s nothing in between!
I love to climb! It is a great opportunity to approach your pull training differently and get out of the common habits.
Nothing strengthens your pull muscles as strong as time spent at the crag or bouldering. No wonder that there are climbers doing one-armed muscle-ups or repping out one-armed pullups like it’s nothing!
Sources and additional reading:
- I really like this introductory guide by Climbing.com into this awesome world! If you wanna dive deeper I can wholeheartedly recommend to you the work of Eric Hörst and especially his book “Training for Climbing*”
- There is some great content out there on pullups by Tom Merrick, Antranik’s pull-up and one-arm pull-up article, as well as and many others.
- Same goes of course for chinups, too, as well as many other vertical pulling movements. They all resemble each other strongly.
- And let’s be honest here – Red Bull only makes oneself more tired than beforehand
- Especially scapular depression and elevation
- This position originated from gymnastics and has its place in many bodyweight specific sports as calisthenics.
- In nerdy – depressing and retracting…
- …and I have no fucking clue why they might be named this way, too.