(Article by Kari Fry with Heather Walker)
Pull ups are a great example of an upper body exercise and having the correct form can make all the difference to the results they can provide. We sat down with Personal Trainer Heather Walker to ask her advice on how to improve technique and get better at pull ups.
IMPORTANT: The ideas in this article are the views of the interviewee and are intended purely for information only – they are not intended as bespoke exercise advice. Please do not start an exercise programme until you have completed a PAR-Q and if necessary, received medical clearance. Always warm up and cool down and never do any exercise that you are unsure of without the support of a qualified professional.
What does a good pull up look like?
A good pull up starts with you holding the bar with your arms wider than shoulder width and hands in an overhand (pronated) grip, with your body hanging down. From here you should engage the lats and think about squeezing the shoulder blades back and down, bend your arms and pull your body up until your chin is higher than the bar. Try to keep the body straight, and don’t be tempted to try and swing and use momentum to get up. It should all be strength! You should then lower down in a controlled manner.
What top tips would you suggest to get better at pull ups?
The best way to get better at pull ups is to practice the eccentric phase of the movement (the lowering down part). To do this you can jump up or use a step to climb up to the top of the pull up, where your arms are bent and your chin is level with the bar, then do a slow, controlled lower down until your arms are straight. This is also referred to as a negative rep.
Another method you can use is tying a resistance band around the bar and putting your feet inside the loop that hangs down. The resistance band will help with the concentric phase (where you pull up), allowing you to practice the movement with the assistance of a band.
You can also use a spotter. They should stand behind you and make a ‘platform’ with their hands. You will then hang off the bar and bend your knees, so you are able to place the top of your feet in their hands. As you pull up, you can press down through your feet to help take some of the weight and assist with the lifting. This method will also work with any sturdy platform behind you.
Some great tips to help practice achieving a good pull up technique. Can you recommend some ideas for how to become better at pull ups at home?
If you have a pull up bar at home, you could use this to practice. Please make sure they are installed correctly and check the weight load before use. You can then use any of the above tips to help work on your pull ups. Although do make sure any platforms etc you use are sturdy and unable to tip over.
Another thing you could work on is grip strength, simply by just hanging off the bar, whilst keeping shoulders pulled down and away from the ears.
What if you don’t have a bar? Are there any exercises you can use to help you get good at pull ups without a bar?
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to safely practice exercises that will help you get better at pull ups at home if you don’t have a pull up bar or any gym equipment. However, you could practice the motion and focus on engaging the back and shoulder muscles in an exercise I call “Y to W arms”.
To do this stand with your arms above your head and diagonally out so you are making a Y shape. From here, bend your arms and draw your elbows down so you look like you are making a W shape with your arms and head. Whilst performing this action really think about engaging the back muscles by squeezing the shoulder blades down, as this is what they will be doing in a pull up.
You could also use resistance bands and do pull aparts, where you hold the resistance band in front of you with your arms straight and about shoulder width apart, then think about squeezing the shoulder blades together, and pull the band apart drawing the elbows back so they are out to the side of your shoulders.
Failing that you can go to a park and play on a climbing frame!
Are there any pull up alternatives suitable for females wanting to get better at pull ups? Or would this look the same for everyone?
Exercises to help improve pull ups will be the same for everyone, regardless of gender. Any exercises that will help strengthen the back and arm muscles in a pulling motion will help improve pull ups. Some good exercises that you can try are listed below:
- Lat pulldown resistance machine
- Assisted pull up machine
- Body weight inverted rows
- Negative rep pull ups
- Pull ups with resistance bands or spotters
Summary - How to Get Better at Pull Ups
Thank you, Heather for your time. We’ve learnt that the key to pull ups is to put in the practise, engage the correct muscles and focus on your form as you are performing them. Heather has given us some great tips for ways to get better at pull ups and we hope you find this useful in your workout routines.