Pull-Ups: The ‘Ultimate’ Exercise — No Weights or Running Required

July 15, 2015 Updated: July 15, 2015

Many women lack upper body strength. Unfortunately, this can lead to injuries and lack of ability, as many common movements such as lifting a box or a child require strong upper body muscles. 

It’s wise for all women to strengthen these muscles by working on the two best exercises for them: push-ups and pull-ups. Just because pull-ups and chin-ups are hard, it doesn’t mean women can’t do them! In fact, you *should* be able to lift your own body with your arms. In nature, this sort of movement is very basic and in fact a matter of survival.

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Pull-ups are one of the most beneficial overall muscle and strength developers. Pull-ups and chin-ups are also one of the hallmarks of an advanced strength athlete. 

The pull-up builds grip strength because your fingers, hands and forearms are all used. Pull-ups also develop your biceps, triceps and shoulders, giving you powerful strength and superior muscularity. Muscles throughout the entire back are bombarded with enough stress to make them grow stronger, especially the latissimus dorsi and trapezius. Additionally, your abdominal muscles are given a good workout due to the stabilization needed through the entire core. 

A well-rounded program requires some variations on the pull-up. Any pull-up that starts with your palms facing forward on the bar (a “forward grip”) and ends with your chin going up over the bar will bring focus to the pectoralis muscles of the chest. To bring more focus to your back muscles, there are two options you should consider. The first is a wider grip, and the other is a pull-up bar that has the ends angled down.

According to Livestrong:

“For many, the pull-up is a more difficult exercise than they can start out with. If you are having trouble completing more than five or six repetitions of the exercise without stopping, consider modifying the pull-up for a while … You can place a chair in front of the chin-up bar and rest one foot on the chair while you do the exercise … You can also do a variation called a ‘jump up’ by hopping up to the chin-up position and focusing on lowering your body slowly.”

 In the video above, Darin Steen discusses and demonstrates a phenomenal exercise to help improve your muscle mass, namely pull-ups. You can use dumbbells and strength training to achieve the same goal, but bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups and push-ups, which we’ve also recently reviewed, are especially helpful and have less of a risk of injury.
It’s important to understand that more is not “better” when it comes to pull-ups. Instead, focus on technique and mindset.
Most fitness experts agree that pull-ups and push-ups are fundamental for any fitness program. Unfortunately, many avoid these exercises out of fear of developing “bulging muscles.” This fear is unwarranted, and muscle-building exercises are in fact the best fat-burning method there is. 
It’s also a primary anti-aging strategy. 
Another benefit is that you don’t need a lot of costly equipment. There are a number of different pull-up or chin-up bars available on the market. Most of them install easily into a doorway and can be removed when done. In a pinch, you could just use the doorjamb—just make sure it’s sturdy, so you don’t pull it off. Overhead beams could also suffice, as long as you can reach them. 

Proper Form is Key

It’s important to understand that more is not “better” when it comes to pull-ups. Instead, focus on technique and mindset. Proper form is key when performing these types of bodyweight exercises—it’s about the quality of your movement, as opposed to quantity.

The pull-up is an exercise geared towards building the muscle mass of your latissimus dorsi, i.e. the broad back muscle that runs from the back of your shoulder to your lower back. This is the primary muscle responsible for that V-shaped look. Many people want to reduce the size of their waist, and the pull-up can help you achieve that as well. 

By slowing down your movement, you effectively reduce your repetition range, meaning the slower you perform the exercise, the fewer repetitions you will manage before your muscles fail. This is actually one of the keys to its effectiveness. The rep speed is therefore very important. 

The majority of the time, the appropriate speed is a slow count of: 3, 2, 1—pause—3, 2, 1—pause

Slower reps also help prevent injuries because as soon as you feel the first twinge of pain, you can stop before you hurt yourself. It also helps you link up your mind-muscle connection. Ideally, you’ll want to reach muscle failure somewhere between nine to 11 repetitions. If you can do upwards of 15 slow reps, you may want to consider adding a 10 pound weight belt to get you down into the ideal nine to 11 rep range again.

For a demonstration of the proper form, please watch the video. 

(Hlib Shabashnyi/iStock)
As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high. (Hlib Shabashnyi/iStock)

Here’s a quick summary of key points to remember:

  • Place your hands on the pull-up bar, palms facing forward, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your legs slightly bent, and your knees together. 
  • Focus on your latissimus dorsi, your back muscle, and feel the contraction as you’re pulling yourself upward. It’s not necessary to get your chin over the bar. 
  • As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high. (Visualizing pulling your elbows down through the floor can help you feel your back muscles more.) Pull up to the slow count of three, pause while squeezing your back muscles, then come down to the slow count of three. 
  • Between reps, let yourself hang while looking down and relaxing, to allow the latissimus dorsi to pull away from your scapula. 
  • Make sure all your movements are slow and controlled. 

Varying Positions and the Benefits of Muscle Confusion

By varying your grip positions you can accomplish muscle confusion, which will help you build more muscle and increase fat loss. 

The first position was explained above (a regular palm forward-facing grip). To vary your position, you can either change your hand grip, or the location of your grip—moving your hands closer together on the bar, or further apart. 

One phenomenal alternative grip is to place your hands close together, palms facing forward. This shifts the tension from the outer part of your back toward your inner rhomboids. As you pull up, allow your elbows to flip outward.

Another alternative grip is to place your hands on the bar with palms facing toward you. This grip can be difficult for some however, depending on the range of motion of your forearm. 

Yet another strategy to induce muscle confusion is to use midrange motion; instead of pulling yourself all the way up, stop about half-way. Hold there for a couple of seconds, and feel the warmth between your shoulder blades as you squeeze the muscles.

Advice for Beginners

Now if you’re just getting started, you may need to work your way up to doing a full, properly performed pull-up. 

To start, place your pull-up bar three to four feet off the ground. While sitting in a chair, grab the bar as instructed above, then straighten your back and hips, while keeping your knees slightly bent with feet on the floor. Then pull yourself up so that your chest touches the bar. Once you’re strong enough, progress to the free-hanging pull-up as demonstrated in the video.