The Things That You Didn’t Know About Pull Ups

When I was a platoon commander on the sunny island of Pulau Tekong during my days in full-time National Service, one of my main jobs as an instructor was to ensure the physical fitness of the recruits who were placed under my charge.

My constant self-training in the gym and at the pull up bars had resulted in my being labelled as “the fit guy”, and I enjoyed a certain amount of fame for some of the acrobatic feats that I could perform on the chinning bar. Hence I was naturally, and regularly, subjected to many questions and requests for pull up tips and advice.

You may or may not know of the things that I’m going to cover in this post, but I hope that among the stuff that I’m going to share with you here you’ll be able to find something useful for your own pull up training, or for training your friends or clients in this bodyweight strength movement.

Alright, let’s start off with the basics.

How do you know whether you, or your trainee, is ready to attempt the full pull up?

The answer is simple and straightforward. If you cannot perform an active hang for a good 30 seconds or more, you have no business attempting a full pull up.

What do I mean by active hang? By active hanging I don’t mean for you to hang off from the bar by just hooking your fingers over it and with your shoulders loose in their sockets.

By active hanging I mean for you to grip the bar, squeezing it firmly as you would if you wanted to wring the water out of a wet sponge, and with your shoulders well pulled in.

How to train up your grip and shoulder strength for the active hang? Perform scapular pull-ins, or what we call straight-arm pulls in the army. This will strengthen your grip and teach you how to engage your scapulae optimally for the pull up, which is a movement that requires the depression and retraction of the scapulae.

Once you can perform a good solid active hang for half a minute or more, we can start talking about achieving the full pull up.  

Of course, it is best that you first build up a foundation of pulling strength from exercises that require you to move less than your full bodyweight. One example of such an exercise is the inclined row, or what is more commonly known here as the inclined pull up. Once you can perform 3 sets of 30 inclined rows with good form, pulling your chest to the bar on every repetition, you should have developed a level of pulling strength that will stand you in good stead to attempt the full pull up.

How to grip the bar for the full pull up?

There are 3 ways of doing it.

1. Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at your second knuckle, which is located at the midfinger.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the base of your fingers, where they meet your palm.

3. Palm Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the top of your palm, which should place the first row of your knuckles directly over the bar.

So which way is best?

There is no absolute answer to this. Find out which grip feels stronger and more comfortable for you. However, with that being said, I’m a big advocate of all-round training, so I always recommend my clients and pupils to train all 3 types of grip. Don’t limit yourself unnecessarily, because bars of different diameters and textures will favour different grips. So work on all 3 to ensure that you’ll always be on top of your game.

What are some of the pros and cons for each type of grip?

1. Finger Grip – This may be the most comfortable grip that induces the least amount of calluses on the hands, which can be a painful process. However, the finger grip can be weaker than the other 2 types of grip because it is harder to flex the forearm with the bar positioned at your fingers, which will reduce your pulling strength and leverage. I’ll adopt this grip for very thin bars.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This being an in-between strikes a balance between the finger grip and the palm grip. The palm-finger grip is relatively easy to set up, and it offers more leverage than the finger grip although it is less comfortable. This grip is less painful than the palm grip, but it does not provide as much leverage as the latter. I’ll adopt this grip for bars of moderate thickness.

3. Palm Grip – This may be the most painful grip, and will induce a great amount of calluses on the hands. However, the upside is that the palm grip is arguably the strongest of the 3 different grips, offering a great deal of mechanical leverage and facilitating powerful forearm flexion that will increase the pulling strength. I’ll adopt this grip for thick bars.

Another common question on the grip: thumb above or below the bar?

Placing your thumb above the bar should give you more pulling power by facilitating forearm flexion, but with that being said it is difficult to set up a palm grip (and sometimes even a palm-finger grip) with your thumb on top of the bar. I personally prefer the greater security and stability that results from placing my thumb below the bar when gripping it. In my opinion the thumb is made to be an opposing digit for a reason, so let’s make use of it, especially when the bar is wet or slippery.

For those of you who want to know why placing your thumb above the bar will facilitate greater forearm flexion as compared to placing your thumb below the bar, try this:

Make a clenched fist with your thumb curled up under the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. This is known as a “gooseneck” pose, which is used by bodybuilders and models to display forearm development.

When you feel that your fist is “jammed” and can’t be flexed downwards any further, take your thumb out and position it alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. You will notice that you can now flex your fist downwards just that little further, and greater forearm flexion is achieved.

Or you can do the reverse: Make a clenched fist with your thumb alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. Now in this position try taking out your thumb and curling it up underneath the rest of your fingers. You should find it impossible to do so, unless you haven’t been flexing your fist downwards fully, or you were born with an anomalous biological structure in your hands, wrists and forearms which enables you to perform full forearm flexion even with your thumb placed below the rest of your fingers. I congratulate you if you find yourself in the latter category.

So thumb above or thumb below? I’ll leave that up to your own discretion.

Next question: What’s the difference between a supinated (“reverse”/underhand), pronated (“normal”/overhand) and a neutral grip?

Let’s go through these 3 different ways of gripping the bar:

1. Supinated Grip – I find that this allows you greater use of your biceps in the pulling motion. The supinated grip also facilitates the creation and maintenance of abdominal tension, which helps to stabilise the body better as it travels through the air during the pull up. So for those of you with melon-sized guns and relatively weaker abs, you could choose to start off your pull up training with the supinated grip. 

