Why Are Pull-Ups So MF’ing Hard?
Whether you’re a weekend warrior, an avid CrossFitter, or a slinky yogi—there’s one move that never ceases to be MF’ing hard for the majority of us: the pull-up. While there are some people who can perform a string of pull-ups with grace and ease (we’re looking at you, Chris Hemsworth), most of us just can’t. But why is that?
Refresh my memory: What’s a pull-up again?
The pull-up—which looks oh-so-simple to execute—involves hanging from a bar with your hands and pulling your body to the bar. As it turns out, and as a first (or second… or third… ) attempt will prove, it ain’t easy. “Think about it: You’re using your (relatively) small arms to pull your much bigger lower body and core up until you’ve hoisted your chest to the bar,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., founder of Movement Vault. “If you weigh 200 pounds, you’re literally pulling up 200 pounds of mass. Of course, that’s hard—and requires a ton of strength.” Touché.
Wickham says the primary muscles used are your lats, but completing a pull-up requires a bunch of different muscles. “The list is long,” warns Manning Sumner, RSP Nutrition athlete and NSPA-certified trainer.
Ready to see a bunch of hard-to-pronounce words in a row? “The pull-up uses the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, teres major, subscapularis, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus, external oblique, and erector spinae,” Sumner says.
And beyond strength, completing a pull-up requires technique.
If you’ve watched your fair share of action movies, pulling your body up with your arms seems like something you should be able to do. But Judine Saintgerard, a coach at Tone House in New York City, says “I’d argue that technique—body positioning and knowing what muscles you want to activate to initiate and complete the movement—is where most people struggle when it comes to performing pull-ups.”
No shocker here: The first step is to stand under the bar and grab it with both hands. If the pull-up bar is too tall for you to reach from the ground and you don’t feel comfortable jumping, stand on a bench or box so you can properly position your hands. Your palms should be facing away from you with hands about shoulder-width apart, and your thumb should be wrapped around the underbelly of the bar (so that it almost meets the tips of your fingers).
Feeling good? Now hang.
Oh, crap. That means your feet are no longer on the floor, bench, or box, and instead are dangling mid-air or are behind you with knees bent. Here, you want to engage your core (think about pulling your belly button into your spine). Pull your shoulders back (this is a subtle movement). All this “squeezing” will keep you from swinging around on the bar.
To start the actual upward movement (the “pull”), squeeze the bar with your hands, putting extra emphasis on screwing the outer-edge of your pinky into the bar—this will help properly engage your upper back.
Now, imagine pulling your elbows down to your hips.
Or another cue: Imagine that you are juicing a grapefruit between each of your armpits—this will help pull down your elbows and activate those lats. “As you’re pulling, resist the urge to swing your legs wildly,” says Greg Pignataro, personal trainer with Grindset Fitness in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I promise that won’t make it easier!”
If you already have the strength to do a pull-up, you will feel your body moving up toward the bar. Technically, a pull-up rep requires your chin to go over the bar. But Alena Luciani, founder of Training2xl, says that if you can’t pull your chin above the bar, try to resist the urge to strain your neck in an attempt do so.
Woot! You made it to the top.
But Sir Issac Newton said it best: What goes up must come down. Keeping a tight grip on the bar, allow your arms to straighten until you’re back in the dead hang.
Time to unapologetically self-high-five and happy-dance. Now you just need to do it again.
Uhh, how is that different from a chin-up?
It’s a fair question. There are two key differences, according to Katie Dunlop, NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Love Sweat Fitness: In a pull-up, your hands are pronated (which means palms are facing away from the body) and your grip is wider. In a chin-up, your hands are supinated (palms are toward the body) and your grip is more narrow.
The true difference between the chin- and pull-up isn’t which muscles are worked—both exercises target the same muscle groups, mainly the upper back, chest, shoulders, triceps, and biceps—but the degree to which those muscles are worked. “The pull-up is all about the lats, while in the chin-up it’s equal parts lat and bicep strength,” Luciani says.
Saintgerard explains, “We use our biceps fairly often in everyday activities like picking things up or drinking a beverage. Once you’ve removed the “help” you get from your relatively conditioned biceps in a chin-up and attempt a pull-up, most of the focus is left on the lat muscles, which we don’t necessarily activate and strengthen as much in our day-to-day activities.”
So while both body-weight movements are basically heroic feats of strength, most experts (and exercisers who have tried them) find the pull-up harder than the chin-up.
Feeling discouraged? Don’t. You can totally do a pull-up.
“Anyone can do it once they’ve been properly trained and conditioned. Seriously, anyone can with practice,” says Sylvia Nasser, CPT, a group fitness instructor at Equinox.
That said, there’s no way around it—the move is tough for people of any gender or sex. But ladies, if you think that pull-ups are harder for women than men, you’re not imagining it. Wickham says, thanks to genetics and physiology, pull-ups are usually more challenging for women. “Genetically, women have more muscle mass on the bottom and less muscle mass up top.”
Dylan Irving CSCS adds, “But this is also combined with a history of societal norms that encourage women to avoid upper-body exercise and strength training.” Fair point.
How to finally pull yourself up.
Build strength: Start isolating and strengthening the muscles activated in a pull-up to increase their strength. Daury Dross, NCCPT-certified personal trainer and founding trainer at Fhitting Room, recommends bent over rows (to work your back), bicep hammer curls with dumbbells, kettlebell one-arm row (to work your back, biceps, and core), and isometric bar holds—where you use a box to get into the “top” of a pull-up and hold your chin over the bar for as long as you can. For even more moves, check out this list of upper-body moves that’ll help you achieve a pull-up.
Kyra Williams, NASM CF-L1, suggests incorporating day-to-day strengthening habits into your routine, like parking further from the grocery store so that you have to carry your groceries longer, using a duffle bag instead of a rolling suitcase, and actively squeezing your lats when playing with your pup or kids.
Work on form with resistance band pull-ups: “Resistance band pull-ups are a great way to fully understand the movement and the technique. It helps people feel that the pulling comes from their back (not their arms) in a band,” Saintgerard says. To do one, start by looping a resistance band around the pull-up bar—if it’s your first time doing one, start with a thick band. Grip onto the bar and place both of your knees or feet into the band and then attempt a pull-up.
“By the time someone can complete multiple sets of 12 pull-ups with only a thin band, they’re usually ready for their first unassisted pull-up,” Pignataro says.
Sure, it’s super challenging—but just try one!
But before you rush to the bar, Jon Pearlman, an ACE-certified personal trainer and author of The Lean Body Manual suggests the following: “Your upper-back and upper-body strength should be what you’d consider “solid,” and your body weight should be somewhat in line too. If you’re overweight, it’s not ideal for your shoulders to be doing pull-ups regularly.” It would be more beneficial for your body to continue doing the strength moves listed above, he says.
“There is no perfect time to try a pull-up, and if it’s a goal you have for yourself, trying one is the best way to see what work is ahead,” Dunlop says. Even if you can’t do a full pull-up when you get up to the bar, Irving says that even pulling yourself up a couple of inches helps strengthen those muscles. Yes, it’s going to take work. But with the right plan in place, you’ll be pumping out pull-ups like an American Ninja Warrior in no time.