The pull-up is the ultimate test of upper body strength.
It’s also one of the most hated exercises in the gym.
You’ll see people who absolutely love lat pulldowns and seated rows give the pull-up bar an extremely wide berth.
(It’s one of the most rarely used pieces of equipment in most gyms.)
So, if you hate pull ups like so many gym-goers do, let’s dig into why and what you can do about it.
Pull-ups are incredibly challenging because doing even one is hard for most people! You need a relatively low bodyweight and incredible grip strength to bang out high reps. Ultimately, they’re a terrific exercise with a ton of strength benefits, but if you really hate pull-ups, there are other options for working your lats and biceps.
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of pull-ups, what makes them so hard, and whether they’re really necessary.
Why do people hate pull-ups?
The general hatred of the pull up boils down to 4 key reasons:
1. Pull-Ups Are Extremely Challenging
Doing even one good pull-up is hard work.
Some people think the pull-up is the pulling equivalent of the push-up, but that’s far from the truth. Pull-ups are far, far more difficult than push ups.
Most people can hammer out at least a few good, clean push-ups and work on building their strength from there. It’s a little tough to get motivated to do pull-ups when you can’t even manage a single rep!
It’s far easier to load up the weight stack on the rowing machine or lat pulldown than master the pull-up.
2. The Heavier You Are, the Harder They Are
Even if you’re an advanced lifter, you might have a fear of pull-ups.
All of that muscle might look impressive when you’re flexing in the gym mirror, but when you grab onto the pull-up bar, it is a distinct disadvantage weighing you down.
The heavier you are (whether it’s fat or muscle), the harder it’s going to be to do a pull up.
Ever wondered why you hardly ever see pro bodybuilders doing pull ups? Now you know!
3. Your Grip Lets Your Down
Few movements challenge your grip strength as much as the pull-up or chin-up.
Even doing a “dead hang” from the bar is hard.
In fact, your grip is likely to be your weak link on this exercise.
If it gives out before your lats do, you will have to ditch the exercise before your working muscle is done. That can be pretty frustrating.
4. You Don’t Feel It in the Lats
The pull up is supposed to be an exercise for the latissimus dorsi muscles of the upper back.
However, unless you are doing the exercise correctly, you will not feel it in the lats.
This is such a hard exercise that, if you don’t feel it, you’ll probably stop doing it.
Are pull-ups necessary for strength development?
Do you need to do pull-ups to develop upper body strength?
The answer is no — no one, single exercise is “mandatory” if you’re not planning on becoming a competitive lifter.
The pull up is simulated by the lat pulldown, so you can get a lot of the strength building benefits of the pull up by doing lat pulldowns.
So, while you don’t have to do pull ups for strength gains, there are some definite advantages to including pull ups in your strength workout routine.
If you choose to ignore them in your training, you’re seriously missing out on some crazy gains.
Here are some of the benefits of regular pull-ups:
- Pull-ups increase strength in the back and arms. If you’re a weightlifter, a stronger back will allow you to lift more weight on every key exercise, including the squat, deadlift, overhead press and rack pull.
- Pull-ups enhance your scapular power and control when pressing overhead. When you grab hold of the pull up bar, you are holding the bar just the same as if you were doing a pull up. The extra power you are able to develop in that position ramps up your scapular control. This allows you to push more weight on the OHP and other vertical presses with less risk of injury.
- Pull-ups allow for more explosive power. When you pull from a dead hang on every rep, you are generating the explosive power that will translate to such an exercise as the clean and jerk and the push press.
- Pull-ups increase your grip strength. This is essential for deadlifting and killer forearms. You won’t get the same grip benefits from rows and pulldowns.
Conquering Pull Ups: Advice from the Professional Personal Trainers
I reached out to a couple of professional trainers for advice on conquering pull-up hatred.
Let’s check out the advice they offered.
Daniel Howell is a personal trainer and here’s his advice on pull-ups, and how you might be able to, surprisingly, do push-ups instead to target the same muscles.
Pull ups do challenge shoulder girdle muscles particularly the latissimus dorsi. They also challenge the serratus anterior.
Alternatively push ups varying hand placements can challenge similar muscles. Traditionally when doing push up hands are at the level of sternum and/or clavicle. Changing hand placement to level of nose, then progressing to level of forehead, then progressing hand placement to even above the forehead approaches a position similar to pull ups.
