Conquering The All-Mighty Pull-Up

When “Mary” came to our training center, she was comfortable sharing that one of her life fitness goals was to perform one or more pull-ups.

Anyone who has been subject to any fitness challenge or test will agree that when we force any of our limbs to support the weight of our torso against the force of gravity alone, the challenge can be overwhelming.

The reason for his is fairly obvious when simply viewing the sheer volume of human torso, relative to the mass of the arms or legs.

As a result, it stands to reason that the sheer act of using the arms which serve a s the portal or connection to the shoulders, high and mid-back must do an inordinate amount of work to pull the entire torso and the weight of the legs, from a fully-extended position to a height aprrox 18″-24″ above the head.

Understanding the Differences

While the pull-up and chin-up mimic one another, the way these movements affect the body is not entirely the same.  The common component to both however is that the bicep of the arm is used in conjunction with the back muscles.

The pull up-begins by holding either a bar of any kind with the palms facing forward, or pronated. Beginning the movement in this fashion will bring the elbows along the sides of body or more laterally, and through the motion, force the shoulder blades to move towards one another at the upper back.  Generally speaking, the pull up is harder to perform simply as a result of angles and mechanics – primarily that with the pull up the bicep works at a different angle.

The chin-up is performed with the palms facing the the body.  The alignment and force generated in this position, will allow the biceps to work harder, and most often result in an increased number of repetitions or higher pull of the body.

While it is tempting to work the chin up more often because we feel stronger, avoiding over-use of any particular muscle is key,  This being said, the fitness enthusiast should created strength through both types of movements.

Whether it is the pull-up or the chin up two important areas should be addressed. The first, is that for either movement, the closer the hands are to one another, the more bicep is use.  Secondly, it is highly unadvised to perform a pull-up (or lat pull-down) so that the bar meets the back of the neck- or head forward.  This method creates an inordinate amount of stress on the shoulders and can present itself negatively a number of years after one has been training this way.

The Process

Whether it is the chin-up or the pull-up generating enough muscular force to pull ones entire torso up with the arms and back is not an easy process. Akin to any strength development program,  one must be patient and have a plan.  Here are some that can help:

Rubber Bands – Now I’m not talking about the kind that are wrapped around your newspaper.  The kind I’m  referring to have enough resiliency to actually assist pulling your body upwards.  There are many companies that make these and I don’t support one over the other.  One that I found in a matter of seconds is   which offers bands of various tensions so that one can progress by using less and less band assistance as strength is achieved.

Negative Force – Stand on a box, milk crate, or any platform that allows you to start with your head above the target object you would normally pull up to. With the hands in place (pull-up or chin-up) step off the box and lower yourself as slowly as you can – welcome to negative strength development.  This method will force you to utilize more available muscle and simultaneously build t he body.  Continue to do this until your arms lower you so quickly due to fatigue that the exercise can’t be performed anymore.

Pull-up Assist Machines – In many gyms, the pull-up and chin-up assist machines have a small platform that one can either stand or kneel on (depending on design) that the user can control how much counter-weight assists then in the upward phase of the motion.  These too, are another great way to begin the strength development curve.

Although the information supplied here demonstrates pulling oneself up to a bar or fixed height, all the same rules are “in play” with the lat pull-down machine, in which the bar is pulled towards the body versus the body being pulled towards the bar.

Remember that any goal requires slow, incremental progression and a plan.  The pull-up and chin-up are not just reserved for the gym “big guys.”  In fact, I’ll swear that some of the most effective “chinners” I’ve seen at the gym are slighter in stature.  Perhaps fodder for another day.

Make it a great one.





Bill Victor

Bill Victor, M.S. Exercise Science is the President of Victor Fitness and Performance Training. He and his team of trainers are dedicated to bringing the fitness experience, and the self-confidence that comes with it, to the citizens of Clark County. He can be reached through or his email,

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