Fundamentals of Pull-Up Positioning

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is from someone I’ve bonded with over the years over our experience of being athletes and trainers who share a fierce love of new challenges. Meghan Callaway is a fount of fitness ideas and experience, covering a wide range of topics under the strength umbrella with extraordinary rigor and thoroughness. 

Today’s post addresses what might be the single greatest measure of strength-to-body-weight ratio, the pull-up, and provides tips for getting over the bar.

With her? Any roadblocks that stand in the way of your first pull-up (or dramatically increasing the number of reps you can do) don’t stand a chance. Turning it over to her….

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Pull-ups are one of the most effective strength-building upper-body exercises you can perform. Add to that their versatility — they can be performed anywhere you can access a pull-up bar, rings, monkey bars, or even a sturdy tree branch — and you can essentially create your own gym wherever you are. Not to mention, banging out multiple reps — or conquering your very first! — can make you feel like your favorite superhero.

While many people think of the pull-up as purely an upper-body exercise, make no mistake: Your entire body is involved. In order to thrive at performing pull-ups, your whole body needs to work as a synchronized unit. This includes your glutes, anterior (front) core muscles, and even your legs.

While there are many different pull-up and chin-up variations, several key fundamentals apply to all of them. If you work to absolutely own these fundamentals, you’ll find they have dramatic carryover to any you choose to practice.

1) Hold Your Body Position.

Set your body so it’s in a relatively straight line from your head to heels, and maintain this position for the duration of the exercise. You can also adopt a slight hollowbody position, where your abs are engaged and your body curves forward slightly. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend (i.e., don’t stick your butt out) or your ribcage to flare outward. Throughout the movement, keep your neck in neutral alignment and your chin tucked slightly, and while holding this body positioning, keep your head, torso and hips stacked atop each other. I prefer to keep my legs straight, with one foot crossed over the other, and I will dorsiflex my feet (i.e., point my toes up).

Exercise: Double Kettlebell Dead Bug 

This exercise strengthens the muscles of the anterior core, trains the body to resist extension of the spine, develops lower-back and pelvic stability, and develops controlled mobility in the shoulders and shoulder blades. This variation also teaches you how to generate full-body tension: something that is vital to performing pull-ups and chin-ups well.

Key How-To Points:

  • Before you go, take a deep breath in through your nose (think about building a 360-degree cushion of air around your spine). Now forcefully exhale through your teeth, contract your abs as hard as you can, and slowly lower the kettlebells and one leg down towards the floor. Return to the starting position. Reset and repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Lower both arms and one leg to your full range, never disengaging the muscles in your upper body (this will place your shoulders in a vulnerable position).
  • Do not allow your ribcage to flare or lower back to hyperextend.
  • Form check: If your shirt is wrinkled, it likely means your ribs are in the correct position. If your shirt suddenly becomes smooth, you have very possibly disengaged the muscles in your anterior core and have allowed your ribcage to pop forward and out.
  • Keep your knees as straight as possible and your toes pulled up toward your shins, but overall, keep your legs relaxed so they don’t dominate the movement.

2) Move As a Full-Body Unit.

The pull-up is a full-body exercise and must be trained accordingly. Developing appropriate levels of tension, stability, and controlled mobility throughout your entire body will make or break your performance. In all pull-up and chin-up variations, it’s imperative that you keep the muscles of your core, glutes, and legs engaged.

Proper bracing of the core will improve your ability to perform pull-ups because it will help keep your spine and hips in a more stable position. The more stable your entire body is, the less likely it will be to swing. Little to no swinging means that your path to the bar will be as short and efficient as possible (versus a longer, more inefficient arc), and also decreases the amount of “dead weight” you will be required to move. This is pretty straightforward, but in general, moving a rigid object is much easier than moving a limp and floppy object of the same weight.

It is important to note that with any exercise, the intensity and type of bracing required will vary. For instance, bracing for a max deadlift or squat differs from bracing for pull-ups. When it comes to bracing, I use a scale of 1 to 10. For instance, while the intensity of a brace for a max deadlift or squat might be close to 9 or 10 out of 10, pull-ups require intensity closer to 4 to 6 out of 10. But, as always, explore what works best for you.

