*This is a guest post from Shawna Kaminski of ChallengeWorkouts.com.
You shouldn’t ignore exercises like the pull ups. A beautifully toned body can be sculpted with this one simple exercise. It may be difficult to perform, but once it’s properly done, pull ups can broaden and strengthen your back as it sculpts your waist into the best shape possible.
What Muscles Help You Do A Pull Up?
The pull up is a compound movement. In performing a pull up, the prime mover is the broadest muscle of your back called the Latissimus Dorsi. The trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, serratus anterious and obliques, are secondary movers and stabilizers. In other words, pull ups are going to hit a number of muscles BIG time.
Although this all sounds fine and dandy to hit all these muscles and get an amazing shape, the pull up creates a challenge for most people. They’re darn near impossible for many. As well, there’s risk of injury that can be prevented.
Here are some tips and tricks to getting your first or fifteenth pull up…
1. Start With Good Body Position
From time to time, I’ll get injured from overzealous training with pull ups and the human flag. My elbows are NOT happy with me. Your pull up challenge is no different. There are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind before to make sure that you can continue to rock the pull up bar pain free. Best to learn from my mistakes.
First of all, you need to engage the correct muscles. Most people uses their arms, shoulders and chest to move their body up to the bar rather than their back. A pull up is properly done with the help of your back muscle. In performing a pull up, make sure that you are in a correct position.
Position yourself under the bar as shown in this image:
Make sure you are in a position where you are looking up on the bar, ready to move with your back muscles, not with your arm muscles. Both of your legs could be used to assist you on your movement but make sure that they both stay below the shoulders and not too far in front of you.
For assisted pull ups like on the image below, position you legs directly below your hips:
Putting a sturdy box or bench below you is very useful.
*In order for you to ‘find’ your back muscles I have a little trick that starts with a simple hang from a suspended bar. It’s called ‘scapular retraction’.
While holding the bar above you, squeeze together your shoulder blades. This help you to press the chest forward. Think about having a ‘long neck’ and almost performing a ‘shrug’. You will notice that there is a slight elevation of your body even if you have not intentionally moved yourself up to the bar.
Learning this, you’ll avoid the usual mistake of inwardly rotating your shoulders to pull your body upwards. The muscles of your back are stronger and this exercise will help you engage them.
What Type Of Grip Should I Have?
Although you’re basically ‘hanging on for dear life’, try not to have a power grip on the bar when doing pull ups. This ‘power grip’ can create elbow pain in time. Instead, have a firm yet loose grasp on the bar to prevent any elbow pain.
*Another reminder: if you are planning on doing a number of pull ups, avoid fully stretching your arms while in a hanging position. Maintaining a slight bend at your elbow will lessen the strain on your joint area.
Types of Grips Used In The Pull Up…
An advantage of doing the pull up is that you can perform it in a variety of ways. You can change your grip from shoulder width, to narrow grip, palms facing each other or parallel. You can have a variety of workouts just by changing your grip. This prevents over use injuries.
Why You Need To Focus On Eccentric Training To Maximize Your Pull Up Ability…
Most people don’t know that the lengthening portion of the movement is actually the strengthening phase. This is called the ‘eccentric’ contraction. Learning to do the pull up is best done when you train eccentrically. There are many ways you can do an eccentric contraction while doing a pull up. You can perform assisted pull ups, jump pull ups, suspended pull ups, band pull ups, inverted rows, weighted pull ups, the list goes on.
*A reminder: working out eccentrically will cause more muscle soreness.
You have to be more cautious while doing eccentric training as the incidence of injury is higher. Limit the number of sets and reps you do with this method to avoid excess stress and strain on your muscles and joints.
Doing pull ups is obviously one of the best bodyweight exercises that can be done. With proper guidance and training, you’ll be able to max out pull ups and enjoy the benefits of a toned and beautifully shaped body.
You should know that to improve your pull ups, you need to actually do pull ups, but you can also do other exercises to strengthen the muscles needed.
It’s sort of a catch 22…if you can’t do a single pull up, how do you train with pull ups? You just can’t. Therefore, I’ve included a few of my favorite exercises to help.
