Updated: June 4, 2015

Pull-Up and Chin-Up Guide -- Building Strength

Pull ups and chin ups are one of the best ways to build overall upper-body strength, and who doesn't want to have a toned chest, back, and arms? In fact, many trainers say that if you could do only one upper body exercise, it should be pull ups. Pull ups involve having the strength to lift your own body weight -- grab a bar above your head with your feet dangling, and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, drop and repeat. If you've ever looked at the ripped form of a rock climber, you get an idea of the kind of muscles you can get from just lifting your own body weight and not doing a lot of other heavy weightlifting. Doing chin ups (where your palms are facing you) works your biceps and lats, while pull ups (palms facing away from you) switches more work to your upper back muscles -- these are harder.

A lot of people can't do pull-ups, or at least have convinced themselves that they can't. But there are tricks and training techniques you can use to learn to do more pull-ups and chin-ups, and in a few months, you might easily be doing 5-15 when before you couldn't do any. In this guide, will cover a variety of these pull up techniques to help you maximize your pull up workout and build more strength while you firm and tone your upper-body muscles.

pull-up bars

Pull Up Training - How To Do More Pull-ups and Chin-ups

Pull-ups for beginners..: OK, so you struggle to do a few pull-ups -- maybe you can't even do one. What exercises can you practice to do more pull-ups? Working out at home, you need a pull up bar to get started (you may want to look into the Perfect Pull Up or P90X Chin Up Bar). There are a couple of ways you can work out with a chin up bar without doing "real" pull ups. The first way is to use a chair or stool underneath and slightly in front of you when you try your pull ups -- keep one foot on the edge of the stool as you pull up, and let your leg help boost your body weight as your arms struggle with the rest. If you just barely push off with your foot, you get a little pull up help. If you push a lot with your foot and leg, you get a lot of pull up help. This is a great technique for beginners. You can also work on doing "negative" pull ups -- the portion of the movement when you slowly lower your body down from the bar (which uses the same muscles). Using a chair or stool, start with your chin up at bar level and then slowly lower yourself until hanging from fully extended arms. Put your foot back on the stool, get your chin back up to the top, then slowly lower yourself again. These are easier than pulling UP, but they work and train the muscles you need to pulling up, and over time you will get stronger.

You can also use resistance bands ($10-$40) to help you do more pull ups. One exercise is to throw the band over the pull up bar, with the 2 handles hanging at knee level (you may have to wrap the band around the bar a few times to get it where you want it). As you hang from the chin up bar (use a stool if needed to get set up), put your feet in the elastic band handles and the resistance in the band will now work to support part of your body weight as you do your pull-ups. The higher resistance level of the band, the more help you get and the easier the pull ups should be.

If that is still too hard, then try throwing the band over the pull up bar while you sit on the floor a few feet away from the pull up bar. Grab the resistance band handles and while leaning back slightly, pull the handles towards your chest (kind of like doing a pull up while sitting down, except you pull the handles to you instead of pulling yourself up to the bar). Do a variety of grips and hand positions (palms towards you, palms away from you, hands close together, hands more than shoulder width apart, etc). You can start with a lighter resistance band and move up to a stronger one as you advance -- you'll find that anyone can do these as a way of getting started. Over a few months, keep increasing your resistance and reps -- you'll surprise yourself one day when you try to hang from the pull up bar and find yourself doing a few pull ups.

Another pull up/chin up alternative is the lat pull-down, which is basically a machine version of a pull up. You need gym equipment to do this exercise, so this assumes you work out at a gym. In the lat pull, you sit strapped to a seat (if the weight is heavy enough, otherwise no need to strap in), and with your arms above you in an open "V" shape, you grab the bar and pull the weight down either in front of your face or behind your head. This is a cable-weight machine exercise -- you can't do it with barbells at home. Since the weight is adjustable in this type of pull-up, you can start with just a portion of your body weight and slowly work your way up to your entire body weight or more. So even if you can't do 1 pull up, you can do a set of lat pulls with 40 pounds and start building some strength. Again, you'll want to incorporate a variety of grips and hand positions (see above) to get the most out of this workout. Most gyms also offer weight-assisted pull up machines. On these, you select how much weight you want to use to offset your body weight, then put your knees on a support pad and hang from the pull up bar. The support pad moves up and down as you do your pull ups and chin ups, connected to the weight stack -- it makes you feel kind of weightless if you select enough weight, making it easy to do lots of pull ups. Over time, your goal is decrease the weight offset -- maybe you start with 100 pounds offsetting your 180 lb body weight, but over time you cut that back to 90 lbs, 80 lbs, 70 lbs (meaning you are lifting 110 of your bodyweight).

Advanced Pull Up Training

OK, so you can already do 5 or 10 pull ups (or more), but you want to get even stronger. When working with your own body weight, the secret to getting better results is to do your maximum reps -- keep pulling until you can't do any more. So instead of building a workout routine that includes 3 sets of 10 chin ups or something, do 3 sets of maximum reps. Your body and muscles react and grow according to how much they are used. If you train them to do 3 sets of 10, that's what they'll do. But if you train them to do 13, then 11, then 9.5 pull-ups this week, and 14, 11, 10 next week, and 14, 12, 10.5 the next, you'll find yourself gettings consistently stronger and doing more pull-ups over time. This equates to larger muscles. Let's face it, that is the basics of exercise and body building -- push a muscle to exhaustion, and when it recovers it becomes a little stronger. But this doesn't happen when you let yourself plateau out at a fixed workout level. So if you want to do more pull ups, DO MORE PULL UPS.

Another option is to lift more weight per pull up by using a weight belt and hanging a weight from it. Instead of just lifting your bodyweight, you might workout with an extra 25 lb plate to push yourself. Once you get to the 20+ chin up level, you'll find it gets REALLY tiring. A lot of people prefer to do fewer reps with heavier weight. You can get just as good results from maxing out at 13 pull ups using 30 additional pounds as you can maxing out at 19 pull ups with just your body weight. You're also going to want to include some variety into your pull up workout routines. Switching hand grips for your pull ups is the first step. We've already mentioned the 2 main varieties -- pull ups (palms facing away) and chin ups (palms twisted towards you). You can also change the distance between your hands for close-grip and wide-grip pull ups. Hands closer together works more of the arms, while hands far apart works more of the back. Some pull up bars and systems also let you have hands facing each other for another style. Towel pull ups is another type -- loop a towel over one hand grip and grab the 2 ends with one hand, while the other hand hangs from the bar as usual (this leaves you with one arm hanging a few inches lower than the other). Now do some pull ups or chin ups. The normal hand/arm has to work a lot harder to compensate for the lower towel hand. You'll want to switch off from side to side to get an even workout when you do this. (NOTE: Towel pull ups were a technique I learned from P90X. You've probably seen the TV commercials for P90X -- it's a very hard core home workout routine, and it features A LOT OF PULL UPS. And it works. If you want to do some serious training, we recommend giving P90X a try at your home. I could do 6 pull-ups when I started, and can now crank out 20. And I find that even if I don't do any for a week or two, I don't lose that strength.)

Doing Pull Ups and Chin Ups at Home

A lot of people like to work out at home to save time and money from having a gym membership. The good news about pull ups is that they are easy to do at home, requiring nothing more than a door mounted pull up bar. You'll find some pull up bars that have to be permanently mounted into your door frame, and others that use leverage and can slide in and out of the door frame when you need them (that's the kind I prefer). You'll find pull up and chin up bars at most sporting goods stores, and online. Expect to pay $30 at the minimum for a bare-bones design, and more like $45-$70 for a well-made pull up bar set. I've been using the P90X Beach Body pull up bar for almost a year now, and really like it. While it is removable from the door frame, it does come with 2 "J" brackets that attach above the door frame to provide extra support. Overall, it is very sturdy and has a number of padded hand grips and offers a variety of hand holds (wide, narrow, reverse, neutral grip). It costs about $50 but it's worth it.