So you want to have the strength to lift your own body weight but don’t know where to start? Well fear not, below are several progressive exercises to help you nail your first (of many!) pull ups.
Before you think about pulling your body weight you first need to strengthen the correct muscles. Your latissimus dorsi, or lat for short is that big back muscle that gives you the appearance of a wide back (think body builders walking around with invisible watermelons under their armpits). It is the prime mover for an action called shoulder adduction whereby you bring the arm closer to the midline of the body, i.e. a lat pull down or pull up. (Note: your pec major and a rotator cuff muscle called teres major also are shoulder adductors).
A frequently asked question I get from beginners in the gym is ‘what’s the difference between a pull up and a chin up’? A pull up is done with your palms facing down towards the bar whereas during a chin up your palms are facing up towards the bar. As far as technique differences they are largely the same, you start in a dead hang position with the elbows straight and lift yourself above the bar predominantly using your back and biceps. The first exercise we will discuss is the lat pull down as you will need a baseline strength of your shoulder adductors before attempting a pull up.
Lat pull down
- Use the wide lat pull down bar
- Start in a seated position, with legs locked in tight to give yourself some leverage
- Hands should be just wider than shoulder width with palms facing down (this can be varied with experience to a closer or wider grip)
- Pull the bar down to your upper chest, touching it gently as a cue to go through full range of motion
- Slowly control the bar back up to the starting position with your arms slightly stretched in the end range position
- Throughout the movement keep your back neutral i.e. don’t rock forward or backward
Assisted pull up – Machine
- Set the pin loaded machine to an appropriate weight to help lift your body weight
- Knees should be in a bent position on the pad
- Arm set up and technique of the exercise is the same as a lat pull down
- Swinging will be prevented as your legs are firmly rested in place on the pad, this allows for a more neutral or straight back position
Assisted pull up – Band
- Select an appropriate resistance power band to help lift your body weight
- Legs are straight and back is neutral throughout the movement
- Band should be looped around your midfoot (this can also be done with the band around your knees, with the knees bent)
Eccentric pull up with box assist
- Use a box or step high enough so you can easily begin in the start position – elbows bent and chin over the bar (the top position of a regular pull up)
- Lower yourself slowly down to a full hang position
- Place your feet back on the floor or on the box/step and get back into the start position and repeat
- Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width palms down
- Legs can be either straight or with a slight bend, if preferred they can also be crossed
- Pull yourself up by squeezing your lats and biceps until your elbows are completely bent
- Lower down slowly into a full hang position with elbows straight
Pull up with weight
- If body weight pull ups are too easy, weight can be added by using either a weight belt and plates or by placing a dumbbell between both feet
Note: Obviously a pull up will be easier at a lower body weight, so the usual suspects for weight loss remain in place i.e. eat at a caloric deficit, weight train and consume adequate protein for your current body mass.
If you would like more information on correct gym technique or how to get the most from your gym routine, book in with our Physio Nick at Bend + mend in Sydney’s CBD.