1. Dumbbell Row
I like to do single DB rows so I can address muscle imbalances. NOTE: I always train my weak side first since you’ll always have a strong and weak side, with continued training you’ll lessen the gap of strength differences.
It’s imperative with this movement that you protect the lower back and learn to isolate the latissimus dorsi.
Here’s How To Do It:
Support one knee and one hand on a bench and flatten the back so that your chest is parallel to the floor. If you’re too upright, you’ll work the upper trap, an area that usually needs less development than the lat, the lower trap and rhomboid muscles. Imagine what the pull of gravity is: basically a straight line from the DB to the floor. Allow the DB to hang to the floor while maintaining this flat back position. Bring the DB to the ribs and bring the scapula, or shoulder blade in towards the spine. Return the DB to the full hanging position and allow the shoulder blade to slide away from the spine.
*IMPORTANT: A common error is using the muscles of the arms exclusively to pull the DB into the ribs; this is the same mistake that folks make when trying to do a pull up. You need to find the back muscles and engage them in pulling the DB towards the body. Then allow the DB to extend towards the floor with the arm fully extended.
2. Suspension Row
The suspension trainer uses body weight resistance and allows for ‘progressive resistance’ just by changing the angle of pull with the foot position. It’s really a brilliant idea. Another benefit of the suspension trainer is the need for core stability with its use. The suspended back row is helpful in strengthening the back and improving your pull ups.
Here’s How To Do It:
In the picture, you’ll see a basic row. Maintain a long neck, keep the shoulders down and don’t let them creep up to the ears when doing a row on the suspension trainer.
Ensure to drop the hips slightly, don’t lead with the hips and arch the back. You’ll feel more through the middle back, less through the arms if you have a slight bend at the hips.
3. Hanging Leg Raises
The core is key with the pull up. A strong core helps maintain the proper body alignment in order for you to engage your back muscles.
A good way to train the core and at the same time increase grip and back strength is to do hanging leg raises. Many people tend to just work their hip flexors when doing leg raises. The point of the leg raise is to contract the abdominal wall and allow the hips to roll. It’s a matter of pressing the belly button in towards the spine to contract the core and not just lift the legs up.
The Importance of Gettin’ Your Zzzzzz’s…
Yes, I said it. You need to rest your body and avoid over training. I’m my own worst enemy at times where this is concerned once I get a goal in mind. I need to consciously back off training a move that I’m excited to master.
*The same goes for you and your pull ups.
Your body needs rest and recovery. If your muscles are still sore and you have a workout planned, you may want to postpone the training of the sore muscles until you feel recovered. I’m not giving you permission to slack off, I’m reminding you that an important part of your training is allowing your body to recover fully. You need to listen and know when you’re just slacking off and when you really need an extra day to recover. Maybe you’ll do a HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout or a workout finisher, something different than strictly strength work and pull ups.
-Shawna Kaminski (bio below)
*From Todd: Thanks Shawna! I appreciate all of your hard work putting this guide together for the Adrenaline Community.
For a bonus, I thought I would put together my favorite reasons to get stronger with pull ups. 😉
My Top 9 Favorite (& Extreme) Types Of Pull Ups
Below you will find a list of many different types of pull ups. Some of them are REALLY extreme and should only be tried if you are advanced. Although its fun to have a goal and shoot for it. So choose your goal pull up exercise and start your plan to increase your pull up strength.
1. One Arm Pull Ups
2. One Finger Pull Ups
3. Clap Pull Ups
4. Reverse Pull Ups
5. Human Flag Pull Ups
6. Pull Ups With Weight
7. Muscle Ups
8. Kipping Pull Ups
9. Inverted Pull Ups
Shawna Kaminski is a retired schoolteacher of 20 years who’s found her passion in the fitness industry. She’s been a competitive athlete all her life and has competed nationally in three sports. She’s parlayed her ability to teach and her love of training into programs that you can directly benefit from. Shawna is in her late forties, is a mother of two teenagers and understands how busy life can be. Her workouts are short and intense and often can be done anywhere. She’s always up for a challenge and shares her fitness challenges with you. Currently she runs her own fitness boot camps and coaches clients in person and online with her amazing result getting programs.
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