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How to Pull

MAXIM fitness guru ALEXA TOWERSEY shares some essential tips on how to pull. And she means chest to bar, not women. Although, it definitely won’t harm your chances when it comes to the latter…

You can’t really consider yourself fit if you can’t do a pull-up – sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Regardless of the amount of bullshit, conflicting information and “functional” buzzwords being thrown around in the fitness industry, every coach recommends them, and that’s a pretty good sign you should be doing them too. Why are they so awesome? Not only will you develop a back worthy of a muscle on Muscle Beach, but by developing and strengthening the lats, you’ll improve on every other lift that you do including squats and deadlifts.




What you need to know


What’s involved?

The primary muscles working in the pull-up are the lats, biceps, and rear deltoids. These guys get help from numerous synergists including the forearm flexors, elbow flexors, rhomboids, teres major, external rotators, and trapezius; even the core and legs, to a lesser degree. 



Doesn’t matter how strong your back is, if you don’t have good shoulder and elbow mobility, not only will you be fighting your own bodyweight but you’ll also be contending with the opposing pull of some pretty meaty muscles. I always start my upper body training sessions with some shoulder and chest opening drills – foam rolling the lats and thoracic spine and trigger pointing the pec minor can be helpful.


Don’t be a fat bastard

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t address the elephant in the room – pun intended. A huge component to any pull-up challenge is total bodyweight. For most of you, we want to avoid losing muscle mass. So dropping body fat will be a sure fire way to get some numbers on the board.


Body position

Usually one of two things happen in this movement – the lower back is arched to counterbalance the pull and shift the weight forwards or the hips are flexed and the knees are swung up for momentum. Neither should happen. Brace yourself through your abs and glutes – I like supplemental exercises like Reverse Hyper Holds, Hollow Rock Holds, and planking variations to target complete core stability.



Full range of motion doesn’t automatically mean good form. The pull-up is a mid/upper back exercise. If you’re not feeling it there, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t engage the elbows first when doing pull-ups – that turns it into a biceps exercise. Engage the shoulders first by depressing them. This will make the pull-up a back-dominant movement, as it should be.



If you want to be good at something – do it. And do it often. Lifting weights and lifting your own bodyweight are two different things – the latter being more motor control than brute strength. If you’re in the gym, every time you walk past a pull-up bar, do one. If you’re at home, fit a pull-up bar over a doorway and every time you walk through the door, do one. 




Programming for success

In order to become badass, you first need to ascertain how much you suck. 

I like to divide this into three categories:

Category 1: On a scale of zero to hero, you have no super powers at all and you haven’t even reached single digits.

Category 2: You still need a sidekick but you can knock out 1-4 “decent” pull-ups.

Category 3: Ben Affleck is your preferred Batman but at least you can get 5-9 reps on the bar.


I’m going to assume, that given you’re reading MAXIM, you’re not a complete loser and will sit somewhere in the middle. This is what I suggest you do:


Training frequency:
2 x week separated by 2 days of rest.


Day 1:

  • 4 x 4 pull-ups with slow negative – as soon as you can’t do any more strict pull-ups, switch to a jumping variation.
  • 45 degree Bent Over Row – 10, 8, 6, 15. Increase weight each set, finishing with the same weight that you started with.
  • Wide Grip Lat Pull Down – 10, 8, 6.


Day 2:

  • 4 x 30 secs Isometric hold (chin over bar).
  • 4 x 8-12 Assisted pull-up (banded or with a partner)
  • Dumbbell Row – 12, 9, 6. Increase weight with each set without sacrificing form.



  • Each week add 1 rep to the eccentric pullups on Day 1.
  • Each week, add 5 seconds on to the holds.
  • Every other week, try and increase your weights in incremental amounts.


You should also try and incorporate some isolated bicep training in 1-2 x week after your strength sessions (curls do get the girls), and some additional forearm and grip training (Farmer Carries and Dead Hangs are simple and effective finishers).

For the full article grab the April 2019 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

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