Wednesday Workout: Perfect the Pullup

Alex KochonOctober 2, 2013

So you want to do a pull-up. Or you want to do more. Or you want to do them better. You’re not alone in wanting to build your upper body, impress your teammates or coaches, or just prove to yourself, dang you’re strong!

Many women write off the strength test as a man’s thing. We’re not designed for it, they say. A couple years ago, I watched Perianne Jones elevate herself high above a pull-up bar at her hometown gym in Almonte, Ontario. Then she added weight to the chain dangling below a strap around her waist. The Canadian World Cup skier and 2010 Olympian proceeded to do more pull-ups until she couldn’t lift herself anymore – finishing with 45 extra pounds in tow.

“When I moved out to Canmore, we used to have the strength test where we did a minute of everything, and I’d get to the chin-up part and I’d just hang there,” Jones said at the time. “It was impossible.”

She and former teammate Amanda Ammar decided they were going to conquer the test, so they started doing pull-ups daily.

“We’d go for a run and hit up the chin-up bar,” Jones said. “We started by just going down and eventually we got a lot better. It’s pretty fun.”

The starting method Jones referred to is known as a negative pull-up (palms facing away from your body) and is as simple as hoisting yourself up over the bar with the help of a stool or something similar, then slowly lowering yourself down. If you’re trying this, think of taking five full seconds before your feet hit the ground.

You can do it, yes you can! Sailors compete in the pull-up phase of the Search and Rescue competition during Surface Line Week, a  weeklong series of competitive events, in 2008. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wiki Commons)
You can do it, yes you can! Sailors compete in the pull-up phase of the Search and Rescue competition during Surface Line Week, a weeklong series of competitive events, in 2008. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wiki Commons)

As is the main rule in pull-ups or their counterpart, chin-ups (underhand grip/palms facing toward you), move slowly and in control with a grip slightly wider than your shoulders.

The movement of lifting yourself up (or lowering down) engages everything from your shoulders to your back, your core, elbow joint, biceps, triceps and wrists. If you go too aggressively at this (i.e. kipping pull-ups where momentum and a jerking motion helps you knock out more repetitions, or reps), you’re setting yourself up for injury, and essentially, not getting any stronger.

So what should you think about when trying to perfect a pull-up, and if you’re just starting out, how should you go about getting your chin well above the bar?

Here are a couple ideas:

1.    Hover. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms out) and get yourself up and over the it: stand on something that’s going to put you in a position where your chin is well above the bar.

Cross your legs, bend your knees and pull them toward your midsection. Tighten your core and count (or look at a clock) while breathing (don’t hold your breath), and see how long you can hang out up there for. Keep your head and chin level (head tends to tilt back as it gets harder). When your form deteriorates or your arms are shaking so bad they’re about to let loose, slowly lower yourself down to the ground (count to five).

2.    Negative pull-ups: Start with your chin well above the bar and slowly lower all the way down, counting to five for each rep. Do at least 12 reps a day if you can’t do a pull-up just yet.

3.    Assisted pull-ups: Can be done with a resistance band or machine. Wrap a reliable band (one that’s not going to snap and break) around the bar and put one or both feet (or your knees) through the loop. Be sure to offset your body weight with a nearby chair while holding onto the bar, palms facing out (don’t rely on the band to hold your body weight).

With the help of the band, lift your entire body up. The machines are a little easier, using weight to counter your body weight and assist your upper body in pulling you up. The less weight, the harder it’s going to be, and when you no longer need weight, you’re doing an actual pull-up.

4.    Do chin-ups: With your palms facing you, grab the bar and attempt to lift your head up and over. Hands will end up by your chest, just like in a pull-up, but this motion is easier to achieve (relying on bicep strength) than the pull-up (which requires more upper back, i.e. the lat muscles).

Get your chin up; clearance is key! (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wiki Commons)
Get your chin up; clearance is key! (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wiki Commons)

5.    Go for it. When you’ve done enough hovering, negative pull-ups, assisted pull-ups and chin-ups to turn your head blue, go ahead and try a pull-up (palms out) and see where you end up. This is a tough movement, so it might take a little extra pushing of yourself to get there. If you don’t get it on the first try, try again for at least a few more shots until your arms tire. If you’ve mastered it, try for more reps, much slower.

Not even close? General strength training is usually a must for maintaining upper body, so if you’re not there, no worries. Incorporate some of the following exercises into your workout routine and try to lift at least twice weekly.

6.    Lat pull-downs: Using a nifty lat pull-down machine, set the weight at a reasonable amount (not too heavy at first), grab the bar (attached to a cable), sit down and pull the bar toward your collarbone without leaning back or arching your back. Don’t lean forward and pull behind your head. Do 3 sets, repeating at least 12 times with a comfortably challenging weight each time. Stretch or do other exercises in between.

7.    Push-ups: Place your wrists below your shoulders to start until you can do at least 20 reps (lowering your body down, then pressing back up) with good form (backside should be in line with your back, not curving up or down). Then play around with narrow or wide hand placement, putting one palm on a medicine ball then rolling it to the other between push-ups for a total body exercise.

Do enough of this stuff and your upper body should be in fighting shape come ski season!


Related: Working Out with Perianne Jones

Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon ( is a former FasterSkier editor and roving reporter who never really lost touch with the nordic scene. A freelance writer, editor, and outdoor-loving mom of two, she lives in northeastern New York and enjoys adventuring in the Adirondacks. She shares her passion for sports and recreation as the co-founder of "Ride On! Mountain Bike Trail Guide" and a sales and content contributor at When she's not skiing or chasing her kids around, Alex assists authors as a production and marketing coordinator for iPub Global Connection.

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