Before you initiate each pull-up, brace your core (pretend you are about to be tickled in the stomach, or use whatever cue works best for you), gently tuck your ribcage down towards your hips (in other words, make your midsection shorter), squeeze your glutes, flex your quads and hamstrings, and dorsiflex your feet. This will stabilize your pelvis, spine, and lower body, and allow you to focus on your upper body.

Exercise: Single-Leg-Deficit Hip Lift–Hamstring Curl Combo

This highly effective exercise strengthens and builds the hamstrings and glutes, develops grip strength, scapula-and-shoulder-controlled mobility, and lumbo-pelvic stability. In othe words, it has huge carryover to your pull-up performance.

Key How-To Points:

  • Set your grip so that your hands are facing away from you and are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Before you begin, do the same breathing, bracing, and rib-tuck pattern as in the exercise above.
  • Start the movement by sinking your hips toward the floor to find your start position, then reverse the movement and extend your hips upward, using your hamstring and glutes. Once your hips are fully extended, perform a hamstring curl by pulling hard through your heel, contracting your hamstrings hard and shifting your body toward the bench. Reverse the movement and return to the start position.
  • Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend (arch) or ribcage to flare. Keep your anterior core muscles braced and your ribcage tucked down towards your hips.
  • Use the muscles in your mid- and upper-back to control the movement of your shoulder blades.

3) Put Your Back Into It.

Many people struggle to perform one or more pull-ups or chin-ups because they make the mistake of initiating the movement with their arms. You will have markedly more success if you initiate the movement with the muscles in your middle and upper back, drawing your shoulder blades together and down and driving your elbows down towards the ground. While your biceps and forearms will be involved in this exercise, the muscles of your middle and upper back should be doing the majority of the work.

Exercise: Scapula Pull-Ups

This pull-up “pregression” teaches you to initiate the pull-up by engaging your back muscles instead of relying solely on your arms, plus it helps you develop the ability to control the movement of your shoulder blades (critical for shoulder health). This exercise is also extremely beneficial for improving your grip strength and ability to simply hang from a bar (also great for shoulder health!). This variation teaches you how to keep your body as stable as possible.

Key How-To Points:

  • Use the body positioning and core bracing and tension-building techniques from above.
  • Set your grip so that your hands are facing away from you and are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Without bending your elbows or initiating the movement with your arms, use the muscles in your shoulder-blade area to draw your shoulder blades together and downward (think about bringing each of your shoulder blades in towards your spine and downward towards your opposite hip) and lift your body a few inches. (It’s a small movement!) Pause in the top position, if possible, contracting your back muscles hard, then lower yourself to the starting position in a controlled manner. Fully extend — but do not hyperextend — your elbows.
  • Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to flare. Keep your chin tucked slightly and your neck in a neutral position.
  • When it comes to breathing, exhale just after you initiate the scapular movement, and inhale and reset as you are descending back to the start position. Or, do a full reset when you are in the bottom position.

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Meghan Callaway has been a strength coach in North Vancouver for nearly 15 years, and in this time, she has coached clients ranging from elite athletes to those seeking rehabilitative strength training post-injury to people simply looking to feel healthier and more confident. A lifelong athlete, Meghan writes on an array of fitness topics on her website and offers one-on-one coaching and small-group training in person.

 

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Ready to pull it all together?

If so, Callaway has created a beast of a pull-up program just for you.

Callaway’s thoroughly comprehensive 166-page Ultimate Pull-Up Program helps beginners solve problems that are holding them back from being able to perform their first pull-up. It also vastly improves more advanced exercisers’ form, boosts total number of reps, and allows for more advanced variations.

Each phase of the program includes exercises that improve technique, upper-body strength, muscle tone, stability and mobility, glute strength, core strength, and even lower-body strength. Every exercise includes detailed written descriptions and video demonstrations so that no matter where you are in your pull-up journey, you have the information you need to excel.

Until end of day October 27th, you can take advantage of the launch price of $47. (After that, the price will increase to $97.) 

Learn more about The Ultimate Pull-Up Program.

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Author:Jen Sinkler

Fitness writer and editor, workout connoisseur, meditator, proponent of spandex, former rugby player; never, ever without lip gloss.
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