Perfect Your Pull-Ups

Blake Buys explains how to perform flawless pull-ups, complete with the what-not-to-dos and supporting exercises.

Seeing as climbing largely involves using holds to pull ourselves up a wall, the pull-up is one of the best exercises you can master for your climbing performance. Of course, to be an efficient and strong climber, you need to train far more than just your vertical pull strength – a large portion of your power should come from your lower body (use those feet!), and you are likely to find yourself on not-so-vertical climbs fairly often. So, while you need to train your whole body to sustainably improve, there is no denying that perfecting your pull-up game will go a long way in building key skills such as endurance, core stability and lock-off strength.

This blog from CityROCK Cape Town’s resident fitness guru, Blake Buys, will take you through the fundamentals of pulling hard, including correct form, common mistakes and supporting exercises.

Finesse That Form

As with all exercises, proper form is key to reaping the full benefits of the pull-up and staying injury-free. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your body properly set up:

(Click the images to enlarge.)

1. Grab the pull-up bar with your hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart and your palms facing forward.

With your arms extended above you, push your chest forward and squeeze your shoulder blades together while slightly curving your back. 

2. Engage your back and core, release your feet from the ground, and pull yourself up while breathing out until the bar is at chest level.

3. On your inhale, slowly lower yourself with control back to the starting position. That is one rep.

You can use an exercise band to perform an assisted pull-up, demonstrated here by beefcake Blake.

This form engages all the right muscles to maximise the effectiveness of your pull-ups. For instance, having your hands a bit wider than your shoulders better targets the lats. To get technical, your arms should be positioned 30º to 45º away from your body, and at no more than a 45º angle.

While the classic pull-up described above uses the palm-forward grip, there are variations that use a reverse grip to target different muscles. You can also adjust the position of your thumb, holding it on top of the bar with the rest of your fingers, or wrapped around the bar. Furthermore, with a wrapped thumb, you can position it on top of your fingers, or tuck it underneath your index finger for a hook grip. We recommend sticking with the simple palm-forward grip at the beginning; after you’ve mastered the basics, you can chat to Blake or a climbing coach about the pros and cons of other grips. 

What Not to Do

There are a few common mistakes amongst pull-up beginners that can sabotage your progression and leave you vulnerable to injury:

1. Beware of hyperextension

This is a biggie. Because you need to engage the back and shoulders to do a pull-up correctly, you will have a slight curve in your spine. However, you should not be bending your back further than needed; you want to avoid an arched position. A good way to do this is to engage the core and be mindful of keeping your spine in a relatively neutral position as you perform the exercises.

Similarly, keep your neck in a straight position, as bending it too far back can lead to injury.

2. It’s not a dyno

There are exercises, such as the kipping pull-up (thanks CrossFit), that use momentum for power. However, these are widely regarded as unsafe and unnecessary because (a) you are likely to injure yourself and (b) slow, controlled pull-ups do far more to develop your muscles and get you stronger. Keep your body static and steady.

3. Go all the way

It’s very important to use a full range of motion in your rep. That means pulling yourself all the way up so that you chin is above the bar, and coming back down to a ‘dead-hang’ position (i.e. your arms should be fully extended so that you need to push through that initial lift every time).

4. Keep your legs in line

Just as important as keeping your upper body correctly engaged, you should try to keep your lower body stable as you perform your pull ups. Try bending your legs slightly and crossing your ankles to keep everything controlled.

Supporting Your Pull-Ups

While regularly practicing pull-ups is the best way to progress, you can level up by performing supporting exercises. The main muscles used for pull-ups are the lats and biceps, accompanied by the deltoid and rhomboids. You can stabilise and strengthen your body by exercising the complementary muscles, i.e. the triceps, forearms, abdominals and lower back. Here are some exercises you can do to give your to add to your routine:

Tricep dips
See this video demo.
Supermans (this is a variation of a back extension).
See this video demo.
See this video demo.
Bar hangs
You don’t really need a video demo for this one…

Well, folks, that’s the basics covered! Of course, the best way to ensure you’ve got the right technique is to enlist the hands-on help of a fitness trainer or coach. Chat to the staff at your local gym to get the right guidance and pull those ups like a pro.

P.S. Thank you to our mysterious generic human, Harry Acker <3