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The Pull Up Exercise: How to Use a Pull Up Bar

Build upper body strength using a Pull Up Bar

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Updated May 19, 2014

Man training in crossfit gym
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The pull up exercise (also called a chin up) is one of the most overlooked exercises for building upper body, back and core strength. It requires a very simple piece of exercise equipment -- a chin up bar. Chin up bars can be elaborate, free-standing pieces of exercise equipment, or simple, doorway chin up bars you purchase online or at a local sporting goods store.

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Unfortunately, most athletes ignore this simple exercise during their regular strength training routine. Don't make that same mistake. It's one of the "must do" exercises no matter your fitness level.

The traditional pull up uses an overhand grip on the bar, while the chin up generally uses an underhand grip. Here, we focus on the overhand grip.

How to Do a Pull Up

The pull up bar should be at a height that requires you to jump up to grab it; your feet should hang free.
  1. Stand below the bar with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Jump up and grip the bar with an overhand grip.
  3. Bend your knees and cross your ankles for a balanced position.
  4. Pull yourself up so your chin is level with the bar.
  5. Lower yourself so your elbows are straight.
  6. Repeat the movement without touching the floor.
In general, you should move through the entire movement in a somewhat slow and controlled motion.

Complete the number of repetitions your workout requires. Once your form deteriorates, it's time to stop and take a rest or you may risk injury.

But I Can't Do One Pull Up Yet

If you can't do one full pull up yet, there are several ways to build up your strength so you can start doing pull ups.
  • Machine Assisted Pull Up
    Begin by using a pull up assist machine. You'll have to go to a gym for this, but it's a good ways to start developing the strength required for the pull up.

  • Human Assistance
    Have a trainer, coach or spotter "assist" you. Keep your knees bent and ankles crossed. Your partner will provide a gentle lift while gripping the tops of your feet. This small assist helps offset your weight as you pull up.

  • Static Pull Ups
    Use a box or step to lift yourself into the pull up "finish" position and hold your chin at bar level for as long as you can. This will build your upper body strength over time. Slowly transition into the negative pull up exercise (see below) over several weeks.

  • Negative Pull Ups
    Use a box or step to lift yourself into the pull up "finish" position and hold your chin at bar level for several seconds. Slowly lower yourself in a controlled motion, stopping and holding at several points along the way. When you get to the bottom, repeat the process.

  • Half Pull Ups
    Stand on a box or bench that allows your elbows to bend about 90 degrees as you grip the bar. Starting your pull up from this position requires far less strength than starting with a fully extended elbows. Complete a few pull ups this way first, then lower the box and straighten your elbows over time for a more difficult pull up.

  • Jumping Pull Ups
    Stand on a box or bench that allows your elbows to bend slightly as you grip the bar. Bend you knees until your elbows are fully extended, then "jump" up to the pull up "finish" position with your chin level with the bar. Slowly lower yourself back to the box and repeat. Over time, you will gain strength until you can attempt other pull up variations.

  • Lat Pull Down
    The lat pull down machine is another way to begin building the strength need for the pull up. With this machine, you stay seated with your knees held down and you pull the weight down to you. It's not my first choice for learning how to do the pull up, however, because it's an entirely different body position and angle, but it's a fairly safe way to get started.
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