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Pull-Ups: An Underrated Exercise for Building Muscle

There are plenty of exercises around, some difficult, some enjoyable, and some downright pointless.

Many are focused primarily on burning fat and others more on piling on lean muscle. But amongst all of them, one simple exercise can work wonders on many different muscle groups, all at the same time.

Pull-ups.

In their many variations, from wide grip to chin-ups, pull-ups are some of the most basic yet highly-effective and well-rounded exercises out there.

Pull-ups work on your lats, biceps, forearms, traps, pecs, triceps, abs rear delts - basically every muscle in your body from the chest up. Heck, there are even straps that you can throw onto pull-up bars to work your core and stabilization. They’re great.

So where do you start?

The Basics

If you’ve ever done pull-ups in the past, you’ll probably know that there are several different ways to execute the exercise. These are:

Wide-Grip

The wide-grip pull-up is perhaps the most common of all pull-up exercises. It’s a great one for hitting many different muscle groups, with a particular focus on the lats and upper back.

To perform a wide-grip pull-up, simply…

  1. Grab a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body, your hands approximately a shoulder’s width apart. Allow your lower body to hang in a fully-extended position with your arms slightly bent.
  2. Holding your shoulders down and away from your ears, pull yourself up using your arms until your chin reaches the bar and your elbows are in a right-angle position.
  3. Lower yourself back down to the starting position.
  4. Repeat.

body-brawny-crossfit-931323 (1)Chin-Ups

Next on the list are chin-ups. Chin-ups are a slightly easier variation of pull-up that targets different muscle groups.

With a closer grip and adjustment in position, chin-ups target the biceps more than wider grips do, also incorporating the abs and core into the exercise.

A chin-up can be performed in much the same way as a wide-grip pull-up. The only difference is that the hands should be brought in closer to the center of the pull-up bar and they should be facing towards you.

Neutral Grip/Commando Pull-Ups

Neutral grip pull-ups follow the same motions as regular pull-ups, but the palms are facing towards each other. These can only be performed on the two bars that are positioned parallel to one another.

Neutral grip pull-ups place more strain on the traps, rhomboids, levator scapulae, and teres major muscles in the back and shoulders.

There’s also a variation in neutral pull-ups where both hands are placed onto the same bar and you alternate which side of the bar your head passes through on each repetition. These are called commando pull-ups.

Commando pull-ups target the biceps, as well as the lats, traps, and the core, which work to stabilize your upper body.

Behind the Neck Pull-Ups

For those with a little more experience in this exercise, and no former shoulder/rotator cuff issues, behind-the-neck pull-ups are a great way to incorporate more of your upper-back muscles into each exercise.

The trapezius muscles receive greater emphasis, helping to sculpt that sought-after ‘V’ shape whilst incorporating the rear deltoid muscles.

Simply perform a regular pull-up, only lifting your head in front of the pull-up bar rather than behind it.

Knee Raises

Pull-up bars can also be a great piece of equipment on which to execute a killer abdominal workout.

Using elbow straps, you can place yourself in a hanging position, raising the knees whilst keeping your core strong and placing a strong emphasis on the core muscles.

To perform a leg raise, follow these steps:

  1. Place one forearm and elbow from each arm into either strap, holding onto the parallel bars.
  2. Lift yourself up and hang your legs directly down below you.
  3. Engaging your core, lift your knees up to your waistline, keeping your body as still as possible.
  4. Lower down, keeping your abdominal muscles engaged the entire time.
  5. Repeat.

Can't do a pull-up yet? Here's how to practice for one

We've talked a lot about ways that you can use pull-ups to enhance your workouts. But, we also recognize that not everybody can do pull-ups. 

Pull-ups, regardless of the variation you're attempting, are hard workouts. Most of us aren't used to using our back and arms to support and lift our entire body weight. 

If you can't yet do a pull-up, don't fear. There are a few strategies you can employ to train your way up to one (or ten). 

Perform assisted pull-ups

If your gym has a rack that can do weight-assisted pull-ups, that's the best way to practice. You're still doing the pull-up motion and engaging the appropriate muscles, but don't have to lift your full weight. This is a form of the SAID principle– Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. 

When using an assisted pull-up machine, set the weight carriage to an amount that enables you to do pull-ups, but still makes it a challenge to complete 8 reps. If you can do 8+ reps easily, you need to decrease the amount of weight assistance. Ideally, you want to just barely be able to complete 6-10 reps per set while you're training. 

After you get to a point where you can do 8 reps fairly easily with your current assistance level, decrease the amount of weight on the assist, and repeat. 

Train your lats and delts

Your lats are your primary movers in the pull-up motion. Adding exercises to your routine that require you to engage your lats in a pulling motion can help strengthen them and get you closer to completing pull-ups. 

Again, you want to keep the motion as close to a pull-up as possible. Exercises like lat pull-downs are ideal. T-bar rows, dumbbell rows, and long-pulls are also great ways to train your lats, though keep in mind that they don't generally include a downward pulling motion like a pull-up. 

The Takeaway

Pull-ups are an excellent exercise that requires little-to-no experience.

By performing a variety of pull-up exercises every day, you’ll be giving your body a full, well-rounded workout without even having to visit the gym. Not bad.