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king of upper body exercises

Have you ever attempted an exercise in the gym, had a mega fail…

…and then pretended you were actually just doing a stretch warm-up?

That’s exactly what I did when I tried pull-ups for the first time.

It might be the King of upper body exercises – but it’s so damn hard to master (until you follow the advice in this article).

The first time round I walked over, grabbed the handles above, squeezed my grip tightly to pull myself up…and moved about 0.5cm!

So I just hung there pretending I was stretching my arms, and then casually walked away 5 seconds later hoping no-one noticed.

“The pull-up is one of the best exercises for building muscle mass in your upper body…”

The idea may be simple: hands wide apart and lift your bodyweight upwards.

The reality is different: pull-ups are a ball-busting exercise (especially if you’ve only been hitting the gym for a few months).

Most gym-goers avoid this hugely effective upper body exercise because it’s too difficult, but this article will show you how to master it in a matter of months.

Even if you can’t complete one single rep right now, you CAN become a pull-up pro. It just takes a bit of perseverance and practice using a few clever tactics.

Fact is, the pull-up is one of theee best exercises for building muscle mass in your upper body, as well as developing the strength of your back, shoulders, chest and arms. If you’re serious about gaining muscle and getting in great shape then it’s time to perfect the pull-up….

Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups and the Muscles Worked

Sometimes pull-ups are referred to as chin-ups and vice versa. Don’t know if it’s an American thing…or if somebody was just mixing vodka instead of water with their protein powder when planning their workouts.

But there’s a clear difference between these two upper body exercises: how you grip the bars.

Pull-ups = overhand grip and hands at slightly wider than shoulder width. (See photo below).

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Chin-ups = underhand grip and hands at shoulder width.

Both exercises largely work the same group of muscles but there is a slight difference.

With the underhand grip and palms facing inward, chin-ups put more emphasis on the biceps. The other muscles worked include chest, shoulders, upper and mid back (trapezius, latissimus dorsi), forearms and abs.

Pull-ups work these muscles too but activate the lower latissimus dorsi more, making it the king of upper body exercises in my opinion.

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While both moves are difficult, the easier of the two are definitely chin-ups. So we’re going to put those aside and focus only on pull-ups in the rest of this article. Because once you can do pull-ups comfortably, chin-ups will be a breeze.

The Do’s and Don’ts of the King of Upper Body Exercises

If we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right. No half reps, no poor form, no injuries!

DO a proper pull-up this way:

  1. Grab a pull-up bar at slightly wider than shoulder width, with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Gripping the bar tightly, lift your feet off the ground and begin in a dead hang position.
  3. Pull your body upwards by squeezing the bar with your hands and engaging your upper body muscles and core. Continue to pull until your chin is over the bar.
  4. Now slowly lower your body, maintaining a firm grip as you straighten your arms and return to the starting hanging position.

DON’T do a pull-up like this:

  1. Grab the bar at too narrow an angle, remember to keep your hands at just slightly wider than shoulder width.
  2. Swing/kick your legs around as you pull upwards. Instead focus on tightening your core region to help keep you steady.
  3. Jerk your upper body and head upwards to get your chin over the bar. Fully pull your arms all the way to the top until you get there.
  4. Or let your body just drop to the bottom as this will likely cause an injury. Slowly lower yourself downwards.

How to Go From 0 Reps to Pull-ups Pro

It’s one thing knowing the do’s and don’ts of this awesome exercise, but it’s another thing actually doing pull-ups especially if you’re overweight.

Like I mentioned earlier, I struggled to do one single rep first time round. These days, I regularly do my sets of pull-ups and chin-ups with 25kg strapped to my waist.

It’s simply a case of developing upper body strength and gradually becoming more comfortable with the technique.

There are two ways to do this: use resistance bands or assisted pull-up machines.

Resistance bands

These provide assistance during the exercise, taking some of the bodyweight off you, making it easier to pull up and also lower yourself down.

pull-ups     pullups

(In the pictures above, notice the thin black resistance band hanging round the bars and my shins resting on it).

You can buy resistance bands from Amazon for only around $20 each and there are various thicknesses based on your strength and fitness.

Wrap the band around the bar/pull-up handles and pull the loop down towards your legs. Just as you’re getting into the starting position for pull-ups, lift your knees onto the band for support.

Then follow the directions given earlier for completing a pull-up.

Assisted machine

Many gyms have machines that give you assistance when doing pull-ups, chin-ups and dips.

Like the resistance band, you rest your knees/shins on a cushion that compensates for some of your bodyweight. You can adjust how easy or difficult it is by altering the weight on the machine.

(Alternatively, if your gym does not have an assisted machine – and you don’t have a band – a training partner can hold your legs to give you assistance during the exercise).

Developing Your Technique and Upper Body Strength

No matter how good or bad you are at pull-ups, you’re now in a perfect position to get much better at them with support from either a band or assisted machine.

These will give you stability and, by taking some of the load of your weight, will make it easier to complete the exercise.

By consistently working on assisted pull-ups in the gym, you’ll continually develop upper body strength. You’ll then gradually be able to increase the number of reps to the point where you can complete the exercise unassisted – and build on it from there.

Here’s a five step process to do exactly that:

#1 Focus only on perfecting technique for the first couple of weeks

Using either the band or assisted machine complete just a handful of reps, only around 2-4.

Getting the technique right means…

>>> No swinging your lower body.

>>> Your chin going over the bar at the top.

>>> A controlled descent.

>>> Your arms straight at the starting position.

#2 Increase the number of reps

Keep working at it, always maintaining good form. No half reps!

As you inevitably get stronger, gradually increase the number of reps. Simply work till failure and complete as many reps as possible.

It won’t happen overnight but the aim is to reach double figures with the band or assisted machine supporting you.

#3 Ditch the band when you get this signal

When you reach 12 reps with good form then that’s the signal that you’re good to go unassisted. You’re ready to freestyle it!

It’s time to ditch the band or assisted machine and move on to proper pull-ups.

#4 Start confidently and put numbers out of your mind

When moving on to doing pull-ups simply focus on perfecting the initial reps.

You might only manage 1, it might be 3, but don’t worry about numbers in first week.

#5 Begin competing with yourself

At this point the aim is to start building on reps. Take note of how many you complete – and begin competing with yourself!

In every workout the aim is simply to beat your last number of reps by 1. Some days you might only equal the same number of reps as your previous session, but always challenge yourself to try and go one better.

This will spur you on and those numbers will gradually climb. A few months on, you’ll be banging out reps like a pro…

….and building your back, arms, shoulders, chest and core in one single incredible movement.

Don’t blame me when you need to throw out all your clothes because they’re too tight for your new V-shaped/strong/brilliant back.

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