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Rookie Mistakes: The Pullup

Learn the proper technique for this essential upper-body exercise.
Build strength with the perfect pullup technique
Beth Bischoff

It’s easy to think you’re doing the right thing in the gym, but you may be dropping the ball. Certain exercises are more technically demanding than others, and learning their major cues just once may not cut it in the grand scheme of things. Getting “comfortable” with certain movements can sometimes allow a lifter to “slip” into form that’s less than perfect. Not to worry, we've got your back. The Rookie Mistakes series serves as a call to action for lifters of all experience levels to practice perfect form on the road to achieving fitness success.

Today’s spotlight is on the king of upper-body movements (and no, that doesn’t mean the bench press). Read on to see if you’re making one of these crucial pullup mistakes.

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Mistake 1: You’re not using full range of motion
It’s important to remember that the back muscles are supposed to be the primary focus when performing pullups. Doing partial reps doesn’t allow the lats to come to a fully lengthened position between reps, which encourages the arms to kick in and do most of the work. If you can’t do as many pullups from a full hang, make it your new starting point. Even finishing the rep with a slight bend at the elbow isn’t ideal.

Mistake 2: You’re letting your elbows flare
If you want your lats to become stronger and more developed, then keeping your elbows under the bar matters. It will also make it much easier to get your chest up when the elbows aren’t held too wide. All of this means more back stimulation and a good quality pull. 

Mistake 3: You’re not setting your shoulders
The hardest part of a pullup is actually learning to control your scapulae, or shoulder blades. Each and every rep should begin with a notable depression and retraction of the shoulders. This tightens up the back muscles and prepares you for a proper pull using less of the biceps than you would otherwise. If this concept escapes you, here’s a video that will get you on the right track. 

Mistake 4: You’re staying straight as an arrow
Many cues out there claim that the body should be held completely straight from head to toe in order to perform a good pullup. This sets an honest-minded trainee on the wrong path. We know pullups are intended to be a back developer, and we’ve learned that hitting the back requires the shoulders to be retracted and set to engage the posterior muscles. Try pulling your shoulders back without mildly arching your back. It’s not possible. To hit your back properly during pullups, think of raising the rib cage toward the bar. Arch the back, and set the shoulders. You’ll feel the difference.

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