2. Pronated Grip – I find that most beginners find this the most difficult grip to perform for the pull up initially. My guess is that it requires greater coordination and control of scapular movement, which tends to present great difficulty for the novice. However, I am of the opinion that everyone should work towards performing pronated grip pull ups, due to the greater engagement and activation of the muscles across the back and the lats, which will translate into greater pulling strength and higher consecutive reps down the road.

3. Neutral Grip – This gripping method is best performed with the hands placed on 2 separate and parallel bars of the same height, such as that found on the horizontal ladder (monkey bars). Both palms will be facing inwards. It is not very convenient to use this grip on a single bar, as the hands will then be at different distances to the body. If the supinated grip is analogous to a dumbbell curl, and the pronated grip to a reverse curl, the neutral grip will be your hammer curl. I find that the neutral grip engages and activates the biceps more than the pronated grip, but comparatively less of the lats and back. The lats and back engagement and activation in a neutral grip is superior to that in a supinated grip, with relatively less achieved for the biceps.

There is actually another grip variation, what we call the “mixed grip” in the army. This involves having one hand in a pronated grip and one hand in a supinated grip. However, I personally feel that this gripping method should be adopted only as a supplement or for variety in your pull up training; you should not endeavour to make this the core staple of your programme in any way.

And now moving on to the question of grip width: how far apart should the hands be spaced on the bar for optimal pulling performance?

I will not attempt to break down for you every single type of grip width in the continuum, for there is far too many for me to elucidate within the extent of this post. However, I will go through a few of the more common variations: 

1. Close Grip – This is where the hands are touching, or almost touching.

2. Shoulder Width – This should be self-explanatory. The wrists and elbows are roughly in line with the shoulders.

3. Wide Grip – This is where the hands are spaced more than shoulder width apart. I shall focus on the “double shoulder-width” standard where the angle at the elbows when the latter is bent to the point that the chin exceeds the bar is about 90 degrees.

The first and most obvious difference between the 3 different grip widths that I’ve outlined for you above (less than shoulder width, shoulder width, more than shoulder width) is the distance that you have to pull to get your chin above the bar. The wider your hands are spaced apart on the bar, the less you have to pull for your chin to get over it. This is physics so simple, you probably won’t even recognise it as science.

However, although it seems then that it is most prudent to space your hands out as far apart as possible in order to reduce the range of motion that is required, ultra-wide grip chins can be extremely difficult to perform due to the greatly reduced mechanical leverage. The exact biomechanics that underpin this phenomenon eludes my limited abilities of articulation, but it should be clear to you that this isn’t an approach that should be taken to the extreme.

My guess is that super-wide grip chins require so much in the way of shoulder stabilisation that you will expend alot of muscular effort and energy to maintain safe and proper shoulder positioning, and hence greatly reduce the amount of strength left for you to exert upon the actual pulling portion of the exercise.

So which grip width is best?

Again this is up to your own judgement. People of different body types and proportions will prefer different grip widths. Experiment to find out what is most suitable for you, in terms of ease and comfort of performance. However, it is my advice for you to include all types of grip width in your training, to develop weak areas. Your own preferred grip width should form the mainstay of your training routine, but do the others once in awhile to fix up any weak links, so as to improve your overall pulling performance.

I will share with you a few last tips and tricks for the pull up:

1. Lift your head and look up towards the sky as you are pulling, and nearing the bar. This will allow greater engagement of your lats and back muscles and facilitate the necessary depression and retraction of the scapulae, which will confer greater pulling strength.

2. Keep your abs slightly tensed throughout a set. This will stabilise your trunk and reduce unnecessary swinging of the torso, which will hinder the pulling motion. It will be tiring to do so at first, but as your body gets used to creating and maintaining the necessary level of core tension you will be able to perform your reps more efficiently, without the need for additional effort to counter uncontrolled and excessive swinging of the body.

3. Grip the bar by squeezing it as you would when drying a wet sponge. Think about how you would pick up a heavy object from the floor. Would it grip it tightly or loosely? The answer should be obvious, and instinctive. Your hands are the only points of contact with the bar, and keeping a firm grip will facilitate your exertion, and enable you to “channel” your strength effectively. The grip is the limiting factor and often the weakest link in the body for the pull up due to the smaller size of the muscles involved as compared to the lats and back and bicep muscles. So grip tight, and you’ll be able to pull hard

4. This one is for safety’s sake: Maintain full control over the entire range of motion. Do not explode upwards or let your body drop down too quickly if you’re a beginner. Chances are you’ll jerk or wrench your shoulder and elbow joints, because they haven’t been conditioned for the increased demands of the new exercise. Pull up smoothly, and lower under control. Unless you’re a pro in competition, greater speed = less control = greater chance of injury. So stay safe, and stay under control!

5. Last tip – power breathing. When you become more proficient at the pull up you’ll be able to maintain a steady breathing rythm. In the beginning when you are struggling with a few reps, “pack” your breath into your body before every pull with a deliberate inhalation under strong mental focus. As you pull up release the air in your lungs as required; the exhalation should occur naturally as you exert. You may not get this now, but try it out, and you’ll experience the increased pulling strength as a result of this power breathing technique.

The full pull up is an excellent upper body strength builder, and it should feature as the staple of any upper body pulling work. Get good at this exercise for massive strength gains in the muscles of your arms and back.

  

That’s all for now folks, I’ll update you guys again if and when I do come across any new material for the pull up! 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

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