Why Pull-Ups Are Insanely Hard, and Also Insanely Effective

man doing pullup in sunny park
Denis Radovanovic/Shutterstock
Denis Radovanovic/Shutterstock

Pull-ups are pretty much the bane of my existence. I make burpees my bitch and can run a mile like a mofo, but if you put a pull-up bar in front of me, I might as well raise a white flag in a sad show of surrender. 

Pull-ups may be insanely hard, but don't let that deter you. With the right know-how, you can tackle the pull-up bar like a champ and sculpt the upper body of... well, yourself. Just a better, stronger self. That's worth something, right? 

Here's why pull-ups are so effing hard

Not to state the obvious or anything, but one of the main reasons pull-ups are so challenging is that they force you to lift your entire body weight using nothing but your upper body. If you weigh 150lb, you're lifting 150lb. If you weigh 200lb, you're lifting 200lb. 

That's no small feat. 

Plus, doing a pull-up properly requires intense engagement of your back muscles -- particularly your latissimus dorsi -- and as Erick Avila, the owner of Ergogenic Health, points out, pull-ups have a way of highlighting all the weaknesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Namely, poor back strength: "Typically because of work and school, we're in slouched positions with our back muscles unengaged. In addition to this, many people tend to overlook developing their back muscles and instead spend time training the 'beach muscles' like the chest and biceps," he says.

As much as I hate to break it to you, all those bench presses and biceps curls aren't going to automatically translate to success on the pull-up bar. 

It's not just weight and poor muscle strength that make pull-ups hard; mechanics and physics play a significant role as well. Dr. Matt Tanneberg, a sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist, points out that, "Pull-ups force you to control your body weight in multiple planes. During a pull-up, you're pulling your weight up in one direction, and you're forced to stabilize your core to reduce swinging motion. This means you're not only working your upper body's pulling muscles (lats and biceps), but also your core."

woman doing pushup
Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

They may be even more difficult depending on your body type

The pull-up movement becomes even harder if you happen to carry most of your weight in your bottom half, or if you have particularly long arms -- two physiological factors that tend to make pull-ups particularly challenging for women. The challenge comes from a change in the distribution of weight on a lever. 

Think about it like this: if you had to carry 10lb of rocks in a shovel, holding the shovel straight in front of your body, would you rather have a shovel with a short handle, or a long handle? I'm gonna guess you'd say "short handle." The reason is that the farther the distribution of weight from the axis point of a lever, the harder it is to control; you lose the mechanical advantage of force that's associated with a shorter lever. 

In other words, people with pear-shaped bodies and long arms will struggle more with pull-ups than those with chicken legs and short arms. 

The exercise is worth the effort

Even though traditional pull-ups are an uphill battle for many of us, it's worth trudging up that hill. Like other compound exercises, such as squats, lunges, and push-ups, pull-ups are effective because they target all the major muscle groups of your upper body -- everything from your forearms and shoulders to your back, biceps, and core. Because the back half of the body is so frequently ignored during training, pull-ups provide a kind of one-stop shop for counteracting the forward slouching you do in your day-to-day life. 

The good news is that just about anyone can learn to do at least one pull-up, it just might take some time and dedication. 

Man doing lat pull down

How to train for pull-up mastery

John Ford, a 10-year personal-training veteran currently training with FindYourTrainer, suggests the following progression to work up to your first full pull-up:

  • Build your strength. Start working the muscles engaged during a pull-up to develop their strength individually. Work on exercises including the lat pull-down, seated back rows, single-arm rows, and biceps curls. Developing stronger back and biceps muscles is pivotal to pull-up success.
  • Start with assisted pull-ups. Using a low bar (you can set up a doorway pull-up bar at a height somewhere between your hips and chest), grasp the bar and step under it, extending your legs. When your arms are extended under the bar, your body should form a straight, diagonal line. From this position, engage your back and pull your chest to the bar. This type of assisted pull-up targets the same muscles used during a traditional pull-up, but without the full load of your body's weight. You can also do assisted pull-ups using a Smith machine or suspension trainer.
  • Cheat a little. Instead of moving to a full pull-up, start with a jumping pull-up. Grasp a pull-up bar with your feet still on the ground. Jump up into the air, while simultaneously engaging your back, core, and biceps to help pull your chin up above the bar. Very slowly lower yourself back toward the ground, really taking your time to extend your elbows. This slow, eccentric movement will help develop the strength necessary to eventually pull yourself up without the hop.
  • Try for just one. As Ford emphasizes, "Doing one rep can be a workout. Many people get discouraged that they can only do one pull-up. Don't worry, doing one, then resting and repeating, is part of the journey."

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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who swears by jumping pull-ups since she's built like a long-armed pear and can't do full ones (yet). Commiserate on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty.