5 Common Mistakes That Might Prevent You From Reaching Your Pull-Up Goals

By Meghan Callaway

The pull-up is one of my favorite exercises, and for an abundance of reasons. To state the obvious, pull-ups are tremendous for improving upper body strength, muscle definition, and lumbo-pelvic stability (the ability for the body to maintain proper support around the lower spine and pelvis during movement), as a pull-up executed to perfection essentially resembles a traveling hollow body. Furthermore, pull-ups are incredibly empowering to perform, and can create tremendous feelings of empowerment and pure freedom.

This is largely why I am so passionate about helping people excel at pull-ups. Whenever I see a bar, rings, or even a tree branch, I often have the urge to perform pull-ups — they’re fun, and I’m a huge believer that working out should be fun!

While pull-ups are a convenient exercise, because they require very little equipment, make no mistake: they are very technically demanding, and require your entire body to work as a synchronized unit.

Here are some extremely common mistakes — and the solutions to fix them — that prevent countless people from being able to perform their first pull-up ever, or from being able to perform multiple reps.

Overusing Your Arms

When many people set out to perform their first pull-up, or even if they can already perform a few reps, they often make the mistake of initiating the movement by pulling with their arms, rather than using the larger and more powerful muscles in their mid and upper back. The movement should be initiated by drawing the shoulder blades in toward the spine and down toward the opposite hip. While the arms will be involved, they should not be initiating the movement or doing the majority of the work.

Solution: Scapula Pull-Ups

This fantastic pull-up regression helps focus on initiating the movement with the shoulder blades rather than pulling with the arms. In addition to developing the controlled mobility of the shoulder blades, this exercise also improves grip strength, and lumbo-pelvic stability.

When performing scapula pull-ups, initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades in toward your spine and down toward your opposite hip. When you do this, your body should elevate a little bit, as if you were performing a reverse shrug. In the top position, pause for a brief count, and then lower back down to the bottom position with complete control. During the lowering portion of the movement, your shoulder blades should be doing the reverse of what they did on the way up. If you are performing this movement correctly, your elbows should not bend at all, and you should feel the muscles around your shoulder blades.

Not Treating the Pull-Up as a Full Body Movement

Many people think of the pull-up as a purely upper body exercise, which leads them to only focus on their upper body when performing the movement, and essentially disregard what is going on with the rest of their body.

In reality, a properly executed pull-up involves the full body working together as a synchronized unit. This includes the anterior core, glutes, and even the lower body. When the full body is working as one, you will be able to propel your body to and from the bar with much more ease and efficiency. While I will address lumbo-pelvic stability and generating tension in a separate point, from a technical standpoint, ensuring that your body is in the correct position before each rep, and for the duration of the exercise, will play a huge role in your success.

Solution: Establish Optimal Body Positioning

Before each rep, make sure that your body is set in either a straight line from your head to your heels, or you can adopt a slight hollow body position. Your head, torso and hips should be in a stacked position, with your knees fully extended, your feet crossed one over the other, and in a dorsiflexed position. Also, keep your chin tucked and neck in a neutral position. Do not reach with your chin when you approach the bar, and do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or your ribcage to flare. Maintain this body positioning for the duration of the exercise. If you are just starting out in your pull-up journey, you might need to “reset” and establish this body positioning before you initiate each rep.

You can perform any pull-up regression of your choice and can practice establishing and then maintaining this body positioning. In this video, I am doing a concentric hang.

Not Generating Enough Tension to Keep the Body From Swinging

You are more stable when your full body works in unison. However, in order to maintain proper body positioning for the duration of the exercise, you need to be able to generate a significant amount of tension in certain muscle groups, particularly the muscles of your anterior core and glutes. When a sufficient amount of tension is present, you will be pulling a rigid object versus an equally weighted limp and floppy object, and your body will be much less prone to swinging. This will result in a much shorter and more efficient path to the bar, whereas, an unstable and swinging body will result in a path to the bar resembling is a much longer and inefficient arc.

Solution: Dead Bugs

The dead bug, and its many variations, is one of my top exercises for improving lumbo-pelvic stability. This exercise trains your anterior core muscles to generate the requisite levels of tension to perform pull-ups efficiently, and also trains your body to resist the extension of the spine. For the duration of the exercise, keep your head, torso and hips in a stacked position, keep your ribcage down, and do not allow your lower back to hyperextend. As you initiate each rep and lower the opposite arm and leg toward the floor, slowly exhale through your teeth, and brace your anterior core muscles as hard as you can.

