Grab a bar above your head and pull your chin over it. The pull-up sounds simple, yet for a majority of adults, it’s an impossible task.
The last time most of us tried to do a pull-up was during the mandatory fitness tests of high school gym class. Self-conscious teens watched as a few fit peers cranked out an endless supply of pull-ups with a rhythm as smooth as walking. In comparison, many kids could barely make one. Several struggled just to hang from the bar.
Life’s pull-up challenge typically ends there. Unless you’re in an action movie or military training, there is little demand in the modern world for this movement. And if you have a humiliating history with pull-ups, there’s little desire to subject yourself to them ever again.
But trainers, physical therapists, and other health professionals say we’re missing out on one of the best exercises available.
“Doing the hang part of the pull-up is really good for building shoulder stability,” Snyder said. “In physical therapy, just being able to hang is so good for decompression of your spine and shoulder. But when you get into the actual pull-up, that’s when you’re building strength.”
What makes the pull-up so effective at building strength is that it’s a compound exercise, meaning that it works several muscles at once. It’s like a whole-body workout in a single move.
“There aren’t a lot of exercises out there where you can build so many muscles all together,” Snyder said.
One of the first things pull-ups improve is grip strength. This is important because it has a direct relationship with our longevity.
According to a large, four-year global study published in The Lancet journal, measuring grip strength is better than measuring blood pressure for predicting death from cardiovascular mortality and all-case mortality, which is the term to describe all of the deaths that occur in a population, regardless of the cause.
Other studies find that a strong grip correlates to shorter hospital stays and better overall physical functioning.
In other words, the stronger our grip, the better hold we tend to have on life.
Grip involves your hand, wrist, and forearm muscles, but the pull-up also asks a lot of your upper arm and chest muscles, too.
However, the majority of our pull-up power comes from the muscles in our back. Ashlee Van Buskirk, a fitness and nutrition coach with Whole Intent, says these large, structural muscles are often weak, making pull-ups even more elusive.
“Our back muscles don’t receive as much attention as our other muscle groups,” Van Buskirk said. “For many people, they’re the most under-worked muscle group.”
The pull-up is primarily an upper-body exercise, but some middle body muscles also play a big role in getting our chin over that bar. Van Buskirk says pull-ups are all about control—steadily raising and lowering your body—which allows us to develop a solid core.
It can take a lot of time and dedication to develop the strength and muscle coordination a pull-up requires. But this practice rewards us on a daily basis. According to Monica Straith, a fitness lead at AlgaeCal, people who do pull-ups benefit from better functional strength.
“Functional exercises are ones that can help you perform activities of your daily life more easily and without injury,” Straith said. “Since you’re working multiple muscles, including your back and core, you can achieve better posture.”
Strength is the initial benefit of pull-ups. But Van Buskirk says that, over time, you can also use the exercise to improve your cardiovascular system.
“When done in multiple sets with short rests, pull-ups can make a huge difference in your cardio workouts,” Van Buskirk said. “This benefit takes a while to realize, but with enough effort, you’ll see some good results.”
The road from couch to pull-up may be longer than we’d like, but it’s not endless. Eric Bowling, a NASM-certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance, has trained many women in their 40s and 50s who have gone from zero to eight or more pull-ups in as little as 12 weeks.
In addition to fitness, pull-ups provide pride. Bowling says that for those who put in the effort, the exercise delivers a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
“No exercise I’ve ever had clients do brings more enjoyment than being able to do a pull-up,” Bowling said.
Weak muscles hinder pull-up performance, but so does a weak mind. Bowling says most people lack the belief they will ever do a pull-up, so they never do. As a result, they aren’t able to stick with the process long enough to see improvement.
Another reason people find pull-ups so discouraging is that they do them wrong. One common mistake is relying solely on your arms to carry you upward. Instead, become conscious of how each of your muscles plays a part in lifting you up.
“To perform the movement properly, the scapula (shoulder blades) need to first be set in the right position, downwards and pulled back. This will allow for your chest to stay high, and get your back muscles ready to work,” Bowling said.
Next, concentrate on your elbows. Instead of thinking about your arms pulling, think about driving your elbows down to get you up.
While the upper body makes the lift, controlled muscular tension in our legs and glutes also contribute to the exercise, by keeping your lower body still.
“Don’t swing back and forth, which changes your center of mass and makes the movement harder,” Bowling said.
A pull-up is basically a weight training exercise. Instead of dumbbells or barbells, you’re hauling your own mass skyward. The standard pull-up grip has your palms facing away from you. A common variation is the chin-up grip (palms facing toward you). This version demands even more from your biceps and abdominal muscles.
It’s encouraging to see your number of pull-ups increase as your strength and coordination improve. But when you’re a long way from performing even one, you can lose interest fast. Shane Duquette, a strength and conditioning coach with Bony to Beastly, says a good place for newbies to start is with lowered pull-ups (sometimes called negatives or eccentrics pull-ups). Begin by standing on a chair or stool with your chin already above the bar. Next, step away from the chair and slowly lower yourself down. This stimulates all the muscles that will eventually grow strong enough to pull yourself up.
Duquette says other weight training exercises such as rows, bicep curls, lat pulldowns, and assisted pull-ups (with a machine or a band) can all contribute to our pull-up strength requirements. But the lowered pull-up develops the specific muscle strength and coordination better than anything else.
“Since the movement pattern is the exact same, it will develop size and strength in the relevant muscle fibers,” Duquette said. “The further we move from the specific pull-up movement pattern, the less relevant the muscle and strength we gain will be. That’s what makes lowered pull-ups so valuable.”
One major obstacle to pull-up performance is excess body weight. Just a few pounds can make a difference between a lift you can accomplish and one you can’t. The more fat we carry, the longer our progress can take.
“This means that the pull-up isn’t just measuring muscle strength, it also factors in leanness,” Duquette said. “That makes it a better predictor of overall fitness.”
Unlike other weight training routines, pull-ups require little equipment. All you need is a sturdy bar—ideally one low enough for you to reach, yet high enough for you to hang where your feet don’t touch the ground. A well-mounted bar specifically designed for pull-ups is best, but the top of a swing set or even a strong tree limb can work in a pinch.
As long as the bar can support your weight, Duquette says the pull-up is safe compared to other resistance training exercises. However, some people can develop elbow pain working with a conventional straight bar. Some gyms offer slightly angled pull-up bars to allow for a more neutral grip that’s easier on the joints.
With access to a good bar and enough perseverance, anyone can grab the benefits.
“Even the weakest among us can develop the strength necessary to do a pull-up,” Duquette said.