The disadvantage of substituting push ups for pull ups is that push ups do not have the benefit that pull ups provide in terms of unloading the spine and maintaining flexibility of the thoracic spine in the direction of extension.
The old gospel song the shoulder bone is connected to the back bone. With aging it is important to maintain and/or increase the flexibility of the thoracic spine.
Sometimes I think individuals hate pull ups because they have to pull up (lift) excess body weight. If you are overweight consider giving attention to caloric restriction to lose body weight. After the pounds come off than try pull ups.
Dave Durell is a strength coach and here’s his best advice if you hate pull-ups:
Pull ups are a very effective strength and muscle builder for the back and biceps, but if you absolutely dread doing them, there are plenty of other exercises that can provide the same stimulus effectively.
Your back muscles and biceps don’t know what exercise you’re doing, they only know how hard it is, and if it’s hard enough they will respond by growing and getting stronger.
People hate doing pull ups because they’re hard for most people, and there is a measure of performance anxiety as well.
Since we were little kids, how many pull ups you can do has been a kind of badge of honor, and in many settings used as a competitive test to compare upper body strength.
The best alternative is cable pull downs with a neutral or close, underhand grip.
To make pull ups more enjoyable, comfortable, and extremely effective, try eliminating the pull up part and just do the lowering!
Climb to the top position to get your chin over the bar by placing a chair or step stool under the bar; some chinning stations in gyms also have steps built into them.
Once in the top position, take an underhand (palms facing you) grip inside shoulder width, carefully take your feet off the step, and lower yourself to the bottom position as slowly as possible.
Once at the bottom position, climb back up to the top and repeat.
This is a great way for people who can’t do pull ups to build up the strength to do their first one!
What to do if you hate pull-ups (best alternatives)
If you are doing pull-ups to develop your latissimus dorsi muscles, then there is a better option that directly stimulates the biomechanical movement of your lats.
That exercise is the lat pull in.
Here is how to do it:
- Place a seat with an upright back support about three feet in front of a high cable pulley machine.
- Set the pulley to the highest cable setting.
- Grab the handle with your right hand and sit on the bench so that you are side on to it
- Adjust the seat distance so that, when you’re holding the cable, your arm is at a 30 degree angle.
- Pull down and into your right hip. Draw your shoulder blades together as you pull down.
- Complete all reps on the right side and then repeat on the left side.
But, as we have discovered, muscle building isn’t the only reason for doing pull ups. They are also an effective strength builder.
So, what can you do if you are intent on mastering the pull-up?
The best way to get your first pull-up is to start doing progressively more difficult exercises that will build you up to your first pull up.
Here are 5 moves you should work your way through . . .
You will recall that grip strength is an integral part of successful pull-up performance.
To develop it, simply grab hold of a pair of dumbbells and hold them at arm’s length.
Time yourself for 30 seconds and do 3 sets of these every time you are in the gym.
You can even incorporate some walking while holding the dumbbells, known as a Farmer’s Walk.
The ability to perform an extended dead hang from a pull-up bar will enhance your pull up ability no end.
Simply hang from the bar with an overhand grip with your hands shoulder width apart and your feet together.
Begin with 15 seconds and then extend your time until you are able to stay up there for a full 60 seconds.
Kettlebell Reverse Press
Grab hold of a kettlebell and hold it at the level of your shoulder so that it is upside down (the bell is pointed to the ceiling).
Now press the kettlebell directly overhead. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps per arm.
Position yourself lying under a power rack that has a barbell loaded on the rack at arm’s length above you.
Straighten out your legs and reach up to grab the bar. Now pull your torso up to the bar as you squeeze your shoulder blade together.
Come all the way up until your chest touches the bar and then slowly lower to the start position.
Once you can do 3 sets of 12 reps on the inverted row, you will be ready to move to the pull-up assist machine.
After 2 weeks on that machine using progressively less and less assistance, you’ll be ready for your first unassisted pull up!
The pull-up is one of the most challenging exercises you can do in the gym.
If you can do even a handful of reps, you should be incredibly proud!
Soon enough, you’ll be doing weighted pull-ups with extra resistance, if you can believe it.
Don’t let the initial difficulty put you off.
Follow the guidance provided in this article and you’ll soon be repping out on pull ups to boost your strength gains.
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Hope this helps!