A good way to make sure you’re keeping this tension is by looking down at your shirt while you’re performing the movement: if the front of your shirt remains wrinkled, your ribcage is likely in the right position. If, however, you disengage your anterior core muscles, your ribcage will be prone to flaring, and your shirt will suddenly become smooth. This is also a good cue if you’re coaching someone else through the movement.

Weak Grip Strength

A weak grip plagues many, including those of an elite fitness level. When it comes to performing pull-ups, if your grip strength prevents you from simply hanging from the bar, you will be hard-pressed to perform one, or many pull-ups, and you will even struggle to perform the many pull-up regressions that will lead you down the path to dominating regular pull-ups. Here are several of many techniques I use for developing grip strength.

Solution: Plate Pinches and Loaded Carries

Plate pinches are a fantastic exercise for improving grip strength. With plate pinches, simply hold onto one or more weight plates, and hold them in a pinch grip. Keep in mind that gripping is a full-body movement, and that your entire body must be working as a synchronized unit. Really engage your lats and the other muscles in your back, your arms, you anterior core and glutes, and maintain a tripod base with your feet, where your big toe, small toe and heel are in full contact with the ground.

Loaded carries are another one of my favorite exercises for improving grip strength. They also improve lumbo-pelvic stability, shoulder and scapular stability (both remain in a fixed position for the duration of the carry), and full-body strength. Many loaded carry variations are relatively basic, and are suitable for people of most fitness levels. When performing any loaded carry variation, make sure that your head, torso and hips remain in a stacked position, your anterior core muscles remain braced, and your ribcage remains down.

Relying on Band-Assisted Pull-Ups

Many people make the mistake of training for pull-ups by relying solely on band assistance. In most cases, using this method alone will not lead you to your ultimate goal of being able to perform one or more pull-ups. With band-assisted pull-ups, the band provides the assistance at the bottom of the movement, and this is not when most people need help. Furthermore, when many people perform band assisted pull-ups, they allow their form to get sloppy and do not maintain proper body positioning, and do not generate enough tension around their hips, spine, or legs. Unfortunately, the band allows people to get away with these breakdowns in form, so when they ditch the band and attempt to do regular pull-ups, they struggle.

While I actually do use band assistance in the latter stages of pull-up training, I intentionally do not introduce this regression at the beginning as this variation will only be helpful when you have developed the proper pull-up technique, controlled mobility of the scapulae and shoulders, requisite levels of tension, and body positioning.

Solution: Master Basic Regressions and Form First

You should only incorporate band assistance after you’ve mastered the basic pull-up regressions, as well as impeccable form.To be very clear, when you are performing band-assisted pull-ups, your form should mimic that of regular pull-ups. Your technique, your body positioning, the movement of your shoulder blades, and the tension in the lumbo-pelvic region and lower body should be identical. Once you are able to achieve all of the above, band-assisted pull-ups can be a very valuable tool. Aim to use as little assistance as possible, but enough so you are able to maintain proper form for 100 percent of your reps.

So now that we’ve talked about some potential obstacles that might be preventing you from excelling at pull-ups, and that I have provided you with some solutions, it’s time to get the ball rolling!

No matter where you currently are in your pull-up journey, with the right plan of attack and with some self-belief — which is another important ingredient — you absolutely can achieve your goals. Pull-ups are an exercise that can generate feelings of empowerment, play, and freedom, and these are feelings I hope everybody is lucky enough to experience. Don’t get discouraged, don’t skip key steps, keep believing in yourself, and the sky is truly the limit.

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About the author:  Meghan Callaway

Meghan Callaway is a strength coach in Vancouver, Canada with over 14 years of experience coaching a wide array of clients from elite athletes, to post-physical therapy rehabilitative strength training, as well as everyday people who want to feel, perform, and function at a higher level. Meghan is the creator of the recently released Ultimate Pull-Up Program, and believes that working out should be fun, mentally and physically rewarding, and empowering. Meghan has an extensive athletic background and has played competitive soccer for 27 years, and also grew up playing ice hockey and baseball on boys teams. Connect with Meghan on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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