How to Perform the Perfect Pull Up

Are you looking for that one specific exercise that can improve your posture, strengthen your core, improve your ability to perform activities like climbing a ladder, and reverse the effects of spending long hours hunched over sitting on a plane, typing on your computer, or sitting on the couch?!

How about you adventurers and athletes out there who inspire to go rock climbing, enter a Tough Mudder, or become an aerialist or ninja warrior?

The answer is probably not a surprise and could be something you’ve tried to avoid in gym class! It’s THE PULL-UP!

Regardless of your ambitions or goals, strengthening your back and core from pull-ups can provide amazing benefits, from improving posture, increasing self-confidence, to actually making you appear more engaging in conversations!

It’s old school, but pull-ups are one of the best tests of upper body and core strength. Most fear this exercise because unless you can naturally climb like a monkey, pull-ups are a real challenge! But if you learn proper mechanics, practice consistently, utilize equipment that supports scalable modifications to the exercise (hint: Total Gym!), you will achieve all the benefits from pull-ups, without the fear of wearing your old gym class shorts and sweat band!!


What makes pull-ups so difficult? Even the strongest athletes can struggle to achieve multiple pull-ups. Putting training aside, here are a few factors that make pull-ups easier or more difficult, depending on your body type:

1. Gravity

• You’re working purely against gravity, so your own body weight is the sole factor to the amount of strength you will need to pull yourself up. The heavier your bodyweight, the more difficult it will be to pull yourself up. With other body-weight exercises, like push-ups, your weight is supported by other contact points to the ground, like your feet, so push-ups are easier to perform than pull-ups.

2. Distance

• Depending on your arm length, individuals with longer arms have to work harder to perform the same pull up (remember physics class… work = force times distance).

3. Functional Strength

● Pull-ups require many muscles to work together as a synergistic team which requires functional strength. Functional strength is achieved from multi-modal exercise training which helps you train for everyday life, sports and other activities. This differs from isolated muscle training that is commonly performed at a gym to build muscle.

For example, to compare a Pull-up vs. a Lat Pull-down, the same muscles are worked, however, pull-ups feel more challenging than a lat pull while the same muscles are involved. This is because a pull-down trains maximal strength with a fixed leg position, whereas a pull-up trains relative strength with the entire body through a plane of motion. On a neural level, many muscles are firing during a pull-up, while a lat pull down machine only activate your larger muscles.



• Stand under a bar, preferably one you can touch and not have to jump up to reach.
• Grab the bar with arms shoulder distance apart and palms facing away.
• Just gripping onto the bar and hanging is an exercise within itself!


• A true pull-up begins from a hanging position. While hanging, your arms are fully extended with your core engaged, chest lifted, and shoulders retracted.
• Actively hang to condition the muscles.
• Avoid swinging, kicking, or jumping to prevent using momentum.


• This position goes along with #2 above. As you actively hang, your body is in a hollow body stance. Meaning, your muscles are engaged from your head to your heals and your body is contoured into a slight C-shape position.
• This will build internal core strength.


• Grip the bar into your hands while engaging the supporting muscles of your upper body and core.
• Draw the elbows down towards your sides as your body travels upward toward the bar.
• Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed as your body is contracted.
• Keep pulling down on the bar to lift the chest and chin up past the bar.
• Once the chin clears the bar, the pull-up is complete and you’re ready for the returning phase, which is just as difficult!


• Maintain a firm grip on the bar while your arms slowly straighten to lower your body down to the active hang position (#2)
• Nailed it! One rep down. Don’t stop there, try for another!


• Exhaling as you pull yourself up will increase the tension in your core and make it easier to keep your body held solid tight.
• Do not push the air out all at once.
• Use your abs to gradually exhale on the exertion.
• Inhale to prepare and release down again.


There are many ways to condition your muscles to gain muscular strength and endurance to perform a pull-up. So rather than struggling through a straight up, pull-up, try these alternative conditioning exercises to prepare your muscles. Remember, mastering a pull-up is a consistent and repetitive process that develops over time.

Listed are a few ways to develop your pull-up skills on and off of your Total Gym.

NOTE: All skills and drills can be performed in varying hand positions (palms out/ in, wide, close, or parallel grips, etc.)

Total Gym Skills

(High incline & pull-up accessory attached)
• Power up with speed, lower down slowly by controlling the negative movement
• Pulse reps
• Single arm- pull up with 2 arms, lower with 1 (alternate sides)
• Add a plyometric movement (power up with a hop, release with control)
• Change grip on the plyometric hop (ex: over / under grips)

Monkey Bar Drills

Hang time

Develop the hand strength in your grip by hanging for a set period of time

Lat pull-ups

Hang with the arms straight and an overhand grip. Activate the lats by pulling the shoulder blades down and towards the spine (this action tenses up the lats, the side muscles under your armpits).

NOTE: This exercise can be performed with the feet on (easier) or off (harder) the ground or from a lower bar with feet out at diagonal angle.


Hop up to the pull-up position with your chin over the bar, then control the negative down. The lowering “negative” portion helps builds strength more than the lifting phase.

Hollow Body Hang

Hang from a bar with the legs together, lats engaged, and shoulders down the back and active. Imagine drawing your belly button in towards your spine to brace your abdominals from a punch. The spine is slightly curved to keep the hollow body position. Maintain the position for a period of time.

NOTE: This exercise can also be performed in a supine position from the ground to work on core activation and hollow body positioning.

Contract your booty

Hanging from the bar with straight legs, begin to pinch your glutes and squeeze your legs together. The pelvis will slightly tuck forward. (This tips can be added on to “Hollow body hang”)


Rig a large looped band around the top of the bar to use for assisted resistance.

Manual Spotting

Grab a buddy to support your shins to pull up as well as release down.

These skills and drills will help adapt your muscles to performing perfect bodyweight pull-ups. Once your form is mastered, continue to challenge yourself by performing more reps, change the tempo, the angle, or add other variations to the mix like muscle ups!!!

Check out this video demo to get inspired with a few Total Gym skills and monkey bar drills to develop your pull-ups up to par.

Pull it together and up to develop your internal strength. It’s all about technique, training, and practice to master your pull-ups and eventually be able to go cliffhanger style!

Best to you,

Maria Sollon

Maria Sollon Scally MS, CSCS holds a Master’s Degree in Performance Enhancement/Injury Prevention and Kinesiology. She has obtained numerous certifications in various areas of fitness and is a national conference presenter. Maria specializes in Pilates, Performance Coaching, and Corrective Exercise Techniques and Kettlebells. She is the creator of the Plyo Pilates Method and has developed a series of amazing workout DVDs. She is a Master Trainer for Total Gym, Resist-a-Ball, Body Blade, Peak Pilates, Kettle Bell Concepts and is a freelance writer for Fitness accredited magazines, newsletters, and fitness blog sites. Maria demonstrates her knowledge each day and uses her dynamic creativity throughout her specialized line of work. (purchasable workout videos) (workout clips)

Leave a Reply