3 Exercises to Help You Do More Pull-Ups

Get the most out of this essential exercise with tips from STACK Expert Josh Henkin.

You might be a fan of old-time pictures of great bodybuilders like Dave Draper or Arnold Schwarzenegger performing this exercise on iconic Muscle Beach. The ability of this exercise to produce greater running speed makes it a strong choice. Of course the exercise's ability to develop a true V-shaped body makes it a cornerstone of any good routine. Heck, if you want impressive arms, it should be in your arsenal.

RELATED: Do Your First Pull-Up With This Simple Workout. Guaranteed. 

Yes, I'm speaking about legendary Pull-Ups. A key lifts in just about any bodybuilding, sports performance, or functional fitness routine, the  Pull-Up has such historic status in our general culture that it needs little introduction.

This article isn't about convincing you to perform Pull-Ups. It's to help you to actually do them right. Finding a well-executed Pull-Up is as hard to find as Big Foot. Now that Pull-Ups have come back into vogue, we need to clean up some of the issues that have followed them in their new found popularity.

Knowing the Goal

Most of us are task-oriented in the gym. We think the goal of any exercise is to lift the weight. That makes sense at first glance; however, understanding the real value of any exercise and program includes appreciating the true goal—to have our bodies move properly—and load is simply an extension of that movement.

This is especially true with the Pull-Up. Most people are led to believe that the goal is simply to get the head above the bar by any means possible. That's not the case at all, and not knowing the proper intent can lead to stagnation and possible injury.

RELATED: Perfect Pull-Up Technique

The real goal of a Pull-Up is to keep the body in vertical alignment and to use the upper back to pull the upper chest to the bar without altering body position. When we look at the Pull-Up in this manner, we realize that it's not just an upper-back exercise. It's a full-body movement.

Where Lifters Go Wrong

Since most people simply try to raise their chin over the bar, they miss much of the value of this old time exercise. We tend to see all types of bad habits that negatively impact our performance in a Pull-Up, such as:

Crunching into the movement: This tends to be most common with lifters who are either fatigued or struggling with a Pull-Up. They try to use the dominant flexors of the body to lift themselves up. That includes using more biceps, chest, and rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscles). Though training those muscles wouldn't seem like a bad thing, the truth is that allowing such "crunching" into a Pull-Up puts the shoulder at great risk and prohibits you from using the right muscles.

RELATED: How to Master the Pull-Up

Leaning into the Pull-Up: This compensation doesn't seem like a bad choice, and some do it deliberately because they "feel" more in their upper back. But leaning back creates a big problem that can negate your performance. When we lengthen the trunk while leaning back, we put the abdominals at stretch. That means we can't get much stability out of the trunk, and when we lose this stability, we also lose strength.

How to Fix Your Pull-up

Most assume that doing more Pull-Ups is the answer, but this may not be the fastest or best way to solve the problem. In fact, with a little knowhow about the body, we can use other exercises to fix the qualities that make up a great Pull-Up.

Body Saws

When you know how the body works, you can create better solutions. The body doesn't function in isolation, but rather in specific chains. Physical therapist Diane Lee calls these "sling systems." They are specific muscle groups working together to create more efficient movement. Two of the chains that are important for improving pull-up strength are the Posterior Oblique and Anterior Oblique systems. They are represented by the following:

  • Anterior Oblique System: External and internal oblique with the opposing leg's adductors and intervening anterior abdominal fascia.
  • Posterior Oblique System: The lat and opposing glute maximus.

These are important concepts, because we start to figure out that using the core and glutes properly can have a profound impact on our upper-body strength as well. Using this information, we start to see that lack of pull-up strength is not just an upper-body issue. It relates to how well we can train the upper body while connecting to the core and hips.

The Body Saw exercise is amazing for doing just that. While most will feel immense abdominal work, the real beauty of this drill is the coordination of vertical pulling action (as in a Pull-Up) with a stable core and active hips. The body "sagging" during the Body Saw gives us instant feedback about the break in this important chain of muscles.

Another phenomenal benefit of this simple-looking drill is that you can train lots of upper-back strength. It will light up your lats. So if you are only used to feeling your arms when you perform Pull-Ups, you might finally feel the right muscles for the first time! An amazing drill to connect the body for a better Pull-Up.

Sandbag Half-Kneeling Arc Press

Working from a half-kneeling posture forces the entire body to stabilize while trying to lift a load. You have to efficiently integrate your hips, core and upper body in what should look like a seamless movement to produce a more efficient Pull-Up.

Many view this as a pressing movement only, but it goes well beyond the shoulders. The sandbag gives you an opportunity to work in angles and positions that most other weights just won't. The instability of the sandbag also helps activate more muscles in the upper body and trunk, ideal for producing a stronger Pull-Up.

The combination of the half-kneeling posture and the sandbag moving from side to side gives your a modified Side Plank with an upper-body push/pull. Lifters will quickly find where their weaknesses lie and understand that learning to connect the body, not train in isolation, leads to faster results.

Renegade Row

A rowing action may seem to make little sense in promoting pull-up strength, but the focus isn't so much on the row itself. Being in a push-up position, you can't load your upper back in a row like you can in a standing position. However, being in a push-up position gives you so many more benefits that make it well worth it.

In the Renegade Row, most lifters focus only on the arm rowing the weight. But the reality is both arms should be highly active. The rowing arm should be pulled up slowly so the lat tightens and the shoulder blade moves back. The stance arm should be gripping tightly, keeping a neutral wrist and packed shoulder. Isometrically, you are working on shoulder stability, strength, and integration with the rest of the body.

Of course, a goal of this exercise is not to allow the hips or torso to elevate or rotate. When they do, the whole impact of the movement—which is to have the shoulder work with the core and hips to prevent movement, with the arm as the only moving part—is lost. This is an extremely intense exercise because of the need to keep that connection during changing stability.

Bonus: Chair Pull-up

There is no shortage of articles on "how to master the Pull-Up." Many offer good ideas and techniques. However, most require some proficiency in the Pull-Up to do them really well. That's why I have become a big fan of "Chair Pull-Ups." Since the goal is to work on perfect movement training as we build strength, this Chair Pull-Up series helps us remember how to keep proper posture, alignment, and use the right muscles!

  • Level 1: Both feet on the ground
  • Level 2: One foot slightly off the ground
  • Level 3: Both feet extended
  • Level 4: One leg off of the ground

The Pull-Up can be an amazing exercise for health, performance, and body aesthetics—that is, if you really focus on the quality of movement and what makes a perfect Pull-Up. With that knowledge available to you, you can improve rapidly and feel the benefits of this tremendous exercise.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CORE | PULL-UP | UPPER BODY | CHEST | EXERCISING | POSTURE | UPPER BACK