How to Get Better at Pull ups (5 Hacks That Actually Work)
So I’ve read tons of articles on line and the advice is too often ‘If you want to get good at pull ups, do more pull ups’
This advice is very limited and not helpful, when in actual fact there are a wide variety of very effective ways to improve your pull ups ability, whether your goal is to be able to do more pull ups in a single set or to do them with better form, there are many things you can do that make a huge impact, whether your a beginner or advanced.
The key to improving your pull ups is to find a way to consistently break through strength plateaus.
Just trying doing more pull ups won’t help you reach any goals or take you to the next level.
You need to find a way to overload the muscles current strength capacity by introducing a new stimulus to evoke an adaptive response from the muscle to increase in size and strength so it can handle the increase in intensity.
So I’ve listed the top 5 most effective plateau busters that are guaranteed to improve your pull ups and chin ups:
Try ring pull ups for higher muscle activation
Switch up your grip with pull ups and chin ups
Add weight with a dip belt to maintain a progressive overload
Stress the eccentric phase, by slowing down your reps
Train wide grip pull ups and narrow grip chin ups to equalise your Bicep/Back pulling strength
For superior muscle recruitment, balance, coordination and shoulder stability I recommend you start with ring pull ups…
Try ring pull ups
If you have never tried to do pull ups on gymnastic rings then you are missing out a significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving your overall pull up game.
Gymnastic rings provide a key stimulus that you cannot get from a regular static pull up bar. The stimulus is…
It also offers…
A different plane of motion for your joints and muscles then regular pull ups
Gymnastic rings are free to rotate 360° and move in any direction. The inherent instability of the rings means that not only does to body have to perform a pull up but also stabilise itself throughout the duration of the exercise.
This is on contrast to a conventional bar pull up, where the bar is fixed solid into the ground, providing a stable anchor point and therefore the element of instability is reduced significantly compared with rings.
With gymnastic rings the onus falls on the user to provide the stability and force of the exercise simultaneously.
This means that the rings have a significant advantage over the bar in terms of overall muscle activation.
Stabilising the movement of your body whilst doing pull ups is far more demanding as every muscle has to contribute to the stability to some degree. The chest, shoulders, forearms, biceps and core all have a role to play to maintain balance and coordination through the movement.
For this reason more muscle fibres are recruited during rings pull ups, then standard bar pull ups.
On top of this your muscles are adapting to a new plane of movement.
With regular pull ups or chin ups, your hands remain static on the bar during the exercise, and the only variation is how wide you grip the bar. With rings your hands rotate during the course of the movement. The rings rotate to the angle that your connective tissue is most comfortable. i.e your…
Wrist, elbow and shoulder joints
…determine the angle of rotation of the rings to their optimal position. So during the course of a pull up your grip rotates from a near pronated grip (pull up grip) with your palms facing away, and all the way round to a more neutral grip with your palms either facing each other or facing slightly inwards towards the body like a chin up.
To see exactly how that looks check out this video:
This will be an unfamiliar plane of motion for the muscles if you are only accustomed to bar pull ups and will act as another stimulus that your body has to adapt to.
For this reason ring pull ups will feel more difficult then regular pull ups because of the increase muscle activation and instability therefore the muscles will respond by increasing in size and strength.
This newly acquired strength, coordination and balance will transfer to pull ups on the bar and you will increase the number of pull ups/chin ups you can do per set.
Rings of course also has advantages for joint health.
If you experience and soreness, in your wrists, elbows or shoulders from pull ups or chin ups on the bar it would be wise to switch ring pull ups because your body naturally adjusts the rings to the optimal angle for your the comfort of you joints. This switch can help alleviate discomfort and keep your joints healthy as your joints are not in a compromised position during any point of the movement.
The rings also have a capacity to address strength imbalances between your primary movers of exercises and the rotator cuff, in a safe and tolerable way.
The rotator cuff is responsible for the stability of the shoulder joint. Strengthening the four muscles of the rotator cuff will ensure the shoulder joint is stronger and provides a stable foundation for other lifts and movements.
