improving your pull ups

Three Key Exercises to Improving Your Pull Ups

The pull up is a fantastic display of upper body strength. Getting that first one was a goal of many of my clients. It typically seemed like a far fetched goal to them, having tried and failed many times. When we would attempt an assisted pull up, most of them showed the same errors in their form. These were ultimately keeping them from reaching their goal.

Whether you are trying to get your first pull up or hit a set of twenty, these tips can help you get there.

You Must Involve the Scapula

The error that most people make is relying too heavily on the biceps to pull them up. In this scenario, they will improving your pull uptypically have elevated shoulders
throughout the movement.

The pull up needs to begin with the shoulder blades. Ideally, from the dead hang position you should be able to depress both scapulae in isolation, without the arms becoming heavily involved. Scapular depression can be a difficult motion to master due to postural issues and shoulder instability.

It’s best to step back and address any shoulder instability, and improve scapular muscle activation before hanging from the bar again.

Start with Priming the Range of Motion

Before beginning any compound movement, it is always a good idea to actively prime that range of motion first.

For this I like to use the TRX performing a variation of the “wall angel”. If you do not have access to a TRX, you can lean your back against a wall and perform the same motion as in the video.

This prepares your body to work inside the range of motion needed for pull ups. Try 2 sets of 12 as part of your pull up preparation.

Unilateral Activation is Important

If you are new to pull ups, or feel like you may have an imbalance, these unilateral depressions will be helpful. By not having to work against your body weight, you can focus on activating your scapular depressors. Remember, this shoulder blade motion is critical to a good pull up.

Start with a cable as shown in the video. Do not let your elbow flex, therefore keeping all of the motion at the shoulder.

Learn How to Perform a Scapular Pull Up

Now that we have learned what it feels like to actively depress the shoulder blade, it’s time to begin integrating that into an actual pull up. A good test to see if you have mastered the motion is to perform a scapular pull up. I have demonstrated it in the video below.

This motion should be the starting point for every pull up you do. No matter if you are doing assisted or weighted pull ups, you need to begin with this movement.


By neglecting the scapular component and curling yourself into a pull up, you are limiting yourself in the long run. Master the basics and build stable shoulders to pull from. This will help you get your first pull up quicker, and set you up for long term pull up success.



About The Author

Adam McCluskey

Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidate, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer