If you want to do a perfect pull-up – a great exercise for areas of the body that typically go soft from working at a desk all day – don’t even touch the bar at first, says Jennifer Lau, co-founder of Fit Squad Personal Training, in Toronto.
Instead, start with exercises that will help you develop and maintain tension throughout your body. Forearm planks, where you lie face down with your legs extended like a push-up position but with your forearms on the ground, are a great place to start.
“It teaches you how to maintain that full-body tension,” Lau says. “If your body is loose you’re just going to swing. The more you swing, the harder you’re working.”
Lat pull-downs, where you sit at a pull-down machine and with arms fully extended pull the bar down to your upper chest; scapular push-ups, where, from a plank position, you lower your torso to the ground and squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your arms straight; and inverted rows, in which you are under a bar set roughly at waist height and, with your body straight and heels on the ground, you pull your chest up toward the bar, are also great exercises to build up to pull-ups, Lau says.
When you’re feeling strong enough to attempt a pull-up, grab the bar with your palms facing away from you with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes, flex your quad muscles, brace your core and pull straight up. Once your chin is just above the bar, slowly come down.
“If you’re nice and tight, your body will swing less,” Lau says.
It’s your lats – the big muscles that run down both sides of your back – that should be doing the heavy lifting.
“Your biceps are just secondary movers,” Lau says.
Chances are you will swing slightly, but do your best to go straight up and down.
Pull-ups aren’t easy – Lau says she can do nine “on a good day” – but they look badass and, more importantly, they work the glutes, lats and hamstrings, almost all of our backsides, most of which are weak for desk jockeys.
“It’s a full-body movement,” Lau says.