Strong primary movers (muscles in the chest, arms, back) and comparatively untested and weaker rotator cuff muscles (and tendons) are a common cause of shoulder injury as the body tries to move more weight then the shoulder joint can handle.
The gymnastic rings have a unique capacity to strengthen the stabilising muscles around the shoulder joint to help prevent injury and subsequently allow you to handle more weight by equalising the strength of your stabilisers and your primary movers.
For a full guide on how gymnastic rings develop bulletproof shoulders, check out my article: Gymnastic Rings for shoulder stability . The article outlines the benefits of rings training for your shoulders and details the correct sequence of rings exercises you can do for superior shoulder strength and stability.
If you switch the rings for the bar for six weeks or more, then your body’s adaptive response will be to develop more coordination, balance and a more stable shoulder joint. When you eventually go back to the bar, I guarantee you will be able to do more pull ups and chin ups and they will feel easier then they did before.
Rings pull ups gives your body the opportunity to adapt to two new forms of stimulus:
A new plane of motion.
The increased muscle activation from these two factors will strengthen all the muscles involved in pulling and stabilising your body.
Training ring pull ups will give you that edge you need to bust through strength plateaus for bar pull ups so can hit more reps and have a better quality of movement with improved form, size and strength.
Switch up Between Pull ups and Chin ups
This is one of the most simple yet undeniably effective tips. I always recommend you switch up the variations of pull ups. What I mean by that is you should train both:
Pull ups (palms facing away from your body)
Chin ups (palms facing towards you)
Each variation works the same muscle groups but crucially, the work them under different levels of tension. Broadly speaking:
Chin ups emphasise the biceps whereas…
Pull ups emphasise the your lats (latissimus dorsi) and back muscles
Its important to stress that both exercises do still work the same muscle groups but each exercise puts different muscles at a mechanical advantage to do most of the lifting and therefore the level of tension is varied between the two variations.
With the chin up- your arms are naturally in front of your body when doing the exercise. This helps incorporate the biceps into the exercise more as there is far more flexion required at the elbow to get your chin up and over the bar. (image of pull up vs chin up)
When you adopt a pull up grip on the bar, your hands are naturally spaced wider apart then they would be with a chin up grip and the palms are facing away which changes your body position for the exercise.
With the pull up grip, your elbows are not in front of the body (as with the chin up) but aligned out to the side. This allows the large muscles of the lats and back to contribute more to the movement.
Whilst pull ups still have significant tension on the biceps, they contribute less to the exercise than chin ups, because your arms will be out to the side of your body therefore there will be less elbow flexion and the bicep will not go through its full range of motion.
Why will Switching Between Variations Improve my Pull ups?
Switching between variations is important because it helps equalise strength imbalance between your back and your arms, when it comes to pulling strength.
If you spend more time training chin ups then your pulling strength will be arms dominant and if you are overly specialised in pull ups the chances are you will be back dominant.
Training both variations helps you become more well rounded and ensures proportional muscular development in your arms and back and keeps your joints healthy.
Wide Grip Pull ups and Narrow Grip Chin ups
The width of your grip also has a significant bearing on muscle activation. As you might have guessed a wider grip pull up accentuates the involvement of the lats and back whilst reducing the workload on the biceps and close grip chin ups are the most effective way of targeting the biceps.
A good way to assess whether you have more strength in your arms or back is to simply see how many pull ups you can do vs how many chin ups you can do.
This will help you determine whether you are either arm or back dominant in your pulling strength and then you can go about addressing the strength imbalance by trying to equalise the number of reps you can complete with each variation.
It is important to note that it is normal to be able to do more chin ups then pull ups because chin ups have a stronger line of pull giving the exercise a mechanical advantage (link to chin ups vs pull ups) so don’t be disheartened if the is a difference.
I personally can rep 29 chin ups without compromising form and 25 pull ups (full range of motion with no kipping and no time spent in dead hang). This is a fairly typical discrepancy and is nothing to worry about.
If you find pull ups more difficult then chin ups or vice versa, then addressing the weakness will benefit both your pull ups and chin ups.
