This is why your pull-ups are not working

The pull-up could be the best measure of general strength and fitness. As a simple measure of strength, it is unmatched; You actually lift and move an entire human body through space and time. It targets almost every muscle in the upper body and more than meets the eye in the lower body. If you’re building muscle, or losing your body, or just want to get fitter and stronger, there is no getting around doing a pull-up or two or ten. If I had to choose an upper body exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the chin-up.

However, it is difficult to pull all of the weight. The vast majority of the average people walking around the world are incapable of performing a single, unsupported, high quality pull-up. And half of those who believe they are doing pull-ups get them completely wrong, setting them up not only for suboptimal results, but life-changing injuries as well.

Today I’m going to tell you why your pull-ups aren’t working and how you can improve them.

Correct pull-up form: common mistakes and how to fix them

Here are some common mistakes people make when doing pull-ups.

Mistake: With momentum

The solution: be strict.

This is about mastering the strict pull-up, not any of the other momentum-driven strains. This means that you are pulling your body on purpose, avoiding impulses and only using the strength of your upper body.

Mistake: loose body

The solution: get ready.

As with most other exercises, it is important to maintain a consistent line from head to toe. Tense your glutes and support your abdominal muscles. You will find that you are in a “hollow” position with a slight curve running through your spine. These type of pull-ups are actually more difficult (no stepping or swinging allowed), but they’re more rewarding and get you much stronger, much faster.

Mistake: Chin Over Bar

The solution: chest to pole.

A full chin-up occurs when your chin goes over the bar. However, using “chin over bar” as a hint can sometimes result in people leading with their chins or straining their necks to free the bar. A better keyword is “chest to pole”. Even if your chest isn’t touching the bar, you don’t feel compelled to compromise your neutral head position just to bring your chin up and up.

Mistake: Bent elbows below

The fix: locked elbows down.

Lock your elbows at the very bottom of the pull-up. This not only makes the movement stricter, harder, and more beneficial, but also relieves stress on the biceps tendon and completely relieves it. If your elbows are still bent at the bottom, constant tension will never break your biceps tendon.

Fault: exposed elbows

The solution: drive your elbows to the floor.

Imagine driving your elbows into the ground as you ascend from below. This is a great guide to exercising your lats and back muscles rather than just pulling with your biceps.

Mistake: Doing one pull-up only

The solution: Try different hand positions.

There are several ways to position your hands during the exercise. Overhand grip (hands pointing away from you) Pull-ups are the classic form and probably the most difficult variant. Underhand grip (hands facing you) pull-ups can be the easiest and may involve more biceps. Neutral grip (hands face each other and grab two parallel overhead bars) Pull-ups are the gentlest on the shoulder capsule. If you have shoulder pain or mobility issues, a neutral grip is worth trying.

How To Increase Your Max Rep Pull-ups

What if you can’t do more than a pull-up or two?

All you need is one.

Grease the groove.

Do a pull-up or two every time you get past the pull-up bar. Every time. If you grease the groove while exercising at the gym, just do pull-ups between sets of other exercises. One or two here, one or two there. Keep each repetition crispy. Don’t fight. You should rest long enough between greasing the sets of grooves so that you are fresh every time. They build neuromuscular pathways that make movement easier and more efficient.


Ladders are easy ways to add volume. If you can do two pull-ups, a pull-up ladder workout looks like this.

1 pull-up, 30-second break, 2 pull-ups, 30-second break, 1 pull-up, 30-second break, 2 pull-ups and so on.

If you can do 3 pull-ups:

1 pull-up, pause, 2 pull-ups, pause, 3 pull-ups, pause, 1 pull-up, and so on.

If you can only do 1 pull-up, just do sets of 1 with 30 seconds of rest.

Continue down the ladder until you feel like failure is approaching. Keep the reps crisp.

How to do a chin-up when you can’t do one

What if you can’t do a single full pull-up?

Do not worry. There are ways to get there.

Supported pull-ups

If you have access to a supported pull-up machine, you can use it to build a full, unsupported pull-up machine. Attaching a resistance band to the bar and looping it under you to pull you up is another option.

Chair-assisted pull-ups

You can also use a chair or stool to provide a counterweight. Place the chair directly in front of the pull-up bar and lightly place one foot on it while doing the pull-up. If you want more support, put a little more weight of your leg on the chair. When you need less support, put less weight on it.

Jump pull-ups

Jump up and grab the bar and pull it up, using the momentum of the jump. Gradually, titrate how hard and high you jump, giving yourself less lift with each workout, until you are barely using any momentum and then using no more at all.

Negative pull-ups

Stand on a chair or bench and get yourself in the topmost position of a chin-up (chin above the bar, chest is ideally touching) and hold yourself above the bar, slowly lowering yourself and emphasizing the eccentric.

About the author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with a pristine lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component in achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.

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