Rob MacDonald is the Training Director of Gym Jones, one of the country’s most elite and hardcore gyms, located in Salt Lake City. He’s broken multiple power-endurance world records. He enjoys exercise induced suffering and burgers.
We don’t do chinups at Gym Jones. We do pullups.
Most people say the difference between a pullup and a chinup is the direction that your hands face. (For chinups, your palms face in. For pullups, your palms face out.)
But we look at it a different way: The term “chinup” implies that all you have to do is pull yourself high enough that your chin barely squeaks over the bar.
That’s not high enough.
To get the most out of the movement (and for a rep to “count”), we require that you pull yourself all the way up until your chest touches the bar. So that’s why we call them “pullups,” regardless of how your hands are holding the bar.
Let’s review pullup form. There’s a decided difference between doing 20 kipping pullups (where you use momentum to get more reps) and 20 dead hang, no kipping, chest-to-bar pullups. This article is about the latter.
At Gym Jones, we think kipping pullups are OK if you’re using them in a competition to get more reps. But for general fitness enthusiasts who want to develop a big, powerful back, nothing trumps a regular pullup.
To do a regular pullup, start by hanging from a bar, your arms completely straight. This is called the “dead hang” position. Without swinging your torso to gain momentum, pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar and your elbows are behind the center of your torso.
Don’t be lazy and rely on gravity to lower yourself back down. There’s enormous muscle and strength building value in the negative portion of the movement. Slowly lower yourself back to a dead hang. Repeat.
(Find out how to Power Up Your Pullup with this challenging variation on the old classic, the Hollow Pullup.)
If you do pullups like I just described, 20 in a row is a great standard to aim for. The vast majority of guys can’t do that. If you get to 20 reps, it tends to be a game changer for your upper body strength.
Whether your palms face in or out during each rep is more or less irrelevant in the grand scheme of 20 pullups. So when you train, use both hand positions equally.
Here’s how you can bang out 20.
1. Do Pullups
If you want to get good at pullups, do more pullups. It sounds too simple to be effective, right?
Many people want some “magic” exercise that’s going to make them better at pullups, but it just doesn’t work that way.
Case in point: People often do lat pulldowns (a machine that mimics the pullup movement) because they think it’ll help them strengthen their pullup skills. But it doesn’t. You need the real thing.
I realize some of you may only be able to do a single good pullup. That’s fine—just do several sets of one pullup. Pepper those small sets throughout your routine—a single pullup in between sets of every other exercise in your routine is a good way to approach it.
Aim for 25 to 50 total pullups, three days a week (25 reps if you’re a beginner). If you don’t go to the gym, you can put a pullup bar in a door frame and pay a toll of a couple reps to walk through the door.
If you can already do 5 pullups, do sets of whatever number of reps is 2 to 3 reps shy of your max until you hit 50 total pullups each session. For example, if you can do 12 pullups, do sets of 9 or 10 until you hit 50 reps total.
Volume is key—by tallying more reps, your sequential number will slowly build over time.
2. Own the Negative
Some guys who come into Gym Jones aren’t able to do a single pullup. The best way to get started is by practicing the lowering portion of the movement.
Jump up to a bar and hold it so that you’re at the top portion of a pullup. Slowly lower yourself, taking 4 or 5 seconds to go down to a dead hang. Do sets of that throughout your workout.
Soon, those guys are able to perform one pullup.
But there’s also value in the negative for guys who can already crank out pullups. Even if you’re close to 20 reps, do one set each workout where you do fewer pullups but take as long as you can to return to the dead hang.
Trust me, it just works.
(Related: 4 Ways to Become a Pullup Powerhouse.)
3. Work Your Pulling Muscles
Exercises that work the same muscle groups you use in a pullup will help you score more reps.
An exercise I recommend for anybody who wants to do more pullups is the inverted row.
Set a barbell about waist high in a squat rack or a Smith machine (this exercise actually might be the only good use for a Smith machine). Using an overhand, shoulder-width grip, hang with your arms completely straight, hands positioned directly above your shoulders, and heels touching the floor.
Your body should form a straight line from your ankles to your head.
Pull your shoulder blades back, and continue to pull with your arms to lift your chest to the bar. Pause, and lower your body back to the starting position.
Remember to keep that plank position throughout. Do at least three sets each workout.
A few other exercises to consider adding to your routine: Bent over barbell rows, wide-grip deadlifts, and the T-Bar row.