Struggling to Excel at Pull-ups? These Commonly Made Mistakes May Be Playing a Role.

If I want to learn more about astrophysics I listen to Neil
deGrasse Tyson.

If I want to learn more about how to to be jacked while rocking
a bowl cut I listen to He-Man.

Moreover, if I want to learn about or become a legit badass at
pull-ups, my go to expert is Meghan Callaway. She’s a straight-up
gangster when it comes to pull-ups and pull-up programming. 

With the release of The Complete Trainers’
 this week, of which Meghan and myself are a
part of (along with seven other health/fitness professionals), we
felt it important to give people a bit of insight as to what kind
of information they can learn from this resource.

Meghan goes into the weeds on anything and everything regarding
programming for the pull-up and today she offers a little insight
on some commonly made mistakes people make.


ALSO: The Complete Trainers’
is on sale this week at $100 off the regular

Are You Committing These Mistakes?

Countless people of all genders have the goal of being able to
perform one or many pull-ups. Yet it is no secret that most people
struggle to execute a single strict pull-up, and this includes many
elite athletes.

Sam Bennett, the number one draft pick in the 2014 NHL draft,
made the news when he failed to perform a single pull-up at the NHL
draft combine.

So the inability to excel at pull-ups definitely isn’t limited
to the general population, or purely beginners. Most people fail to
conquer pull-ups, not because they are physically incapable, but
because they are making some key mistakes.

I have great news for you.

This can be rectified.

Case in point, shortly after Sam Bennett bombed his pull-ups in
the NHL draft combine, with some proper training, he banged out 11

Note From TG: I actually wrote an article a few
years ago on the reaction to people giving Sam
Bennett grief about not being able to perform a pull-up initially.
You can read it

In this article I am going to discuss FIVE key
mistakes that are preventing an abundance of people from excelling
at pull-ups.

Mistake #1: Relying on the Arms to Perform the Movement

When pull-ups are being executed correctly, the shoulder blades,
not the arms, should be initiating the movement. Instead of using
the muscles in the mid and upper back to perform the bulk of the
movement, a myriad of people rely on their arms.

To be clear, while the muscles in the arms will play a role,
they should only be assisting the muscles in the back, not
performing the majority of the work.

During the initial phase of the movement, and as your body is
traveling towards the bar, you want to draw each shoulder blade in
towards your spine and down towards your opposite hip (depression,
retraction, downward rotation), not pull with your arms.

During the eccentric phase of the movement, rather than keeping
your shoulder blades pinned, a mistake that plagues many
individuals and can again cause them to rely on their arms to
execute the movement, your shoulder blades should perform the
reverse movements and should move away from your spine and away
from your opposite hip (elevation, protraction, upward

As you can see, the ability to control the movement of your
shoulder blades is a key component of being able to perform


The scapula pull-up is a really useful pull-up specific
regression as it teaches you how to initiate the movement with your
shoulder blades instead of pulling with your arms. This exercise is
also specific to pull-ups as it requires you use the same body
positioning, and it helps improve grip strength.

A few key points:

  • Initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades in
    towards your spine and down towards your opposite hip (retraction,
    depression, downward rotation).
  • In the top position, pause for a brief count.
  • Perform the eccentric component with complete control.
  • During the lowering/eccentric portion of the movement, your
    shoulder blades should perform the reverse movements as they did
    during the concentric component, and should move away from your
    spine and away from your opposite hip (protraction, elevation,
    upward rotation).
  • For the duration of the movement, your elbows should remain in
    a fixed position and should not bend at all. All of the movement
    should occur via the shoulder blades.

Mistake #2: Inability to Maintain the Proper Body

 This might surprise you, but if you hope to perform
pull-ups as efficiently as possible, your entire body must function
as a synchronized unit.

Pull-ups are not just an upper body

If you are not able to maintain the proper body positioning, and
in order to do so your lumbo-pelvic region and lower body must
remain in a relatively fixed position for the duration of the
movement, you will struggle.

Your path to the bar will likely be longer and less efficient as
you will be more prone to swinging, and you will likely be forced
to move unnecessary deadweight to and from the bar. This is not
conducive to optimal pull-up performance. Keeping your head, torso,
and hips in a stacked position, something I often liken to a
canister, is extremely important. Proper breathing, bracing, rib
positioning, and glute engagement are crucial. In terms of your
lower body, you want to fully extend your knees and contract your
quadriceps, cross one foot over the other, and dorsiflex your


The dead bug, and its many variations, is one of my go-to
exercises for improving lumbo-pelvic stability.

This exercise, which can accommodate people of most fitness
levels and abilities, trains your anterior core muscles to generate
the requisite levels of tension needed to perform pull-ups
efficiently. This versatile exercise also trains your muscles to
resist the extension of the spine, and this is an area where many
people labour. When heaps of people perform pull-ups, it is
extremely common to see their ribcage flaring and lower back
hyperextending. Dead bugs will help resolve these issues.

