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The Pull-Up

Correcting mistakes and integrating pull-ups into your workouts.

By Raphael Konforti MS, CPT


Pull-ups are one of the first exercises people start performing when they get into fitness to improve their physique and strength. They’re frequently performed, but rarely conquered. Seeing a proper pull-up is more rare than seeing someone perform a proper squat – a testament to how easy it is to do a pull-up incorrectly. That ends here.


Common Mistakes

“You’re not going low enough!” Those words couldn’t ring truer here with the addition of not going high enough. The most common mistake with pull-ups is not using a full range of motion from top-to-bottom, which puts muscles at a disadvantage for completing a full contraction. Reducing the amount of force a muscle can create limits muscle damage meaning there’s less opportunity to recover and grow back stronger.

The second mistake is improper muscle activation. Pull-ups should primarily target the latissimus dorsi (lats). Swinging or using momentum disengages the proper muscles. Furthermore, when the body is swinging, it changes your center of mass. Normally your center of mass is at your midsection within your body. When you swing, the center of mass travels outside of your body altering the resistance. This forces other muscles to activate and take over.


Perfecting The Pull-up

Now that you know what mistakes to look for, let’s correct them so you’ll have the best pull-up in the gym – not to mention the best back and arms.

Always use a full range of motion. At the bottom, your arms should be extended and you should feel a stretch in your lats. To hit the top range of motion, pull until the top of your shoulders line up with your knuckles. That’s full range of motion.

The next crucial aspect is proper muscle activation, which requires attention to detail. Although the lats will do the bulk of the work, for proper muscle activation and a healthy back, your shoulder blades need to move through a full range of motion. At the bottom of the pull-up, your shoulder blades should be up towards your neck and extended out to your sides. As you begin the pull-up, start by bringing down your shoulder blades while also adducting or bringing them together. Within your first couple of inches of pulling, your shoulder blades should already be down and together – contracted like the top of a barbell row.

Simultaneously you’ll also need to focus on how you’re pulling. One of the best-kept secrets to pull-up training is how to pull. To ensure maximal lat activation, you need to pull from your elbows instead of your hands. Think of your hands as attachments to the bar and your elbows as the movers. Pulling from your elbows helps move your shoulder blades and engage your lats so the movement isn’t arm dominant. Not only will your lats grow more, you’ll also ultimately become stronger.

The final element is timing and breathing. It’s important to perform pull-ups in a slow and controlled manner. Aim for two seconds up and two seconds down to eliminate swinging and target the proper muscles. Also, as you pull up breathe in and as you lower breathe out. This may not seem intuitive, however there’s sound reasoning: Breathing in at the top expands the ribcage allowing for a full contraction and exhaling at the bottom allows the muscles to fully lengthen creating a greater range of motion.


Incorporating The Pull-Up

Generally pull-ups work best for total body days, upper body days or a back day (as shown). Always perform pull-ups early in workouts as they’re taxing and require focus.


EXERCISE                          SETS         REPS

Barbell Row                           3                 8

Pull-Up                                   3                10

Dumbbell Row                      3                10

Close-Grip Pulldown           3                12

Cable Row                              3                12

Rear Delt Raise                     3                15

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