One of the most common training-related questions I receive is, "How do I get strong enough to perform a full pull-up?" Let's analyze the pull-up and create a plan of attack!
I'm going to talk about the wide-grip pull-up here. There are many variations of the pull-up. One variation commonly referred to as a "chin-up" involves a very close grip with palms facing you. The wide-grip pull-up is typically performed with palms facing away. When I train my clients, I try to make a baseline for reference.
For grip, I consider this baseline to be the distance between your hands when they are hanging comfortably by your sides. This is what I call a "standard grip width." Anything inside of this is narrow grip, and anything outside of this is wide grip. A wide-grip pull-up means hands slightly outside of standard grip width, and palms facing away.
Any exercise that involves a large number of larger muscles is referred to as a "compound" exercise. A squat is a prime example - the squat utilizes over 70% of your body's muscles! A curl is not considered a compound movement. The major muscle involved is the biceps, and there are several other muscles that assist the movement, but they are neither large nor major muscles.
A wide-grip pull-up, on the other hand, not only incorporates your large back muscles (lattisimus dorsi), but involves your biceps, your forearm muscles, and several other muscles as well. Therefore, it qualifies as a "compound" movement (movement is another term for exercise).
Wide Grip Pull-Up
Any movement that causes more than one joint to move ("flexion of a joint") is a multi-joint movement. During a wide-grip pull-up, the angle of your wrist, elbow, and shoulders will change. This qualifies the pull-up as a multi-joint movement. Okay, so we want to perform our first, full rep of this multi-joint movement.
Let's explore the dynamics of the movement and find out what we need to focus on. The start of the movement involves drawing your shoulder blades together - this is known as scapular retraction. This is the portion of the movement that involves your back muscles ("lats"). This portion begins the lift, so tension remains on the back throughout the movement.
The next portion of the movement involves drawing your body upwards. This requires flexion of the elbow joint, or the bending of your arms. In order to flex the elbow joint, the biceps and supporting muscles are called into play. This, therefore, is another critical link in the pull-up: your biceps.
Keep in mind that throughout this movement, you are grasping the bar. This requires strong forearm muscles. At the end of the movement, when you begin to lower yourself, your triceps and shoulders come into play by exerting force against the pull of gravity to control your descent. Now the rep is complete!
What Happens In A Pull Up?
As you can see, a lot happened during our pull-up. The first thing I would like to focus on is grip strength. Many lifters insist on using "lifting straps" to allow them to grasp much heavier weights.
While this can allow targeting of certain muscle groups, it also keeps the wrists from developing! If you find that your weakness with a pull-up is grip strength, then wrist flexions and extensions are the key for improving your grip. You can kneel in front of a standard bench, placing your forearms across the bench.
For wrist extensions, you grasp a barbell or dumbbell with palms facing the floor. Bend your wrist completely down, and then extend it so your palms are facing straight ahead or slightly upwards. Return to the start position. For wrist flexions, you repeat the exercise with palms facing up. At the bottom of the movement, allow the bar to roll to your fingertips, then roll it back up and finish with your palms facing you. Perform these exercises once or twice per week in addition to your other workouts to improve grip strength.
Many people find that upper arm strength is a weakness. The biceps play a major role in executing a proper pull-up. By performing curls and hammers, you can strengthen the upper arm. Remember to balance biceps exercises with triceps exercises - for every "pull" biceps movement, you should perform a similar amount of sets and reps with a "push" triceps movement, either in the same work or another, unless you are specifically trying to correct a pre-existing imbalance.
Finally, the back itself comes into play. One way to eliminate the wrists and biceps to focus directly on the back is scapular retractions. You can hang as if performing a pull-up. Begin the pull-up movement, but stop when your arms start to bend. The range of motion is very slight - you simply flex your back muscles to pull your shoulder blades together - but this will strengthen the back and by-pass any "weak links" such as wrists and biceps.
If you have access to an assisted pull-up machine, you can progressively lighten the amount of assistance until you are ready to perform a full, unassisted pull-up. If you have a partner, they can wrap their arms around your legs and help assist with the pull-up.
One trick with an assisted pull-up is to push the legs in the horizontal plane, so that you perform the pull-up at an angle with your chest underneath the bar and legs pushed farther out in front of you. This allows more loading on the back, targets the back more directly, and can help develop the strength necessary to perform a full, unassisted pull-up.
As you can see, there are a myriad of factors that come into play when training for your first pull-up. The key is to identify what resources you have to work with, and discover what your weaknesses are. You can then form a "plan of attack" that culminates with your first successful pull-up!