A few key points:

  • For the duration of the exercise, keep your head, torso and
    hips in a stacked position. Keep your ribcage down, and do not
    allow your lower back to hyperextend. In other words, maintain the
    canister position.
  • As you initiate each rep and lower the opposite arm and leg
    towards the floor, steadily exhale, and brace your anterior core
    muscles as hard as you can.
  • Start out with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle and
    maintain this position for the duration of the movement. Only
    extend your knees (and perform more advanced variations) once
    you’ve mastered the movement with your knees bent, not

Here is an innovative and extremely effective dead bug variation
you can try.

Mistake #3: Lack of Specificity

Are you spending endless hours training yet are still unable to
execute one or more pull-ups?

The exercises you are performing might not be specific enough to

With your pull-up training, you need to perform exercises that
develop pull-up specific mechanics and pull-up specific body
positioning. Pull-up regressions develop these key components, and
serve as great stepping stones towards being able to bang out one
or many unassisted pull-ups. In terms of body positioning,
exercises like hollow body holds, dead bugs, and hanging leg raises
help you learn how to develop and also maintain proper pull-up
specific body positioning.

Some common culprit exercises that many people believe will help
their pull-up performance, yet have a relatively low carryover as
they are not specific enough to pull-ups, include lat pull-downs,
biceps curls, and machine assisted pull-ups.

These are just a few of many exercises I could list. The fact I
named machine assisted pull-ups as one of these exercises might
surprise you, so I will discuss this in my next point.

Mistake #4: Relying on Machine Assisted Pull-ups and Band
Assisted Pull-ups

In most cases, I am not a fan of machine assisted pull-ups.

At least, I strongly believe there are many better options.

While machine assisted pull-ups do allow you to focus on
scapular movement, so this is one benefit of the exercise, due to
the fact you are kneeling on a pad, your body is in a completely
different position to when you are performing regular pull-ups, and
you don’t need to generate and maintain full body tension.

In essence, the need for pull-up specific body positioning and
lumbo-pelvic stability are almost entirely removed from the overall
equation. When it comes to training for actual pull-ups, there are
plenty of other pull-up regressions and accessory exercises that
are much more specific to actual pull-ups, and will have a vastly
greater carryover to your pull-up performance.

Now when it comes to band assisted pull-ups, if they are
implemented and execute correctly, and at an appropriate time in
your training program, they can have a positive impact.

However, an abundance of people make the mistake of training for
pull-ups by relying purely on band assistance, and they omit
performing all of the other extremely important pull-up specific

With band-assisted pull-ups, the band provides the help in the
bottom position of the movement, and this is when most people do
not need the most assistance. Another key issue with band assisted
pull-ups, the band makes it easy to disregard proper body
positioning, and generating the requisite levels of tension around
the spine, hips, and lower body.

Due to all of the above, when many people eliminate the band and
attempt to perform regular pull-ups, they flounder.

Before you introduce band assisted pull-ups to your training
program, you should have already developed the proper pull-up
specific technique, the ability to control the movement of your
shoulder blades and shoulders, and the ability to generate the
requisite levels of tension and pull-up specific body

In short, when you are utilizing band assistance, it is
imperative that your form is identical to when you are performing
regular unassisted pull-ups. Also, you want to use as little
assistance as needed, but as much as necessary so you can perform
100% of your reps with impeccable form.

Mistake #5: Insufficient Grip Strength

While this kind of goes without saying, if you cannot support
your bodyweight from a hanging position, your ability to perform
pull-ups will suffer. An insufficient grip plagues many people of
all fitness levels and abilities, not just beginners.

Adding some grip specific exercises to your training program
will positively impact your overall ability to perform

A few of my favorite exercises for improving grip strength
include loaded carries, and bottoms-up kettlebell presses.

Loaded Carries

Key Points: (describing loaded carries
with dumbbells by sides)

  • For the duration of the exercise, maintain the canister
    position. Your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked
    position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to
  • Keep your arms rigid (all the way down to your hands), and
    pretend you are trying to crush something in your armpits.
  • For the duration of the exercise, maintain your 360 degree
    brace, and maintain regular breathing (360 degrees of air around
    your spine).

Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Presses

Key Points:

  • For the duration of the exercise, maintain the canister
    position. Your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked
    position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or ribcage to
  • Keep the muscles in your forearm engaged, and wrist in a
    vertical position.
  • Do not keep your shoulder blades pinned. They are supposed to
    move. This applies to both the concentric and eccentric components
    of the movement.
  • Before you initiate each press, take a deep breath in, (360
    degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (360 degree
    brace around your spine), tuck your ribs towards your hips, and
    squeeze your glutes. This will help stabilize your hips and

Want to Learn More Pull-Up Badassery?

You can (and then some) by checking out The Complete Trainers’

Nine fitness professionals tackle a bevy of topics ranging from
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The post
Struggling to Excel at Pull-ups? These Commonly Made Mistakes May
Be Playing a Role.
appeared first on Tony Gentilcore.

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Struggling to Excel at Pull-ups? These Commonly Made Mistakes May Be Playing a Role.