Pull Ups – they may be a basic bodyweight exercise, but they are far from easy. Many people struggle to ever even achieve one.
But by consistently integrating just 5 simple moves into your workout routine, you can improve your Pull Ups drastically.
Often when people work on building their Pull Ups they use assisted Pull Up machines, bands and a variety of exercises to strengthen their back. However, often when they do these exercises, the big muscles of their back aren’t even activating and working.
That is why the 5 Exercises To Improve Your Pull ups below are so important. They will get the big muscles of your back activated and ready to work to help you engage the correct muscles so you can work to achieve that full Pull Up!
1. Chest Foam Rolling
If you sit all day hunched over a computer, there is a good chance your chest muscles are tight. If your chest is tight, it is likely that you will struggle to get the correct muscles of your back engaged and working during Pull Ups and other Back Exercises.
To help loosen up your chest so you can get the big muscles of your back working correctly, it is important that you foam roll.
To roll out your chest, a small ball like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball works well when used against the wall. Stand with the ball in your chest against a wall, preferably in a doorway so you can extend your arm forward to help you dig into your chest. The ball should be right inside the shoulder joint at the top and side of your chest.
Press into the ball against the wall and then raise the arm on that side up toward the ceiling and back down. Hold on any tight spots. You can also roll the ball all along the muscles below your collarbone and even down around your shoulder toward your armpit. Do not simply roll the ball around quickly. Really search and hold on any tight spots. Then switch to the other side.
2. Upper Trap/Upper Back Foam Rolling
Your upper traps can also become tight from sitting hunched over all day. If your upper traps are tight, they can cause your mid and lower traps to not engage properly, which means the big muscles of your back won’t activate and carry the load. This cannot only lead to neck and shoulder pain and injury, but it can also cause you to not be able to retract your shoulder blades correctly and be able to perform a Pull Up!
To roll out your upper traps and your upper back, a ball is best although you can use a roller. It is easier to control the ball when you use it against the wall although you can also use it on the ground, especially if you want to apply more pressure.
To use the ball against the wall, stand with your back to a wall and place the ball at the top of your back and to the side of the base of your neck. It should be between the top of your shoulder blade and your spine.
Press the ball into the wall and feel it dig into your back. You can work from the base of your neck out to your shoulder and then down behind the shoulder blade between your shoulder blade and your spine. Do not go over bone. Focus on digging out the muscles.
Hold on any tight spots. You may even want to pull your arm across your chest or lift and lower your arm as you dig out under your shoulder blade to help release any knots you find. By flexing and relaxing the muscle, you can help the muscle release the knot. You can also use move the ball to the top of your armpit to help dig out the top of your lat and a rotator cuff muscle.
3. Thoracic Extension and Lat Stretch
Because we sit with our upper body in flexion most of the day, either hunched over in the car or at our computer, we need to work on our thoracic extension and even our lat flexibility if we want to be able to engage and use the muscles of our back correctly.
That is why the Thoracic Extension and Lat Stretch is a must-do move. Not only will it help improve your posture, but it will help get everything ready to work, especially if you’ve included a proper foam rolling routine before stretching.
To do the Thoracic Extension and Lat Stretch, kneel in front of a bench, table, couch or chair (something that you can place your elbows up on while being able to sit back and hang your chest over).
Place your elbows up on the bench about shoulder-width apart and make sure you are kneeling far enough back from the bench that you have room to lean forward and over and drop your head between your elbows. Then with your elbows on the bench, sit your butt back and relax your chest and head over between your arms.
Press your chest toward the ground and feel a nice stretch down your triceps and lats as well as through your thoracic spine. Try to extend your back as much as possible as you press your chest toward the ground.
However, make sure you are extending your upper and mid back and not your lower back. Brace your abs and keep them engaged. You can then either hold here and breathe to stretch deeper or you can come out of the stretch and then relax back into it and try to stretch further with each rep.
4. Scapular Band Flyes
Once you’ve released tight muscles from sitting all day, it is time to get your lower traps and the big muscles of your back activated and working.
It is very important with Scapular Band Flyes that you don’t feel your upper traps taking over. You want to feel the backs of your shoulders and especially the muscles between your shoulder blades working to pull the band open. You should even feel your shoulder blades retract down and back when you do the Overhead Scapular Band Fly.
Here are three different Scapular Band Flyes you can do. You can use one or all of them. Make sure though that when you do them you don’t feel your upper traps taking over. If you do, use a lighter band or even no band at all.
#1 Straight Scapular Band Fly
To do the Straight Scapular Band Fly, hold the resistance band with your hands about shoulder-width apart. The closer together your hands are the harder the move will be and the farther apart they are the easier the move will be. Make sure that whatever distance you pick, you can open your arms straight out to the side and feel the correct muscles working. Make sure to also start with a lighter resistance and that you focus on the correct muscles pulling the band open. Don’t just go through the motions.
