The pull up is a vertical pull exercise that works many muscles of the upper body making it one of the best upper body exercises (see Best Pull Exercises For Upper Body). The most dominant muscles being put to work here include the biceps latissimus dorsi and the core muscles.
Although the pull up is such a great exercise you do not see it being done near as much as it should be. This is because it is a relatively difficult exercise especially for beginners. Many people can not even do one.
So how do you build the upper body strength to do a pull up? You do this by strengthening the right muscles and getting used to doing the movement.
Building Strength For The Pull Up
Back And Rear Deltoid Strength
As mentioned the pull up as you may assume is a pull exercise meaning it will require in this case all your upper body muscles that main function is to pull
The majority actually almost all of the pulling muscles of your upper body are located somewhere on your back.
These muscles include the biggest one your latissimus dorsi or lats, trapezius also known as traps, teres major, teres minor, rhomboid major, and even parts of your shoulder like the rear deltoid and supraspinatus.
A vertical pull exercise will work a few of these muscles but if you want to work and build strength in all of them in order to get closer to mastering the pull up a horizontal pull exercise is definitely the way to go.
The row is the king of horizontal pull exercises but there are many variations and different ways to perform the row. Out of all of them I recommend either a bent over barbell row or a cable row.
The bent over barbell row will allow you to load heavy weight really pushing you towards strength along with engaging many core and stabilization muscles along the way.
The cable row will allow you to have better control of the movement ensuring all muscles are engaged to their full potential along with maintaining time under tension (TUT) the whole way.
A very important thing about these exercises is they can both be modified in ways that focus on more specific parts of your back. In this case I am talking about a high row or even face pull in contrast to a low row.
When working towards building all around back strength both of these variations must be used to achieve your full potential.
A high row is a row coming towards the level of just below your chest; this will better work the muscles on the upper part of your back.
Whereas a low or lower row will have you rowing to about the level of your belly button better activating the muscle fibers on the lower part of your back.
The face pull is a variation that will focus on the highest muscles on your back and your rear shoulder muscles as well.
If you do high rows you should feel confident without doing these but they are an amazing add on and it is good to have options.
The biggest pulling muscles on your upper body other than some of the ones on your back are the biceps muscles located on your anterior upper arm.
The main functions of the biceps muscles include supination and elbow flection. With this in mind I recommend two exercises for building bicep strength the barbell curl and the alternating dumbbell curl.
The barbell curl has you going through the action of elbow flexion while maintaining supination also allowing for a high amount of weight building strength effectively.
The alternating dumbbell curl again puts you through the action of elbow flexion along with bringing your arms into supination while flexing and out of it while not;
Rather than simply staying supinated offering a different way of tackling this aspect or working your biceps.
Another benefit of the alternating dumbbell curls is you are using dumbbells so the strength of each arm in comparison to each other can be observed and balanced.
Your core consists of the muscles located in the center of your body and muscles responsible for keeping your trunk and the body as a whole stabilized.
This is important especially for doing pull ups as your body is essentially hanging in mid air and you are trying to move yourself through it.
The two recommended exercises I suggest for all around core strength is the bird dog and the bicycle crunch.
The bird dog excels at strengthening all around balance and stabilization while the bicycle crunches will directly work your midsection to a great intensity working and strengthening all those muscles there such as your abdomen and obliques.
Supporting Antagonistic Muscles
Antagonistic muscles are the muscles directly opposing or opposite to the muscles being worked. In the case of a pull up the back and biceps are the muscles doing the most work.
Therefore the antagonistic muscles here would be the triceps and chest, even the anterior deltoid as well.
The antagonistic muscles are important to provide further stabilization to the muscle trying to do all the heavy lifting.
The go to exercises to hit all the antagonistic muscles in this case are the push up or the bench press.
Go with the push up unless push ups are either way too hard or way too easy in that case go with the bench press.
The final aspect of your strength you may need to work on in order to perform a pull up is your grip strength this includes the strength of your arm and hands.
If you exercise or even hold heavy things frequently you should have a good idea of how your grip strength is and if you feel it is weak only then you should worry about it and work towards fixing that.
The training to work on your grip strength towards doing pull ups is a dead hang. It is essentially hanging at the bottom of the pull up position and staying there for as long as you can. It seems like the perfect fit because it is.
Working Your Way To The Pull Up
The lat pulldown which was brought up earlier for a great exercise to build the strength required for a pull up is also a great exercise to help get used to a similar movement.
Instead of bringing yourself to the bar you are bringing the bat towards you. It isn’t an exact match but definitely a good place to start especially if you have no way of doing assisted pull ups.
Assisted Pull Ups
If you have access to assisted pull ups you are set. Whether it is an assisted pull up machine or assisted band pull ups they will without a doubt be the most effective towards working your war towards the true exercise because you are doing the exact same movement.
If you do not have access to assisted pull ups negative repetitions are definitely an essential add on for maximizing progress and is personally the thing that helped me the most when my pull ups were not so great.
A negative repetition focuses on the negative or the second half of a particular exercise. In the case of a pull up it would be when you are lowering yourself back down from the bar.
To do a set of negative reps you should jump and grab the bar to where you are starting to pull up already then proceed to lower yourself down as slowly as possible let go then repeat.
As good as all the strength building and alternative exercises are nothing will get you better at doing the movement without any assistance than doing the movement without assistance will.
Once you are comfortable doing even five full pull ups in a row I recommend starting off small and doing those sets of five full pull ups repeatedly over any number of the other exercises.
When Have You Mastered The Pull Up
The pull up is not something everyone masters in their fitness journey and is something no one can master if they do not have some level no a high level of fitness training.
I would say one can confidently believe they have mastered the pull up if they can do 30 pull ups in a row without breaking.
By following this guide on how to build upper body strength to do a pull up you too can one day master the pull up and be able to do 30 in a row or even more.