With the greatest of respect to bent over rows, there is no exercise that is better for your upper back than the pull up. Sadly, the exercise is often too difficult for beginners or even intermediate lifters. Most people can’t perform even a single rep, and very few could perform three sets of ten!
So how can you incorporate pull ups into your routine if you can’t even perform three reps in a row? Well, there are several approaches. You can perform eccentric pull ups (where you focus on just the lowering part of the movement), you can strengthen your upper back using other exercises, or you can use pull up bands.
This article will look at all three approaches, and how you can incorporate each approach into your workout routine. Allowing you to build a bigger, stronger back through an exercise you can perform at home, in the park (via a climbing frame), or in the gym.
Benefits of the Pull Up
Pull ups are the ultimate bodyweight exercise, allowing you to use your own weight as the resistance, working your arms, shoulders, and upper back muscles. There are hundreds of variations, making pull ups easier, harder, and allowing you to target different muscles.
The chin up, for example, is an easier version of the pull up that places more emphasis on the biceps, making it a good arm exercise as well. It is possible to make pull ups much more difficult through the use of a dumbbell between the feet or a weighted vest. Or you can make pull ups easier using pull up bands, and you can target higher rep ranges (beneficial for hypertrophy and muscular endurance).
Pull ups also have another benefit, they are seen as a good show of strength and a demonstration of a good strength to weight ratio. Basically, they are great for showing off in front of people!
What Muscles do Pull Ups Work?
Pulls ups work a number of muscles in the upper body, with particular emphasis on the muscles of the upper back. Here are the muscles that a pull up will work:
- Latissimus Dorsi (lats)
- Trapezius (traps)
- Deltoids (mostly rear delts)
- Forearms and wrist flexors (grip)
You can change the emphasis on which muscles are targeted by changing your grip. A close underhand grip (chin up) will target the biceps more as well as the traps, while targeting the lats and deltoids a little less. A wider, overhand grip will place more emphasis on the lats and rear delts.
How to Perform a Pull Up
For any pull up, you will need a pull up bar. Most gyms have them, and you can purchase pull up bars for your home (though ensure that they are properly affixed to the wall). Many parks have climbing equipment which you can use. We will now walk you through a standard pull up.
Grab a bar with a double overhand grip, both hands directly above your shoulders, raise your feet off the ground and hang from the bar. Push your chest out and lean back slightly, take a deep breath and then use your arms and back to pull yourself up until your chest is almost brushing the bar.
Pause, and then lower yourself down to your starting position with feet remaining off the ground. You want to do this with a lot of control, rather than just dropping back down. Pause, and then restart the exercise, pulling yourself back upwards.
The wider your hands are while gripping the bar, the more difficult the exercise is, and the more it works your lats. If your grip gets narrower than shoulder width apart, then use an underhand grip instead.
How to Perform Eccentric Pull Ups
The eccentric part of any movement is where your muscles lengthen. In a bicep curl the eccentric part of the movement would be lowering the dumbbell back down after curling the weight up (concentric).
We are stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically. Which means that we could theoretically use a much heavier weight for the lowering part of the dumbbell curl than we could for the curling part.
Eccentric training is the practical application of that theory. Instead of performing the full movement (concentric and eccentric), you start halfway through, and just perform the eccentric part. For a bicep curl that would involve starting with the weights at shoulder height and slowly lowering the weights down for one rep.
The trick with eccentric training is to perform it as slowly as possible, let the weight force your muscles down. Doing this can lead to huge strength gains, but it also really exhausts the muscles. So you don’t want to overdo it.
With pull ups, you would just be performing the lowering action of the pull up. Use a box or step to help you get up to the bar. Grab it in both hands and then slowly lower yourself down to the floor. Let go of the bar, climb back up the step/box and restart.
Eccentric pull ups are great for people who aren’t yet strong enough for full pull ups. Allowing you to target the muscles required to perform a pull up and preparing them to eventually manage it.
Using Pull Up Bands to Perform Pull Ups
The reason why people find pull ups so difficult is that you are required to lift up your entire bodyweight. Which can be quite a lot. Even very strong people can struggle with pull ups if they weigh 120kg!
Resistance bands can really help you here, by carrying some of your weight for you. By attaching a resistance band to the bar and placing your knee on it, the resistance band can offset a proportion of your weight, allowing you a greater chance of lifting yourself up.
Contrary to most resistance exercises, the tougher the resistance band, the easier it is to perform. That’s because larger resistance bands can offset more of your weight. So if you are really struggling, you will require the heaviest resistance band, you can then use lighter and lighter resistance bands as your strength improves.
How to Use a Resistance Band for Pull Ups
- Step one: Loop the resistance band over the bar, and then place one end through the other. Pull it down and the knot will tighten. This will secure the resistance band to the bar. One end should be hanging down towards the floor.
- Step Two: Pull the end of the resistance band down and place one knee into the band. Shuffle the band lower down the shin to secure it.
- Step Three: Grab the bar in both hands, using a double overhand grip, shoulder width apart. Raise your other foot off the floor and hang from the bar.
- Step Four: Push your chest out and then pull yourself up until your chest is just about brushing the bar. Pause, and then lower yourself back down. Repeat for the prescribed number of reps.
- Step Five: When you are finished, lower yourself back down so that one foot is firmly on the floor. Slowly remove the resistance band from your knee, and then you can untie the band from the bar.
Accessory Exercises to Help You Improve Your Pull Ups
Creating a training program that utilises eccentric training and resistance bands is a great way to build up towards pull ups. But there are also some accessory exercises that you can add to your program such as the following:
- Lat Pulldowns: If you have access to a lat pulldown machine then you can focus on strengthening the lats and the biceps. Two areas that contribute massively to pull ups. As with pull ups, push your chest out to place more emphasis on the lats. Concentrate on bringing your elbows into your side as you bring the bar to your chest.
- Farmer’s Walks: This may seem like an odd choice of accessory exercise, but one area that can really let you down with pull ups is grip strength. Farmer’s walks (where you walk up and down a corridor carrying heavy dumbbells) can really help to improve grip strength, removing another obstacle to your pull ups.
- Preacher Curls: The biceps are very underrated muscles when it comes to pull ups, and a lot of work should be spent on building them up. Preacher curls are a great way to isolate the biceps and focus on perfect form. You can either use an Ezy-bar or you can perform single arm dumbbell curls on it.
- Rear Delt Flyes: Your deltoids are made up of three different areas, the front delts, lateral delts, and the rear delts. Out of the three, the rear delts are crucial for pull ups. Providing stabilisation and balance. Performing rear delt flyes, either with dumbbells or cables, can help to strengthen them and can also help to reduce injury risk.
What to Do Now?
The first thing you will want to do is gain access to a good quality pull up bar. Then you will want some reliable and effective pull up resistance bands. Start off with the heaviest/most resistance as this will be the easiest. Then progress to lower and lower resistance bands as your strength improves.
Add accessory exercises to your routine and once you feel ready, some eccentric pull ups. Even when you can do a good set of 6 pull ups. You will still want to use resistance bands to perform higher rep sets which are suitable for hypertrophy or muscular endurance.