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Perfecting Your Pullup Mechanics

Posted by Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES on 21 November 2017
Perfecting Your Pullup Mechanics

The pullup is one of the most difficult bodyweight exercises to execute correctly just ask budding NHL star Sam Bennett.

The one-time Buffalo Sabres prospect, and the top rated North American skater heading into the 2014 draft, made headlines at the notoriously grueling NHL Draft Combine for finishing dead-last in pullups. He couldn't even complete one.

But that didn't deter the Calgary Flames from scooping up the Holland Landing, ON, native with the 4th overall pick that summer.

And you shouldn't be deterred from including this useful exercise from your workout regimen. Performed optimally, there isn't a better exercise for your upper body's strength, balance, flexibility, and posture. We'll show you how to get the most out of every pullup even if you can only muster up one.

Breaking Down the Pullup

Your movement and mechanics are more important to a successful pullup than simply being strong enough to lift your own weight. Along with back strength, a pullup will test and refine your shoulder mobility, scapular & spinal stability, and core strength.

We've found the best way to master the pullup is to break down each part of the move, step by step. Then, you can put it all together for an optimal, safe pullup exercise.

Assisted Straight-Arm Hang

Good overhead shoulder mobility is required for a correct pullup. To increase the range of motion and flexibility of your shoulders, the assisted straight-arm hang can help create a strong overhead position for the first part of a pullup. The assisted arm hang also enhances the grip strength necessary for continual pullups.

How It's Done: Stand directly under your pullup bar with an overhand grip, and slowly release pressure from your feet on the floor, until you feel your back stretch, as well as your sides. Breath normally in through the nose, out through the mouth.

Start with 2-3 sets of assisted hangs, holding for 5-10 seconds each rep. As you get more comfortable, use less leg power as you get stronger. Aim for two sets of 20-30 second hangs, three times per week.


Since a pullup primarily builds your back's fortitude, a strong core is essential to the move. Regular planking can stabilize and protect your spine. Improved core strength will lead to better posture and mobility, while a strong spine will help you prevent arching or rounding.

How It's Done: Start in a standard pushup position, and position your hands directly under your armpits. Alternatively, you can go onto your forearms, and place your elbows underneath your armpits and palms flat. Now, tighten your abs, armpits, glutes, and legs. Don't curl up your neck, keep it straight.

Begin with 3-6 sets of 10-second planks, with minimal rest in between, every day.

Negative Pullup

The final move towards the perfect pullup is the most important the negative pullup. It focuses on the form of the lowering phase of the exercise, which builds strength for the full move as you're utilizing all the same muscles.

How It's Done: Position yourself at the top of pullup, keeping shoulders away from your ears. Engage your core muscles. Now, as slowly as you can, straighten your arms and descend your body in a controlled fashion.

In terms of form, try squeezing your armpits to your side. This will help you fight the temptation to straighten your arms, rather than correctly lifting your shoulders up. Shoot for 1-3 sets, and 1-3 reps all done as slowly as possible, twice a week. Remember, form is essential to the benefits of this exercise!

Pulling it All Together

Now you're ready for the real deal!

Don't forget, when you're first starting out, there's no shame in using the floor, a bench, or band to assist your lifts, until you can complete a pullup in full.

  1. Using the overhand grip, start by hanging from the bar. Your feet are either on the floor, or assisted by a band or bench at this stage.
  2. Start the pull, with arms straight, and pack your shoulder blades downward. If you're doing it right, you'll feel a pinch in the middle of your back that's your smaller muscles going to work!
  3. Now, squeeze your armpits and bend your elbows down by your sides. You'll feel your larger muscles in your back being engaged now, like your lats.
  4. Going back to your plank training, ensure your core is kept active, and that you're maintaining correct posture. Some of the common mistakes in form here are arched bottoms, and rounded tops of your upper body, so be mindful of that.
  5. Your shoulders should stay pulled down, away from your ears, throughout the whole pullup. If they ever lift, that means you're pulling with your arms in isolation, and the wrong parts of your back this can lead to injury.

If you can get through 2 sets, of as many reps as you can perform with correct form once or twice a week, it's a fantastic start. Your goal should be 3-6 reps over the same number of sets, weekly!

Still aren't sure you're performing pullups perfectly?

SEMI's professional fitness trainers in Toronto can work with you on your form, as well as your workout circuit, to help you reach your fitness goals.

Join us in our modern studio settings, and take advantage of the private environment, so you can focus entirely on your exercises with zero distractions.

Call us at 1-855-572-9177, or book an appointment online today!

Author: Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES
About: Dr. Douglas Stoddard is a sports medicine physician and is the Medical Director of the Sports & Exercise Medicine Institute (SEMI). After receiving his medical degree from the University of Toronto, he trained in Australia at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, obtaining his Master Degree in Sports Medicine. He is also a diplomat of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine and has his focussed practice designation in Sport Medicine from the Ontario Medical Association. Dr. Stoddard is a consultant to the Canadian Military and has consulted with well over 30,000 unique patients in his career. Dr. Stoddard is constantly searching for new and promising therapies to help SEMI patients, and is responsible for developing the RegenerVate Medical Injection Therapy Program. He is married and the proud father of two boys, is an avid triathlete and occasional guitar player.
Tags: Upper body Performance


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