How to do the perfect pull-up
With singlet season just around the corner, it’s a great time to start paying a little more attention to that part of your body that you can’t see (and everyone else can) — your back.
In the tradition of “out of sight, out of mind” we can often neglect our back when we exercise, but the pull-up is an old-school exercise that promises a lot more than some decent lats.
In fact, according to Lauren Hannaford – elite gymnast and founder of FHIT in Maroubra – they’re one of the best functional exercises about.
“[When you’re doing pull-ups] you’re using and building strength on your lats, mid-back, rear delts, biceps, forearms, and core,” she tells Fairfax.
“The muscle groups that you use will depend on different hand grips and positions, such as palms away from your, palms facing you, wide grip – you can really target a lot by tweaking this one simple move.”
And as a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups at the same time, you could say that pull-ups are to the upper body what squats are to your lower half.
So what goes into the perfect pull-up?
“Technique, technique, technique!” says Hannaford.
“As a gymnast we are all about precision, technique and strict movements. Keeping your body tight and everything squeezed together so your whole body is working at one which creates overall mobility and functional strength.”
- Set your hands at either shoulder width or slightly wider, palms facing forward.
- Keep your legs straight, your ankles, knees and inner thighs and bottom squeezed together.
- Engage your core and draw your sternum inward to create a ‘hollow’ or ‘dish’ shape.
- As you start to pull your body up toward the bar, keep your body in this same position. Think about pulling the bar to your chest and keeping your elbows tucked in.
- Descend in a controlled manner, and repeat maintaining tension and only letting your feet touch the ground when you’ve reached fail.
If you want to tweak this and target more of your back, Hannaford suggests arching “through your back so your feet are behind you in the start position, which puts more of the strength and control through your back muscles instead of your core.” If you want to target your biceps, use a closer grip with your palms facing inward using the original technique, maintaining tension in your core.
For extra difficulty, swap out the bar in favour for gymnastic or TRX rings. Keeping these — and your body — stable as you pull yourself up requires a lot more muscle recruitment than a static bar.
And if you think pull-ups are just a strength exercise, think again. Pull-ups may not offer the same cardio or fat-burning workout as something like running, but they still get the heart pumping and are great to use as part of a super-set with push-ups or even burpees.
But aside from aesthetics, Hannaford says that the sense of achievement that comes with the pull-up’s basic strength is a reward in itself.
“If for nothing else, the confidence and achievement that you feel once you accomplish it is the main reason to make pull-ups a regular part of your workout,” she tells Fairfax.
“How often do we hear ‘I wish i could do a pull up!’ For that reason alone we should be setting ourselves the task to achieve a pull up so we feel confident and satisfied with ourselves.”
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