Pull-ups are the most commonly practiced training exercise for climbing, yet how much do we really know about them from a biomechanical perspective? It is common for climbers to discuss different strength protocols for pull-ups, as well as supportive exercises for preventing injury, but the fundamental requirement is to understand the nuances of form, so that we’re performing the exercise correctly. So let’s take a look under the hood.
The pull-up is a closed-chain movement, which in the case of the upper body, means that the hands can’t move. The body is suspended by the hands and as we pull-up, the elbows flex (bend) and the shoulders adduct (move downward toward the mid-line of the body) and extend to bring the elbows to the torso. Pull-ups use the latissimus dorsi, the wing-like muscles that originate below your shoulder-blades and extend to your lower back. The “lats” are the largest muscles in the upper body and are the prime-movers in a pull-up, meaning that they provide most of the power to raise your body. Other muscles utilised are the biceps, deltoids (shoulders), rhomboids, and core.
Pull-ups vs chin-ups
Pull ups are commonly confused with chin-ups. Pull-ups are performed with a pronated grip (overhand, with palms forwards) with arms slightly-wider than shoulders, whereas chin-ups use a supinated (underhand) grip with arms closer together at approximately shoulder width. Both exercises are comparable because although the shoulder movements are different, the muscles responsible for those movements are the same. As stated, in pull-ups the shoulders are adducted, whereas in chin-ups, the shoulders extend (as the arms are pulled down and backwards). Ultimately, both types of shoulder motion are powered by the lats.
Many climbers who are new to both exercises will find chin-ups to be easier. This is because the biceps are in a mechanically disadvantageous position when you use a pronated grip. Conversely, when your palms face toward you, your biceps are in a stronger position and able to generate more force. Of course, for climbing an overhand grip is more relevant and thus, you should prioritize the pull-up when you train.
Coaches will debate endlessly the importance of form in training. In general, the take-home is not to view form as a binary thing, as in good or bad. We should strive to do an exercise as well as possible while accepting that things don’t always have to be perfect. But, if you’re thrashing away, then you are risking injury. Better to do fewer reps with less load and to concentrate on loading the muscles smoothly and evenly.
To perform a pull-up, grasp a pull-bar or jugs on the hangboard with palms facing forward. If using a bar, position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Hang from the bar with your arms extended. If you are new to pull-ups, you may want to bend your knees slightly to assist with balance and you can try crossing your ankles to reduce swinging, which can break the rhythm of the exercise. Alternatively, climbers with a strong core may wish to keep their legs straight and feet next to each other. Now, lift your chest, lean back slightly and engage your core muscles to reduce swinging.
Pull with your arms, trying your best to maintain a smooth motion. Continue pulling until your chin is above the bar and not just touching it. Avoid craning your neck and stretching your chin to the bar, as this is cheating and may cause injury. Slowly straighten your arms and lower yourself back to full arm extension, but do not fully relax your arms or shoulders between reps. Coaches will always debate exactly what you should and shouldn’t do at the bottom part of a pull-up. Some suggest that you should never slump onto fully straight arms as this may place excessive strain on the elbows and shoulders in the long-term. Others suggest that it’s important to train the ability to pull up from the fully slumped position. I suggest that the middle ground represents a good option. In other words, lower to the point where your arms are fully straight, but keep your muscles engaged; ie: don’t relax fully at the bottom of the rep. Aim to hold muscle tension as best you can but don’t worry too much if you aren’t able to do this for the last rep or two of each set.
Common pull-up mistakes
Pull-ups seem like a straightforward exercise, yet when we look around the gym we see some surprising variations in form. This is perhaps because pull-ups are inherently hard to do and many climbers battle to the point where they start to go freestyle. The following faults are common, yet easily fixed.
- Kicking with the legs (aka: kipping. The legs can be used to create a wave of momentum through the body to cheat-out a few more reps. My suggestion is not to go there as it simply takes load off the target muscles and could lead to injury if the movements are too violent. If you really want to do more reps then simply reduce load by using foot assistance.
- Reduced range of motion. Some will struggle with the first part of a pull-up, others will find the top part harder, and some will struggle with both and may only be able to do the middle part. The outcome is a kind of half pull-up, which is performed only within the middle part of the range. Clearly, if you do this then the weaker part of the range won’t be trained at all and the gap will only widen. The answer is not to kid yourself by trying to perform more reps within a reduced range. Again, the solution is to reduce load using foot-assistance and be strict with yourself.
- Dropping down fast onto straight arms. This is a fundamental no. Correcting this isn’t even a matter of reducing load, seeing as, if you can do the upward (concentric) part of the movement, then you should definitely be able to do the negative (eccentric) part in control. Simply don’t do it!
- Pausing excessively on straight/slumped arms at the bottom. We’ve already debated the pros and cons of whether to maintain muscle engagement at the bottom part of a pull-up and there are different schools of thought on this. However, one thing is for sure, if you hang in excess of one to two seconds on straight arms to rest, then this is essentially cheating. Maintain a steady pace and always move straight out of the lower position.
This article has explored pull-up anatomy and provided guidelines on form but it does not provide a complete picture on pull-up training. Read more on the subject to gain knowledge of training protocols, exercise variations and injury prevention strategies.