Valkyrie Fitness Bit #19: Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups

Valkyrie Fitness Bits is a twice-weekly series of videos and blog posts covering a single exercise each. Learn to build strength and mobility for your martial arts training, and mix and match your favourite exercises to build a workout that fits your goals and training style.

Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups

The Pull-Up and Chin-Up are two of the most iconic bodyweight exercises, and are a great and very challenging way to build power in your shoulders’ upper arc of rotation, as well as the upper back, biceps, and pectorals. Both exercises require you to lift your entire weight from a deadhang, and the grip difference between the two subtly changes which muscles do the most work, with the chinup engaging the biceps far more strongly.

Basic Positions

Still sequence showing Pullup and Chinup basic positions

The Pull-Up begins from a deadhang, with the hands in a standard, forward facing grip. Make sure that your arms are fully extended, and your shoulders are engaged to slightly elevate your chest. Tighten your grip and begin pulling yourself up, keeping your elbows parallel to your body, and your legs extended. Stop once your chest is level with the rings, and then slowly reverse the motion to return to your starting position. The Chin-Up follows the same sequence, but works from a reverse (rear-facing) grip.

Variations

There are a number of variations that will allow you to work up to a full Pull-Up or Chin-Up, with increasing levels of difficulty. Aim for the hardest variant you can manage, and repeat it until you can no longer complete a full action (this will often take only 2-5 reps).

Negative

Still sequence showing Pullup and Chinup Negatives

Begin in the top position of the Pull-Up or Chin-Up, and hold it for about 5 seconds. From there, lower down towards a Deadhang as slowly as you are able. You should maintain control and muscular contraction throughout your descent — don’t relax and drop down to the final position, as this can seriously injure your shoulders. If you feel yourself about to lose control over your descent, stop moving, and hold your lower position for a few seconds.

Assisted Pull-Up or Chin-Up

Still sequence showing Assisted Pullup and Chinup

The principle of an assisted Pull-Up or Chin-Up is very simple: mechanical aid is used to offset your bodyweight, so that you lift a lighter load. In practice, this can be accomplished a few different ways. You can use a resistance band to support a portion of your weight by looping it through a ring, and placing your foot through the bottom of the loop, giving yourself something to push off of. Because rings swing freely, this can cause your position to shift towards one side, making a smooth ascent difficult. If you’re using resistance bands, we’d recommend looping one through each ring (and so having one for each foot) to prevent odd shifts in balance. Alternatively, you can ask a friend to assist you by having them grab your legs or waist during the deadhang, and gently lift you as you pull up. This method has the advantage of allowing your partner to adjust their level of assistance as you work, and moving responsively to make sure you stay balanced between the rings.

L-Sit Pull-Up or Chin-Up

Final position of the L-Sit Chinup

This variant combines your bodyweight lift with a standard L-Sit. Begin in a Deadhang, and slowly raise your straight legs as you pull up, until your legs form a 90-degree angle with your body. Because the L-Sit uses both the thighs and the abdominals to generate lift, some people will find it makes it easier to come all the way up into a Pull-Up or Chin-Up. Be warned, however, that this variant will tire your whole body even more quickly than a standard Pull-Up or Chin-Up.

Troubleshooting

Even the negative is too hard for me to manage. How do I get started?

Begin working up to these exercises by making sure that you can comfortably hold the two terminal positions. Get your deadhangs up to 30 seconds in both the standard and reverse grips, and make sure that you can hold the top position of both the Pull-Up and the Chin-Up for 30 seconds as well. Once you’ve got those, you should be able to start working your way down from the top position in small increments. Even if you only drop a few inches before stopping and holding, you’ll be working all of the muscles you need to build up for the full exercise.

I work out on my own, and don’t have resistance bands. Are there any other options for assisted Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups?

If you don’t have other options, you can lower your rings so that your feet touch the floor, and allow your legs to bear some of your weight. Try not to just stand up, as that will also stabilize your lift, and change which muscles engage as you pull up. It can be very helpful to simply straighten your legs and extend them forwards so that your heels are resting on the floor. This takes some of the weight of your legs out of the equation, without really letting you push up with your leg muscles.

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