The pull up is one of the best upper body exercises. It’s also one of the toughest ones to perform when you have minimal gym or sports background.
There are many different reasons why it's considered the best for upper body: the strength you develop from it is easily transferable to every day life, it works the biggest muscle of the upper body as well as many other muscles, it's a body weight exercise that requires minimal equipment and finally is a great injury prevention exercise when done properly.
The issue is that unlike most gym exercises, you cannot adjust the weight you move. If you look at an exercise like the bench press or the squat, when you did it with weights for the first time, maybe you used 20-40 pounds for the bench and similar weight for the squat. When you became good at those weights, you went heavier.
You cannot do the same with the pull up, since you automatically have to start with your body weight!
Say you weight 130 pounds, and assuming your first bench press weight was 40 pounds, the relative intensity of your starting pull up is 325% tougher. Keep that in mind next time you are struggling: pull ups are very, very hard for beginners.
Let’s take a look at how we can break it down and make it feasible for everyone.
Which muscles are you working?
The main muscle worked the the lats, biceps, traps and rhomboids. There are many other muscles involved like the trees major, brachioradialis, the brachialis, the core muscles and also, the pecs. The weird sounding ones help stabilize the elbow joint and the pecs and core stabilize the shoulder joint. When performing the pull up and any of it’s variation, it’s good to feel the pecs and core muscle flexing for that reason.
Yes but I can’t even do one rep by myself?
I hear yea, and I’ll tell you a few things about how to get there.
Yes, they do matter. If you have longer arms, it will be tougher to do them. It will always be possible though so let’s look at the other aspects.
You will practice for a long time with very minimal results. Remember what was said in the intro about why this is hard. The learning curve with this exercise is very slow.
So how long are we talking about here? This will vary greatly from one person to the next depending on training frequency, technique and lifestyle. To give you a rough idea though, when I started lifting, it took me over a year to bench my own body weight.
When learning a new skill, whether it's a new physical exercise or anything else, a language, a new mental skill, a new hobby, you must spend time doing it repetitively. Reserve 10-15 minutes of all your workouts to be dedicated towards improving your pull ups.
Exercises to get your first pull up
There's a video at the end of the post that summarizes all the exercises we will talk about. You will be able to see how they are performed, but first, let's go over a few things.