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 leversor 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.
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 knuckles
Grip 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.
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!
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* are awesome and take a set amount of your weight out of the pullup-equation.
Negative Pullups These are a gap-bridger and supplement the 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 number 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…
Chinups 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:
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 plus half your body weight* for a few reps.
Ice Cream Makers Sorry, these have nothing to do with ice.6 This dynamic exercise combines the front lever and the pullup. You either hate them or love them – there’s nothing in between!
Climbing Climbing rocks! 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!