Then press your chest out so you are standing nice and tall. Relax your neck and shoulders and engage your back muscles. Do not shrug. Raise your arms up straight in front of you at about shoulder height, or right below. Holding the band, and keeping your arms straight, pull your arms out to the sides and open. Pull the band open all the way to your chest. Pinch your shoulder blades together as you open and bring the band in to your chest.
Do not let your shoulders shrug up as you pull the band. Focus on feeling your back work to pull your arms open. Pause for a second with your arms open and feel your back engaging. Then bring your hands back forward to the starting position before repeating.
#2 Overhead Scapular Band Fly
To do the Overhead Scapular Band Fly, you will hold the band like you did for the Straight Scapular Band Fly. Holding the band in both hands, raise your arms out straight overhead and slightly in front of you.
Keeping your arms straight, pull the band down to your chest by opening your arms straight out to the sides and down. Do not bend your elbows to bring the band down to your chest. Draw your shoulder blades down and together as you bring the band down as if you are pulling your chest up to a bar. Make sure to keep your chest pressed out as you perform the fly so that it is almost like you are leading the movement with your chest.
Your arms should stay straight the entire time. Also, make sure you to keep your shoulders and neck relaxed. Feel your shoulder blades retract down and back and the big muscles of your back working.
Move slow and even pause at the bottom to assess and feel the correct muscles working. Don’t just go through the motions. Focus on the correct muscles working.
#3 Behind-The-Head Scapular Band Fly
The Behind-The-Head Scapular Band Fly is a more challenging variation so don’t attempt this one if you can’t feel the other two working the correct muscles. To do this Fly, hold the band with your hands about shoulder-width apart and start with your arms up straight overhead.
Pulling out and down on the band, open your arms down and out to your sides, bringing the band down toward the back of your shoulders. Keep your chest pressed out and draw your shoulder blades down and back as you pull the band down.
Do not really jut your head forward as you pull the band down behind your head. Pull it behind your head and bring your arms straight out to the side at about shoulder height. Once the band reaches the back of your shoulders, slowly bring it back overhead.
Remember, with any of these variations, you can always use a lighter resistance or no resist and still get your back to engage and work by simply focusing on the muscles working as you move your arms and pull with the muscles of your back.
5. Mini Pull Ups
Being able to perform Scapular Retraction is necessary if you want to be able to do Pull Ups.
And while there are a variety of great Scapular Retraction Exercises you can do to activate your back and improve your ability to draw your shoulder blades down and back so that your lats will engage and work, the Mini Pull Up is an important one to include because it forces you to do this while also taking on your weight like you would during a real Pull Up.
It will also teach your proper form and to lead with your chest so that you can better engage your back. Beginners will need to keep a foot on the ground and not take on all of their bodyweight to start. Make sure to also move slowly and pause to feel the contraction.
To do the Mini Pull Ups, hang from a bar with your palms facing away from you (you can also do this with palms facing toward you for a Mini Chin Up). Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart although you can vary the grip as well.
Then hanging from the bar, press your chest out and pull your shoulder blades down and together to feel yourself lift up. Feel your back engage as you draw your shoulder blades down and together.
As you press your chest out and retract your shoulder blades, don’t bend your elbows and turn this into a pull up just to get a bigger range of motion. Just press your chest out and retract your shoulder blades bringing them down and together.
Feel your back engage and pull you up toward the bar even though your arms aren’t moving. It should feel like you are going from shrugging your shoulders to un-shrugging your shoulders. You should feel your shoulders go down as your chest lifts up. Then relax after pausing to hold and repeat.
One bonus move I’d like to note is the Eccentric Pull Up. All too often people only use assistance when they do Pull Ups. They find they get stronger, but only seem to truly get better at doing the assisted variations.
That is because they never really take on their full bodyweight. To get better at doing Pull Ups, you not only have to do more and more challenging variations, but you also have to do real Pull Ups. And if you can’t do real Pull Ups, that is where Eccentric Pull Ups can help!
Eccentric Pull Ups
The Eccentric Pull Up is a variation of the Pull Up where you slow down the lower down – the Eccentric portion of the lift.
If you can do a full Pull Up, you will perform the Pull Up and then take 3-5 seconds to lower down. This will help you increase your strength and do more Pull Ups.
If you can’t do a full Pull Up, this is your chance to take on your bodyweight for at least a portion of the lift. To do this variation of the Eccentric Pull Up, you can do a foot-assisted variation or a Jumping Pull Up to help yourself get to the top of the Pull Up.
Once at the top of the Pull Up, take on your full bodyweight and lower down. This may not be super slow at the beginning, but your goal is to slow it down as you go. This combined with the Mini Pull Ups will help you achieve that full Pull Up because your body has to work and engage in the way it would for a real Pull Up.
At the beginning, you can also do a Foot-Assisted Eccentric Pull Up and keep a foot on the ground to assist through the entire movement if you can’t slow down the lower down at all.
The point is to spend more time under tension and constantly be forcing yourself to take on more and more of your full weight!
For more foam rolling, stretching, activation and even strength training moves to help you improve your Pull Ups, check out this How To Do A Pull Up Post.
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.