3 Common Pull-Up Mistakes

March 02, 2014

We all know that the pull-up is one of the best, if not the best, upper body exercise. It's been used by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and gym rats for years to help build thick and wide backs. Almost every day at the gym, I see people doing pull-ups as part of their back routine, which is great. Unfortunately, 90% of these people are making common mistakes that are limiting the effectiveness of the exercise. An exercise is only as good as the form that the person is using. Just like a quarter-squat won't build huge legs and a partial bench press doesn't work the entire chest, a poor pull-up won't fully develop the back. So, without further ado, here are the top 3 common pull-up mistakes:
1. Using A Partial Range of Motion - This is common mistake on many exercises, but more so on pull-ups. I think the main reason is because people try to do pull-ups when their strength isn't there yet. Let's face it - repping out pull-ups at the gym makes you feel like a complete badass. In an ego driven world, people would rather do a half-assed pull-up than a lat pulldown or god forbid a pull-up on a weight-assisted machine. I commonly see a partial range of motion in one of two ways: the first is at the bottom half of the movement with the person barely getting their forehead to the bar, and the second is the top half of the movement where the person doesn't fully extend their arms. I can tell you that these types of people are sacrificing their gains by only training in a limited range of motion. Not only are they preventing the muscle from fully stretching and contracting, they are also only getting stronger in the range of motion they are using. Sure, they might be able to do 15 reps of pull-ups at the top half of the movement, but they probably wouldn't be able to do more than a rep or two from a dead hang. A pull-up should consist of a near dead hang followed by your chin above the bar at the top of the rep. If you can't do a proper pull-up, THEN DON'T DO IT. There are plenty of other great alternatives (rack chins, banded pull-ups, scapular pull-ups, isometrics, negatives, etc.) that you could do in the mean time to build up your strength sufficiently. Check out the exercises I listed above and don't cheat yourself by being a half-repper when you can build strength to do a proper pull-up and then truly reap the muscle and strength benefits.
2. Using Momentum - Using momentum to do a pull-up is very common, especially in the later reps of a set. Please note that when I say using momentum, I am not referring to a kipping pull-up. As far as I'm concerned, a kipping pull-up (which is mainly a conditioning exercise that intentionally uses momentum) is an entirely different exercise than a strict pull-up. The most common way people use momentum when doing a pull-up is by throwing their knees into their stomach at the bottom of the rep. This generates some extra force to get them through the mid-point of the rep which is generally the hardest. From my standpoint, a pull-up is primarily intended to work the muscles of the back. When you find that your back is fatigued and you can't do any more reps, just stop there. There isn't much of a point to get 2 or 3 more reps if you are going swing your legs around like a monkey to get your chin to the bar. If you find yourself cheating on reps unintentionally, try keeping your knees bent with your ankles crossed behind you. This will help control your legs and will prevent you from using momentum.    
3. Using the Wrong Muscles - The last common mistake is using the wrong muscles to do a pull-up. We all know that the lats are the primary mover of the pull-up. Sure, the biceps get some work as well, but if we really wanted to target our biceps we'd be much better off during curls instead. But what I see all too often is people using too much of their biceps and not enough back to do the exercise. When you first start a pull-up, you want to keep your chest up with a slight arch in your back. You then want to pull your shoulders blades down and back to initiate the movement. Commonly, people tend to round their back and lift their legs which takes the tension off of the back muscles and place it onto the biceps. To combat this tendency, I recommend always looking up throughout the entire exercise. Your body generally follows your head position so this will help to prevent your back from rounding and keeping the tension on the lats. 
To summarize, I think it's great that so many people are doing pull-ups. After all, it's my favorite back exercise by a mile. But...make sure you are doing pull-ups properly and getting the most out of the exercise. Complete a full range of motion (from a near dead hang to your chin above the bar), keep your knees bent with ankles crossed to prevent using any momentum, and get that chest out and head looking up to keep the tension on the back. If you can't do a pull-up yet, you'll get there using the other exercises I listed above (I'll have to write up a pull-up progression workout for the blog at a later date). Thanks for checking out this article and fighting the fight against lousy pull-ups.

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