A pullup is a challenging upper body exercise where you grip an overhead bar and lift your body until your chin is above that bar. It’s a hard exercise to execute — so hard, in fact, that a U.S. Marine can receive a passing score on the annual physical fitness test without doing pullups at all.

If you want the top score on the U.S. Marine fitness test or if you just want to tackle one of the toughest exercises around, here’s a guide to get you there.

Pronated pullups

This exercise is sometimes more specifically called a pronated pullup in reference to the position of your hands as you grip.

If your first attempts to complete a pullup are a struggle, it isn’t necessarily because you don’t have sufficient upper body strength. It’s just physics.

Pullups require you to lift your entire body mass straight up using only the muscles in your upper body. You’re counteracting gravity throughout the whole process.

Completing a pullup requires the intense engagement of nearly every muscle in your upper body.

  • Hands. A complex group of highly-specified muscles in your hands enables you to grip the bar.
  • Wrists and forearms. Flexors running from your forearms through your wrists guide your rise.
  • Abdominals. If you’re doing the pullup correctly, your abdominal muscles stabilize your core and keep you from swinging.
  • Back and shoulders. Back muscles are the reason many people are devoted to the pullup. The latissimus dorsi, that V-shaped slab of muscle in your upper back, pulls on your upper arm bones as you hoist yourself upward. Your lats are assisted by the infraspinatus, along with teres major and minor muscles, which involve your shoulder blades in the movement.
  • Chest and arms. Your pectoralis major muscles and part of your triceps pull your arm bone toward your body.

Because you’re raising your entire body mass with every pullup, perfecting and repeating this basic exercise will build strength and definition like few other exercises can.

Pullup or chinup?

If you’re doing a chinup, your palms are facing you. Chinups are also called supinated pullups. They rely more on the strength of the bicep muscles and may be easier for some people.

Even if you’re in top shape, you’ll need to pay attention to your form to execute the movements properly and avoid injury.

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  1. Start by positioning yourself under the center of a pullup bar. Reach up and grip the bar with both hands, palms facing away from you. Your arms should be extended straight overhead.
  2. Wrap your fingers over the bar and your thumb under the bar so that it’s almost touching your fingertips.
  3. Make sure your hands are a little more than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Press your shoulders down.
  5. Bring your shoulder blades toward each other, as if you are trying to use them to squeeze a lemon.
  6. Lift your feet completely off the floor, crossing your ankles. This is called a “dead hang.”
  7. Lift your chest slightly and pull. Draw your elbows down to your body until your chin is above the bar.
  8. As you lower yourself back down, control your release to prevent injury.

Military training experts and physical trainers agree that the best way to get to the pullup is to practice the pullup movement itself, even if you can’t complete it at first. There are also some other exercises and techniques that can help you get there faster.

Negative pullups

A negative pullup is the downward half of a pullup. For this you start with your chin above the bar.

Using a box, step stool, or spotter, position your chin above the bar. Then, slowly lower yourself until your arms are straight above you in a dead hang.

Your aim here is to control the movement on the way down, which will build strength and train your body and mind on the path of the movement. Once you get competent at negatives, incorporate short pauses at intervals as you descend.

Spotter-assisted pullups

Another person can press upward on your back to help lift you on the way up as your own strength falters. You don’t want too much help from your spotter — don’t let them push you up using your feet or lower legs.

Partial pullups

Even if you can’t manage the full pullup at first, practicing the movements is important.

Every time you practice the path of a pullup, you’re rehearsing the neural impulses that will help you execute the movement when you’re strong enough. Using proper form, do half a pullup — or even a third — and control your descent.

Jumping pullups

Before doing a jumping pullup, decide how high you want to raise the bar. Keep in mind, shorter is easier.

Once you have the bar set at a safe height, stand underneath it and jump into the pullup. Your upward momentum will actually help you complete the movement. As with the other methods, descending slowly is important.

Don’t flail your legs

It’s tempting to swing your legs in an effort to use momentum to get you higher than you could without the extra motion. If your goal is building upper body strength, swinging your legs to make the movement easier may actually defeat your aim.

Some CrossFit athletes practice what is known as a kipping pullup — a version that intentionally incorporates controlled leg motion to work different muscle groups during the exercise.

Research shows that the kipping pullup is a less intense workout than a traditional one, so again, if your goal is to build strength, keep your legs as still as possible.

Keep your neck loose

In your quest to get your chin above the bar, be careful not to overextend and strain your neck muscles. Neck strains are a common injury in people perfecting their pullup technique.

If you feel soreness after a pullup workout, talk to your doctor and take a short break from the specific exercise that caused the strain.

Train your biceps

One of the fastest ways to build the strength you need to complete a pullup is to build muscle mass in your biceps. Be sure to pace yourself in terms of both weight and repetitions.

Grip hand weights or dumbbells with your palms facing upward. With your elbows by your sides, curl your lower arm up from your waist to your shoulders. As with negative pullups, it’s important for you to control the movement, avoiding wild swings that can cause injuries.

Pullups are a tough exercise for many athletes. Like any worthwhile project, they take time and concentration to perfect. Begin with basic strength training and practice pullups, even if you aren’t able to complete one right away.

Use a spotter to help when you need a bit of a boost, or do half pullups to help your body learn the correct form while you’re developing enough strength to execute the real deal.

To protect your body from injury, use proper form — keeping your legs still and gripping the bar at or just beyond shoulder distance as you pull your elbows toward your body.

Although pullups may be more of a challenge for some body types because of the physics involved, anyone who puts in the time and effort can master this highly beneficial exercise.