Doing More Pull Ups for the Complete Beginner

in Weight Loss

By Dave Tai (guest contributor)

In this article I assume you are new to the world of pull ups. For the past decades of your life you’ve been stuck to the ground bounded by gravity as you watch people lift their head over a bar. Now that you’ve had enough of the ground, you want to do the same; I welcome you to the world of pull ups.

The Key to Doing Pull Ups

Marine Corps Field Meet competition
(photo: Presidio of Monterey: DLIFLC & USAG)

The pull up is a great upper body workout. It requires you to carry the whole of your body weight and pull your head over the bar. It forces a multitude of your upper body muscles to work, including back muscles such as your rhomboids, trapezius, and most importantly your latissimus dorsi. Your biceps and posterior deltoid (back of the shoulders) will get a good workout as well.

The key to doing pull ups is to have good grip strength (to hold on for dear life), upper body strength (to utilise that whole range of muscles waiting to be activated), and core (to keep your body from swinging).

Choosing Your Grip

There are a great variety of grips available. Each serves a different purpose. A simple tip is to put your thumb over the bar as well for a stronger grip.

  • Overhand Grip – Your hands facing away from you, shoulder width apart. This is the standard pull up grip, recommended as the grip you master. It allows good usage of your full upper body and will probably be the grip you use during a test.
  • Underhand Grip – Your hands facing towards you, shoulder width apart. Most beginners will have a tendency to use the underhand grip because it is somewhat easier than the overhand grip. This is because more often than not as a beginner you will have much more experience using your biceps (emphasized in the underhand grip) rather than your lats (emphasized in the overhand grip). Although it is easier, it is harder to achieve a high number of pull ups with the underhand grip. Your latissimus dorsi is the broadest muscle of the back – learning to fully utilise it will make a high number of pull ups relatively easier, so I urge you to invest in the overhand grip instead.
  • Wide Grip – Your hands facing away from you, arms as wide as possible. This allows for a very limited range of motion, however it puts full emphasis on your lats. This is considered to be one of the hardest grips.
  • Closed Grip – Your hands facing away from you, hands two thumb length apart on the bar (stick both thumbs out and they should touch). Although it still employs your back muscles the focus has shifted towards the trapezius and biceps.
  • Alternate Grip – One hand using underhand grip while the other in over hand grip. Works a variety of muscles and puts more strain on your core, but don’t forget to switch sides when you’re done!

The number of pull ups you can do will increase the fastest if you train with a variety of grips, stimulating all the different assisting muscles of the movement. When you are able to do a few pull ups, it’s time to mix it up. For now we will focus on how to get that very first pull up.

Increasing Your Grip Strength

Common sense tells you that in order to perform a pull up you first have to be able to hold on to the bar. If you are unable to hold onto the bar because your body is too heavy for your arms to support, start a weight loss regime to complement your pull up regime. You will find that Newton is right about gravity.

The solution to a stronger grip is simple. Want to hang on longer? Hang longer. Every time you walk by a pull up bar, just hop on and hang for as long as possible. Not to the point where you fall though. When you feel your grip losing strength, safely dismount. As you do this daily, you will find yourself accustomed to the weight of your body and gradually be able to read a book while hanging.

If you must, get a pair of grippers, those A-shaped devices sold at sports stores. When you are idling away or watching TV give them a good squeeze. Do this enough and your grip strength will grow, accompanied with monster forearms as well.

Building Your Upper Body Strength

(photo: killerturnip)

We use our biceps daily in a whole range of movements. Your lats is a whole other story as there probably aren’t many daily activities that require you to isolate your lats for work. However for a good pull up you need to know where your lats are, how to activate them, and as you do your pull up put full focus on contracting them. Your lats are what bodybuilders will call “wings”, they appear below your arms on the posterior sides of the trunk.

So how do you learn to isolate them? By doing a Lats Pull Down. The Lats Pull Down machine is created for the sole purpose of activating your lats. While it’s not a substitute for a pull up, it’s great for beginners. To feel your lats as much as possible, use a wide grip at a weight which you have full control. Pull down in a fully controlled motion and feel your lats contracting. Once you are able to isolate your lats, you can gradually increase the weight on the lats pull down until you have your first pull up at the bar.

Alternatively, if you do not have access to the gym, you should at least have friends. Have them assist you at the pull up bar. Mount the pull up bar as usual but this time bend your knees so that they can put their arms under your shin. At the start they can push you towards the bar. However, gradually their assistance should decrease to the point where you’re capable of doing it on your own. Make sure you know your limits and warn your friends in advance if you’re about to fall off. That said, you should not be falling off the bar – leave enough strength to safely dismount.

Welcome to the world of pull ups. When you finally get your head above the bar, look down and have a good laugh at gravity.


By guest contributor and fitness instructor Dave Tai.

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