Doing a proper pull-up is more complicated than you think

Pull-ups are the most practiced training exercise for climbing, however, how much do we really know about them from a biomechanical perspective? It’s common for climbers to discuss different strength protocols for pull-ups, as well as supporting exercises to prevent injury, but the fundamental requirement is to understand the nuances of form so that we’re performing the exercise correctly. So let’s take a look under the hood.

basic anatomy

The pull-up is a closed chain motion, which in the case of the upper body, means that the hands cannot move. The body is suspended by the hands and as we pull up, the elbows flex (bend) and shoulders adduct (move down toward midline of body) and extend to bring elbows to torso. Pull-ups use the wider back, the wing-shaped muscles that originate below the shoulder blades and extend to the lower back. The “lats” are the largest muscles in the upper body and are the prime movers in a pull-up, meaning they provide most of the power to lift your body. Other muscles used are the biceps, deltoids (shoulders), rhomboids, and core.

dominated vs dominated

Pull-ups are commonly confused with pull-ups. Pull-ups are performed with a pronate grip (overhand, palms facing forward) with arms slightly wider than shoulder width, while pullups use a supinated Grip (underhand) with arms closer together at about shoulder width. Both exercises are comparable because although the movements of the shoulders are different, the muscles responsible for those movements are the same. As stated, in pull-ups the shoulders are adducted, while in chin-ups the shoulders are adducted. to extend (as the arms are pulled down and back). Ultimately, both types of shoulder movement are driven by the lats.

Many climbers who are new to both exercises will find the pull-ups to be easier. This is because the biceps are in a mechanically disadvantageous position when you use an overhand grip. Conversely, when your palms face you, your biceps are in a stronger position and can generate more force. Of course, for climbing, an overhand grip is more relevant and therefore you should prioritize the pull-up when training.

A simple strategy to do more pull-ups

drop down form

Coaches will endlessly debate the importance of form in training. In general, the bottom line is not to see form as binary, as good or bad. We must strive to do an exercise as well as possible, accepting that things do not always have to be perfect. But, if you are moving away, you run the risk of injuring yourself. It’s best to do fewer reps with less load and focus on loading your muscles smoothly and evenly.

To perform a pull-up, grab a pull-up bar or jugs on the hangboard with your palms facing forward. If you’re using a barbell, place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar with your arms extended. If you’re new to pull-ups, you may want to bend your knees slightly to help with balance, and you can try crossing your ankles to reduce swinging, which can break the rhythm of the exercise. Alternatively, climbers with a strong core may want to keep their legs straight and their feet next to each other. Now, lift your chest, lean back slightly, and engage your core muscles to reduce sway.

Pull with your arms, doing your best to keep the motion smooth. He continues to pull until his chin is above the bar and not just touching it. Avoid craning your neck and pulling your chin toward the bar, as this is cheating and can cause injury. Slowly straighten your arms and lower back down to full arm extension, but don’t completely relax your arms and shoulders between reps. Trainers will always debate exactly what you should and shouldn’t do at the bottom of a pull-up. Some suggest that you should never drop onto your arms completely straight, as this can put undue stress on your elbows and shoulders in the long run. Others suggest that it is important to train the ability to get up from the fully depressed position. I suggest that the middle ground represents a good option. In other words, lower yourself to the point where your arms are completely straight, but keep your muscles contracted; ie: don’t relax completely at the bottom of the rep. Try to maintain muscle tension as best you can, but don’t worry too much if you can’t do this on the last rep or two of each set.

Common pull-up mistakes

Pull-ups seem like a simple exercise, but when we look around the gym we see some amazing variations in form. This is perhaps because pull-ups are inherently difficult to do and many climbers struggle to the point where they start freestyle. The following faults are common, but easy to fix.

  • Kick with the legs (also known as kipping. The legs can be used to create a wave of momentum through the body to cheat on a few more reps. My suggestion is to not go there as it just takes the load off the target muscles and could lead to injury if the movements are too violent. If you really want to do more repetitions, simply reduce the load using the assistance of the feet.
  • Reduced range of motion. Some will have trouble with the first part of a pull-up, others will find the upper part more difficult and some will have problems with both and may only be able to do the middle part. The result is a kind of dominated average, which is performed only in the middle part of the range. Clearly if you do this the weakest part of the range will not be trained at all and the gap will only widen. The answer is to not fool yourself trying to do more reps within a narrow range. Once again, the solution is to reduce the load with the help of the feet and to be strict with oneself.
  • Falling fast on straight arms. This is a fundamental no. Correcting this is not even a matter of reducing the load, because if you can do the upward (concentric) part of the movement, then you should definitely be able to control the negative (eccentric) part. Just don’t do it!
  • Pausing excessively in straight/slumped arms at the bottom. We’ve already discussed the pros and cons of maintaining muscle engagement at the bottom of a pull-up and there are different schools of thought on the matter. One thing is for sure though, if you hang for more than a second or two with your arms straight to rest, then this is essentially cheating. Keep a steady pace and always move directly from the lowest position.

This article has explored the anatomy of the pull-up and provided guidelines on form, but it does not provide a complete picture of pull-up training. Read more on the topic to learn about training protocols, exercise variations, and injury prevention strategies.

Training: perfect pull-ups for climbing strength

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