Improving your pull ups is all about finding a way to evoke an adaptive response so you can bust through plateaus.
Its impossible to suggest a specific framework for improvement as every one is different, but experiment with wide grip pull ups and narrow grip chin ups to find your weakness and equalise your back and arm strength for a stronger pull up/chin up game.
Add Weight with a Dipping Belt or Vest
Adding weight to your pull ups with either a dipping belt or a weighted vest is a great way to not only increase the intensity of your pull ups for maximal strength but for increasing the number of body weight pull ups you can achieve, when you remove the weight.
By adding weight you can maintain a progressive overload.
This is where you gradually increase the resistance to constantly ‘overload’ the muscles in order to trigger an adaptive response from the body to to gain strength, muscle mass or increase endurance to cope with the increased workload.
Even if you goal is specifically to increase the number of body weight pull ups and not necessarily to lift additional weight, weighted pull ups are a formidable tool to have in your arsenal.
The key is finding the right weight and lifting in the appropriate rep range that serves your goals best:
If your goal is to increase maximal, overall strength then you should lift with heavy weights that leave you in a rep range of around 1-6 reps at the point of failure.
If your goal is to increase muscle size then you need to be training in a rep range that is roughly 8-12 reps per set.
Training for endurance however is less cut and dry…
If your goal is to increase your pull up total, then you will benefit from training with varying levels of resistance (Training with heavy weights for high intensity and lower weights for more reps).
I would recommend starting small by adding 5 KG (approx 11 lbs) at a time and then increase the weight to the point where you will be hitting failure in the 8-12 rep range.
Once your body gradually becomes accustomed to handling that weight try adding to your maximal strength by increasing the weight and lowering the reps.
Because of biological variability there is no specific framework of weighted reps that would apply to everyone, so it a case of relying on your own physiological feedback and adjusting the weight by listening to your own body and seeing how it responds.
Experiment with different approaches of adding only a few kilos to adding a higher weight total as each approach will garner results. Again we are looking to evoke and adaptive response from your muscles by finding new ways to overload them so they become stronger to come with the increasing demand.
If you can challenge your body by overloading the muscles with adding additional weight whilst your pull up, then when you strip off the dipping belt or weight vest, your body weight reps are going to feel lighter by comparison and you will be able to do more reps as a result.
Weighted particularly useful for increasing…
Often its grip strength, and therefore the forearms can be the first thing to burn out during pull ups. If grip is the limiting factor in your pull ups then you should try training weighted pull ups with low reps and relatively heavy weight.
This is the best way to specifically increase the strength of your grip, as not only will you be holding your body weight, which is already significant (relative to your size) but also additional weight, so just holding the bar there will be significant tension on your forearms alone.
If you can factor some heavy pull ups into your workout then the response to the stimulus of increased resistance, will be to strengthen the muscles and tendons in the forearms for a rock solid grip.
Think of grip training this way…
The primary movers of the pull up (biceps and back muscles) may have the strength to perform 15 pull ups but your grip is burning out at 9 reps.
Grip is then the limiting factor: Therefore the purpose of training heavy pull ups is to equalise the strength imbalance between your grip and your primary movers.
By training weighted pull ups you can reverse the imbalance so that your grip strength exceeds the strength of your primary movers therefore the emphasis of the pull ups, shifts back onto to developing strength in your biceps and lats so you can continue your your progression without being limited by a grip deficit.
Stress the Eccentric (lowering phase)
This is often an overlooked factor when it comes to improving your pull up game yet it is one of the best ways to increase your strength by overloading your pulling muscles in a tolerable way.
There are three distinct phases of the pull up:
The eccentric phase of an exercise simply refers to the active muscle lengthening whilst under tension. So in the context of a pull up, the eccentric phase starts where your head is over the bar and you are lowering yourself back down into a dead hang position at the bottom of the movement.
The pulling up phase, where you are contracting your muscles is the ‘concentric’ phase of the exercise (Pulling up to the point where you chin is over the bar).
And the point at which you hold your head over the bar or hold yourself up at the bottom of the exercise with you arms extended are the two isometric phase (where your muscles are under tension in a static position).
