I’m a big fan of exercises that involve the whole body. It’s something to do with the body having to flow and move as a complete unit (a concept from Tai Chi).
One exercise that really challenges the whole body (utilising the biceps, triceps, lats, abs and back) and is an impressive feat for many is the pull up. If you’ve never done them before, the first time you hang from a pull up bar (or indeed a low-hanging branch), you might just swear and wriggle about helplessly. It’s no mean feat, either, because you’re essentially pull your entire bodyweight with your arms which can be tough if you’re not used to picking up anything heavier than a bag of shopping!
In any case, I believe that anyone can learn to do a pull up. Why? Because when I was 20, I would just hang there like a fish at the end of a line wriggling and not moving an inch upwards yet 20 years on, this is me:
But enough with the showing off. You came here to learn how to do a pull up.
Pull up? Don’t you mean chin up?
Now, before we continue, I want to make a brief mention of why I say pull up rather than chin up. Pull ups are carried out with the palms facing away from you whilst chin ups are carried out with the palms facing towards you. Chin ups are slightly easier but less useful because if you enjoy rock climbing, you’ll find that 95% of the time, your palms are facing away from you (the only time you’ll adopt a chin up style grip is with undercut holds). And if you can do a pull up, you can definitely do a chin up as you’re adopting the stronger biceps.
If you have a sturdy tree in your garden, then you could try that, but otherwise I’d recommend getting a portable chin up bar or using a suitable bar in your gym. The ones that “hook” onto the doorframe are the best type for home use and fit most doors.
Training for the pull up
In order to be able to do a pull up, you need to build up the strength to enable you hold your own weight and then move it. There are four key exercises that you can practice in order to develop the strength: dead hangs, negatives, locked off hangs and assisted pull ups. I will describe each exercise then provide a training plan.
This involves hanging with the arms relaxed and straight. It is good for building up grip strength and endurance and is especially good for the complete beginner who will likely not be able to hold their own weight on a pull up bar let alone do a pull up.
The following exercise works best if your bar is at around head height when you stand next to it. You adopt the fully locked position (ie arms fully bent) with your chin at bar height. Then you lift your feet from the ground and slowly lower yourself until you are in a Dead Hang position. If the bar is above you, then you will have to jump up to get into the starting position but this can cause injury to the shoulder area as a sudden force is applied when you grab the bar. Alternatively, climb up to it on a chair or stepladder. Again, be careful about suddenly dropping into the position and damaging your shoulder.
Locked off hangs
This is also suitable for bars that are located at head height. Get into a position with your arms at 90 degrees, lift your feet off the ground and hold this position.
Assisted pull ups
This final exercise involves doing pull ups but keeping one or both feet on the ground to provide some support but still meaning your arms are having to pull you up. Alternatively, you can loop a Dynaband round the bar and put your feet in the band to support some of the weight.
Suggested training plan
Do the following routine three times a week.
Assisted Pull Ups: do three sets of 10
Negatives: do three sets of 10
Locked Off Hangs: initially, you may not be able to maintain a locked off hang so you will have to see how you get on. If you cannot manage to do one, then continue with the other exercises and try again after four weeks as you may have developed the strength by then. If you can manage them, then do three lots of 10s hangs resting 30 seconds between each hang. Every week increase the time by 1 second.
Deadhangs: start with doing three lots of 30s Deadhangs resting 30 seconds between each deadhang. If you cannot manage the 30 seconds, hang for as long as you can. Every week increase the time by 5 seconds.
After four weeks, it would be a good idea to review things and see if you can manage a pull up. If you cannot, continue with the training increasing the number of sets by one every four weeks eg now you will do 4×10 reps of assisted pull ups.