Perfecting the Pull-Up

When I’m teaching trapeze or any form of aerial acrobatics to beginners I always recommend 2 basic exercises which will fast track a students training and give them the strength and control they need to progress more quickly

These exercises are:

  1. The Pull-Up
  2. Inverting to Pike.

Inverting to pike helps with all movements where you need to turn upside down on aerial apparatus and will be the focus of another article. In this post I want to look at the pull-up and the variations I use in class.

The pull-up works the upper body like no other exercise recruiting a large number of different muscles check here and provides a very functional strength gain which is useful for progressing on to more advance techniques.

With any type of exercise we don’t recommend jumping straight into doing the exercise without an assessment. Our instructors are trained in assessing a students ability and then providing an appropriate level of exercise for their level of fitness, taking into account the unique factors about each individual.

Different body characteristics will determine how much energy needs to be expended to do a pull-up. The lower the body mass and the shorter the arms the less energy needed. That doesn’t mean that if you have long arms with a “lower centre of gravity” you can’t do pull-ups. It just means you may have to work a little harder to get there than your seven year old! The following video shows a series of progressions for use with the pull-up.

As you can see the first level of exercises are starting with your feet on the ground and as you progress you slowly reducing the use of your legs as your strength grows. In class it can help if you have a spotter to help you through the sticking points in the exercise, they can work you harder than you may on your own.

##Full Range of Motion One of the easiest mistakes to make as a beginner is to use only a limited range of motion when performing a pull up. While I agree that any safe type of pull up will increase strength, if you want to progress more quickly then you need to be using a full range of motion.

The pull up is a complex action which uses different groups of muscles at different times during its execution. Usually students do this because they are stronger in particular sections of the exercise so it is easier for them to do a half pull-up than a full pull-up.

However if you train a limited range of motion you will only be strengthening that limited range of motion. If you want a quicker route to a great pull-up then use a full range of motion and strengthen all the muscles and muscle fibres needed for the exercise. When you are starting out it will help to do an assisted exercise, you can get someone to help you through the sticking points at least you are still working all the required muscles. This done can be self-assisted by using your legs like in the video or partner-assisted.

##Good Spotting Good training partners should give you just enough assistance to help you over the parts you have difficulty with but not so much that you are no longer engaging the muscles to do the exercise. It does take some practise working together to ensure the spotter is only helping you in the sections of the move that need additional support and challenging you to give your best without straining unnecessarily.

Spotting also helps in keeping your form correct. Everyone has seen people writhing and struggling through their conditioning sets, this can lead to injury and takes the focus off the muscles you are trying to work. It also works areas you hadn’t intended. One student commented that pull-ups were making her neck thicker! If you are tensing your neck to that degree then use a spotter where needed and stop struggling!

##Sit lifts Sit lifts are an exercise where you are sitting on the bar and trying to lift yourself off of it. So you are being asked to grip the trapeze ropes and lift your body weight off the bar while keeping your legs out in front of you, this is much harder than a traditional pull up, unless of course you are not doing them properly (see the section on full range of motion). I’d recommend doing these after mastering the pull-up if you want fast progress.

##Pull-Up Research One thing to bear in mind that research in this area is usually tested on student athletes in a university setting rather than on the range of ages, body types and fitness levels we would typically see in our classes. Research into teaching adults gymnastics or acrobatics is almost non-existent both from a pedagogical perspective as well as in exercise science studies.

Get a Grip

Researchers in the physical therapy unit of the Mayo Clinic 1 compared EMG (Electromyography) outputs from three different pull-up variations:

  • Pronated grip (pull-ups - palms facing away, the way we train in trapeze)
  • Supinated grip (chin-ups - palms facing)
  • Perfect Pull up grip (palms facing towards each other) named after the equipment you need to buy to do it.

The researchers concluded that chin-ups and pull-ups were a superior exercise than the perfect-pull-up as they recruited more muscle fibres, the pronated grip recruited more back muscles and the supinated grip more bicep. However the bicep is a relatively small muscle in comparison to the latisimus dorsai muscles of the back and Tom Bumgardner in his Pull Up Manifesto makes the point that using a supinated grip for beginners may place excess stress on the bicep tendon.

Uncomplimentary Exercises

Researchers out of the Human Performance Laboratory at Truman State University in Missouri 2 studied the pull-up and the lat pull-down exercise and how performance on one exercise might predict performance on the other. The researchers found that pull-up performance was not indicative of lat pull-down performance, and vice versa. So although outwardly they appear similar, research tells us otherwise.

In short if you want to improve the pull-up do more pull-ups! That isn’t to say that lat pull-downs are bad just a different exercise.


So to sum up your route to pull-up super power:

  • Use the right level of pull up exercise for your strength
  • Work through a progression of exercises as your strength grows
  • Use assisted pull-ups where needed
  • Perform the exercise with a full range of motion
  1. Youdas, J., Amundson, C., Cicero, K., & Hahn, J., Harezlak, D., Hollman, J. (2010). Surface electromyographic activation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(12), 3404-3414. 

  2. Halet, K., Mayhew, J., Murphy, C., & Fanthorpe, J. (2009). Relationship of 1 repetition maximum. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5), 1496-1502.