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Many people view the pullup as the “king” of back exercises. It’s usually done with body weight, and the rules seem simple: Hold on tight, and pull your head over the bar. The truth is, there’s plenty of technique involved to making sure you hit your back muscles. If you just perform blind pulls, you’re probably going to sport a nice looking pair of biceps, and not much more. Needless to say, it’s worth a closer look when it comes time to perfect technique.
A true pullup comes with the palms facing away from the body. A palms-in variation is actually called a chin up. Using a grip that’s at least shoulder width apart will probably make for the easiest learning curve and most force production.
Your body should travel up towards the ceiling – that goes without saying. But the first move should actually create that illusion before the elbows bend. Simply put, the ribcage should raise itself towards the roof, your neck should get long, and your shoulders should depress. All three of these cues mean the same thing – the scapulae are being set down the back in order to engage the lat and upper back muscles to do the work for the rest of the pull. It requires freedom of mobility at the scapulae to have control over this skill, however, and most who aren’t used to initiating the movement this way will have trouble pulling it off at first. Instead of continually practicing the entire movement, break things down into segments, and do sets of scapular initiations to get your back moving the right way. Check out my explanation in the video:
Remember: If you don’t activate your back by setting the scapulae first, you’re not going to train the target muscles a pullup was meant to hit. Take the time to learn!
The problem I see most people run into during the ascent is a poor corresponding body position. The feet should be kept slightly behind the body, without folding at the hips. This will discourage any trunk flexion, which only helps the back tissue do more work.
Also, don’t be overly concerned about pulling the entire head over the bar. Most textbooks will say this is the proper way to execute a pullup, but in my opinion, it gets people to miss the point that the lats should be engaged the entire time. Surely a lifter should pull as far as they can – I’m not advocating half reps. But if full contraction means you’ve brought yourself to a point where only the nose makes it over the bar, that’s fine (and it’s even expected if you’re a lifter with long arms).
Third, keep the elbows tucked. Flaring the elbows out wider than your hands shifts plenty of the emphasis towards the upper lats and armpit region, rather than the entire lats from up high under the arm, to down in the lat bellies on the mid back.
The point about half-reps applies on the way down also. To be blunt, don’t stop short on the way down. Get the full hang before starting your next rep. Stopping short before pulling again is cheating – and there’s no excuse. Not only does it disengage the back muscles from doing work, but it’s also a cheap way out of working hard and going through your full range of motion. And your (lack of) results will speak for themselves. The problem is, you’re not strong enough to do the real thing – and you’re not willing to learn.
The easiest, most sure-fire way to improve your pullup strength is to focus on negative reps. Hold on to the bar, and assist yourself up (you can use the sides of the machine or a step) to the top position of a pullup. Your shoulders should be depressed, and your chest should be up. If you can, fight against gravity by lowering yourself very slowly towards a full, dead hang position. A 6-10 second negative rep should be the goal here, but as a general rule, know that the slower you can make your descent while maintaining form, the better. Focus on sets of 6 repetitions.
When you have the strength to maintain one 30-second negative rep, it should translate into the ability to perform 1 regular pullup rep from the bottom up.
People tend to think a pencil-straight body from head to feet is superior to an arched back during pullups, and it’s just plain wrong. View the video below for a detailed explanation why.
It seems so simple, though it’s actually quite complex, and worth the review. Doing pullups for them to be effective for back development is a different animal from doing them for conquest’s sake. Don’t join the CrossFit of bodybuilding. Train right.
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