A common mistake with pull ups or chin ups is to pull yourself up over the bar and practically drop back down to a dead hang ready for the next rep.
People do this often without realising it. This is usually because they have a target number of reps they are aiming for and they are trying to preserve their energy by essentially skipping the eccentric phase so that they can hit their target number of reps before fatigue sets in.
If you do this you are denying yourself of almost 50% of the exercise and a significant opportunity to get stronger.
In the eccentric phase, where muscle is lengthening, the muscle is able to handle more tension then the concentric phase. (For a more in depth look as to why this is check out this article by Coach Charles R. Poliquin)
So your muscle can handle more resistance during the lowering phase of the pull up then it can during the pulling/concentric phase. More tension means, increased stimulus in the muscle fibres to trigger an adaptive response to become bigger and stronger so that the muscle can handle the increased workload.
Eccentric training is always the method I recommend for mastering difficult calisthenics exercises such as the muscle up. Practising eccentrics is the most effective way to gain the required strength to complete difficult movements that the body is not accustomed to such as the muscle up transition.
There are two ways you can really effectively harness eccentric training to improve your pull ups:
Slow down your reps so that you are moving at even even pace throughout both concentric and eccentric movements.
After you have hit failure during a set of pull ups, use a platform or jump up to the bar and start in a position with your chin already over the bar and lower yourself down as slowly as possible. You will find you can get more reps in, to create and increase workload and trigger that adaptive response you need to overcome the plateau.
Slowing down your reps will help to equalise your strength between concentric and eccentric movements, thereby increasing your overall pulling strength.
This will also increase the time it takes to complete each rep and therefore increase your overall time under tension for each set.
If you complete a set of pull ups too quickly then you will not be spending sufficient time under tension to elicit the strength or muscle building response from the body, that you are looking for.
The optimal time under tension that you should aim for is 45-70 seconds for building strength and muscle.
You should aim to work out in the most effective way possible to yield the best results and I recommend you apply the time under tension framework to all your workouts as it the best method for building strength and adding muscle mass.
The strength acquired will over this rep range is ideal, if your goal is specially to be able to do more pull ups as the emphasis will be on endurance strength, which is perfect for upping the number of pull ups you can execute in one set.
Try to keep a tempo of:
2 second of pulling (concentric)
1 second with your chin above the bar (isometric)
2 second of lowering (eccentric)
If you do 12 reps at this pace it will take 60 seconds- right in the optimal time range.
Of course if you practice you pull ups will full range of motion with no swinging from the legs at approximately at the right pace then you do not need to be too preoccupied with timing precisely as you are sure to fall within the appropriate 45-70 seconds time range.
To get better at pull ups you have to constantly have to adjust your approach. If you stick to the same routine for too long your progress will stall.
Your body only gets bigger and stronger when it has a stimulus to adapt to. So you need to find a way of training pull ups in a way that exceeds the workload that your body is currently accustomed to.
Of the 5 tips I would recommend you start with ring pull ups. The muscle activation is higher then regular pull ups, they are kind to your joints and rings have profound benefits for shoulder stability that transfer over to other exercises.
Switching from pull ups to chin ups and alternating between wide grip and narrow grip is especially helpful for addressing strength imbalance. Training pull ups will directly benefit your chin ups and vice versa as your body will learn to properly engage both your lats, back, core abs and arms so they can all contribute to the movement and you develop a proportional physique both in terms of muscularity and strength.
Eccentric training is often overlooked in the pursuit of a higher rep count. Slowing down your reps is the most simple of the 5 tips but it is undeniably effective. Putting your muscles under tension for a longer period then their used to will elicit an adaptive response and result in improved strength endurance.
And finally weighted reps are an exceptional way of improving your overall pull up and chin up performance. Think of it as combining the benefits of calisthenics and the scalability of weight lifting. This is perhaps the ultimate way to increase your strength (both endurance and maximal strength) and to continue gaining muscle by maintaining a progressive overload.
5 undeniable ways to evoke a new adaptive response form your muscles that I guarantee will all improve your pull ups ability, no matter what your goal is.
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