The pull-up is the mother of all upper-body exercises (perhaps co-parenting with the push-up). From a bodybuilding perspective, it is one of the best exercises for muscle growth in the entire upper back, especially the lats. In short, the exercise to develop your v-shape.
But no matter how basic the movement may seem, when performing the pull-up something goes wrong all too often. This not only undermines muscle growth, but also increases the risk of injury, especially in the sensitive shoulder area. That’s why we’ve listed seven common mistakes.
1. USING A GRIP THAT IS TOO WIDE OR TOO NARROW
You perform a pull-up with a medium-wide grip, that is, slightly wider than shoulder width. From this grip you can not only create the greatest range of motion (ROM), you also relieve your shoulders and elbows the most.
With a medium-wide grip, your elbows stick out slightly in front of your body. That provides more stretch in the lats, allowing you to put more power from that muscle.
You often see the pull-up performed with a wider grip, so that the elbows are next to the body instead of in front of it. That puts an unnecessary and undesirable pressure on your shoulders and elbows. In addition, you limit the ROM and thus the effectiveness of the exercise.
If you place the hands closer together, the forearms and the brachialis take over part of the work. And those aren’t the target muscles of pull-ups, not to mention that they can produce far less force than the lats.
2. NOT SQUEEZING THE SHOULDER BLADES TOGETHER
Whether you bench press, squat, row or pull yourself up: the effectiveness and safety of the exercise is determined by the position of your shoulders and shoulder blades. You need to stabilize this muscle zone by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling them down. This is also known as shoulder packing.
Your shoulders should remain ‘packed’ throughout the rehearsal. They often threaten to roll forward again when pulling up, which can cause nasty injuries in the rotator cuff. In addition, the ‘packing’ ensures that you pull up as much as possible with your back and not with other muscles, such as your biceps.
Tip: focus on extending your chest during the exercise. This way, you’ll be leading the movement with your chest, not your shoulders, and keep your shoulder blades scrunched together.
Unlike, for example, the bench press, the positioning of the shoulder blades does not go directly from the starting position. After all, squeezing the shoulder blades together is not possible if you hang completely, so with fully stretched arms, which is the intention with pull-ups (see mistake 4). Positioning is therefore done at the beginning of the movement. So you raise your body first by squeezing your shoulder blades together, only then by bending your elbows.
Not quite clear yet? See the video below, which zooms in on that important, first piece of the ROM:
So the complete setup looks like this:
3. NOT PULLING HIGH ENOUGH
As you know, for optimal muscle growth, you need to use the maximum range of motion (ROM) for most exercises. With pull-ups, that means that your arms are stretched at the bottom (see mistake 4).
At the top you have three options. You pull up to your chin:
Or — if you’re strong enough — up to your collarbone:
Make a clear choice between chin or collarbone (nothing in between) so that you can handle a standardized ROM.
A third option is to pull yourself up to your chest, say to the line of your nipples:
For that last possibility you have to be very strong. It is therefore a worthy alternative to weighted pull-ups, if you cannot or do not want to do them for whatever reason.
4. NOT HANGING COMPLETELY
Great that you can do ten pull-ups in a row. But are those pull-ups with a dead hang? In other words, do you start each rehearsal from a fully suspended position?
Pulling up from a dead hang is critical to the effectiveness of the exercise, perhaps even more important than how high you pull up. Although you should of course try to get to about chin height.
Dead hang means that you hang with arms fully extended. Not just at the beginning of the exercise, but between each rep. This way you create an enormous stretch in the target muscle, the lats, which gives it an enormous growth stimulus. And yes, that incentive is greater than that from the possible extra reps you could do without a dead hang. So make sure you hang completely for one second after each repetition, after which you start the next.
From a dead hang you should also keep bringing your shoulder blades into position (see mistake 2). However, that doesn’t mean you have to move them completely out of position during the dead hang . Keep your shoulders neutral/stable during the hang so that you can immediately ‘pack’ them again on the next repetition.
Not quite clear yet? See the video below.
5. BENDING THE KNEES
You will usually see pull-ups performed with knees bent. The lower legs are then crossed or pointing backwards. This is often the same, because many gyms do not have a high pull-up bar. However, the most ideal execution is with straight legs that you keep something in front of you. In this way you can optimally use your leg muscles and core to stabilize the body, so that you do not start swinging.
Tip: if your chin-up bar is not high enough, you can still let your lower legs hang while you pull up. This, combined with tightened abs, also helps keep your lower back in a neutral position.
6. NO CONTROLLED ECCENTRIC PHASE
You are not supposed to ‘drop’ with a pull-up:
After all, the way down is the oh-so-important eccentric (or negative) phase for muscle growth, which you don’t have to do excessively slowly, but in a controlled manner:
7. CREATING TOO MUCH MOMENTUM
The pull-up is a controlled, slow movement that requires your body to remain virtually still. So don’t rock your hips and swing your legs to create momentum:
As a strength athlete you try to train a muscle as effectively as possible, not ‘just’ do as many pull-ups as possible, like in a CrossFit competition – no offense (no, really not)!
Okay, a little cheating in that last repetition is allowed, but make sure that you still perform the negative phase of the movement (i.e. the lowering) in a controlled manner and therefore relatively slowly.