Health and FitnessSelf Improvement

How Far Can Pull-Ups Alone Actually Get You?

We Asked The Experts

At the start of lockdown, two essential items were at the top of everyone’s shopping list: toilet paper and pull-up bars. The demand for the latter, we assume, was built on the belief that we’d soon be fighting each other for even more loo roll in some kind of Mad Max-style, double-ply dystopia. It made sense.

As a result, they sold out almost immediately, leaving most people to embark on push-up challenges and bicep curl their Charmin multipacks. But now they’re back on the (digital) shelves, and you finally have the opportunity to tackle one of the most impactful and challenging home bodyweight work-outs around. So what do you need to know? And how far can pull-ups alone get you?

To answer those questions and more, we enlisted the help of personal trainers James Stark, co-founder of Starks Fitness, and Jonathan Taylor, creator of the 12-week Reboot Plan.

How far can pull-ups alone get you?

“When it comes to building strength for the upper body there really isn’t another contender for the most all-around movement,” says Stark. “The military and special forces still use pull-ups as a test of strength to ensure you are able to pull yourself and sometimes also a load of your kit.

“With activation of so much muscle, you can develop a pretty awesome physique if you nail the technique and make sure you supplement the training with the right nutrition. It’s no wonder they are often described as the squat for the upper body.”

What’s the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups?

“In short, you are looking at the difference in hand and forearm position. A chin-up is typically palms facing (neutral) or palms facing you (supinated) and usually around shoulder-width apart, whereas a pull up is overhand (prone) and grip starts around shoulder width and goes wider,” explains Stark. “There are benefits to each position. For example, if someone has a lack of mobility in the upper body then a neutral chin-up would be more suitable. If you wanted to target your biceps more from stay your apartment, then pull-ups would be more beneficial by using your apartment pull up bar

According to Taylor, though, one of the exercises is more suitable to beginners. “I don’t recommend chin-ups, as not many people have the mobility to externally rotate their arms into a position where their hands would line up flush with the bar, which can lead to elbow pain over time,” he says. “If you’re new to pull-ups, I’d recommend finding a bar that lets you take a shoulder-width neutral grip, where your palms face in toward each other.”

What muscles are you targeting?

“The muscles that are targeted when performing chin/pull-ups include all of the major pulling muscles on your back. This includes your lats, trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, teres major, and your arms (in particular the biceps),” says Stark. “The exercise will also work your major push muscle, the pec major, as well as lots of stabilising muscles that make up your core.” So, all the good stuff.

What are the downfalls of training one muscle group?

“They do nothing for your lower-body or upper body pushing muscles, so you’re still going to need to include exercises like squats, leg curls and dumbbell presses to balance out your workout plan,” says Taylor.

“There are no real downsides (the whole ‘muscle imbalance’ thing is a myth), but you’re missing out on developing all your other muscles. If you can make time to train one, you can make time for all of them.”

How can you break through a plateau?

According to Taylor, it’s all about stepping outside of your comfort zone. “One potential plateau-buster is to use a weight belt to do weighted pull-ups. Obviously, this will reduce your rep total, but it will boost your bodyweight total over time. I’d only add extra weight if you can do three sets of 8 reps with perfect technique.

“If that’s you, start with 5kg and slowly increase from there. If you’re not quite there, then you’ve not plateaued – you just need to be patient.”

“Reduce the reps but increase your sets so overall volume goes up. Add pauses in your reps halfway down, at the bottom and at the top. Add load and reduce reps. Have a partner assist you up at the top portion for your last few reps. Pre-fatigue the muscles by doing scapula pull-ups that pull your shoulder blades down (think to squeeze your shoulders together and downwards towards your back pockets) and then perform your set. These are all advanced methods so if you are new to chin-ups and want to go from zero to hero then try working through the below steps first.

“Start by using a bench to allow you to get into the top part of a chin-up and slowly release yourself performing only the downward part of the movement. Start with around four sets working up to 30 seconds on the way down. When you can perform those you can introduce the pauses as above holding half/ third for 5 seconds and completing that again for four rounds of around 40-45 seconds.”

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