Negative Pull Ups: A Little-Known Secret to Upper Body Strength

How you can use this simple movement to increase your strength and muscle growth in your back
Dean Phillips
The Superhuman Lab Founder

The Lab’s Quick Summary

1. Chin-ups and pull-ups are one of the best mass builders for the back and overall upper body strength.

2. Most beginners struggle with neuromuscular problems in the early stages (meaning they lack the strength, muscle mind connection and overall coordination), meaning they struggle to do enough chin-ups to progress with strength and the muscle gains they want.

3. The negative chin-up combats this and allows you to still target the muscle and gain strength (leading to progression week-to-week). After doing this, it's easier to then do the harder and fuller movements.

4. After you've performed the negative pull-ups and can comfortably perform 8 of them, we recommend moving on to the chin-up and pull variations shown later in this article.

Look at a muscular physique and you have no doubt that they'd be able to perform chin-ups without effort ...

Yet, why do very few actually do them correctly?

The truth is:

They're known to humble the strongest of guys, and if you're a skinny guy that's tried doing them before, then you most likely know how difficult they can be to perform (correctly) especially when starting out.

So why can they be so difficult?

Although most think the chin-up just needs back (and arm) strength to be done well, there's many areas of the body that work in order to get your chin-up to the bar.

That's why I recommend starting with the negative chin-up ...

What are negative pull-ups
​(and negative chin-ups)?

Although some strength coaches like to categorise the chin-up and pull-up as being varied, the negative pull-up and chin-up are actually extremely similar.

The main difference between the two is whether your hands are facing towards or away from you:

Pull-ups are performed with both hands facing away from you in an overhand (pronated grip) with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

Chin-ups are performed with both hands facing towards you (supinated grip) with your arms shoulder width or just inside of shoulder width apart from each other.

All movements typically have 3 areas of contractions – concentric, meaning the lifting portion of a movement, isometric, which is the holding part, and eccentric, which is the way down (the reverse of the concentric).

A typical chin/pull-up normally has all 3 of these ...

We've got the concentric part where you bring your body up to the bar, the isometric part where you hold your body at the top position and then the eccentric where you lower your body into a hanging position, and start the movement over again ...

The negative chin-up is similar to a typical chin-up in many ways, but with a major difference:

1. It's easier to perform, as it eliminates the concentric part of a movement (the bringing yourself up to the bar).

2. It focuses on the downward (eccentric) portion of the chin-up, which when done correctly, has a tonne of benefits...

"Strength gains after eccentric training appeared more specific in terms of velocity and mode of contraction. Eccentric training performed at high intensities was shown to be more effective in promoting increases in muscle mass measured as muscle girth." - Roig M, study

"But what about the lat pulldown?"

The lat pulldown is a fantastic back building exercise.

And if you can't do negative chin-ups at all, then it's a great replacement ...

In fact:

"For lat-pull down exercise, BB and LD were greater than PM, TB, and ES during the concentric phase, whereas LD was greater than PM, TB, and BB during the eccentric phase (p < 0.05). Subsequently, chin-ups appears to be a more functional exercise." - Doma K, study

It's one of the primary movements used in my flagship programme course for skinny dudes, because it works so well and in the early stages, when your strength might be low, it can help bump it up.

Essentially, by doing the chin-up/pull-up, you'll be way better off when it comes to strength transferring into real life, and, of course, that's the same for the negative version too.

Let's take a look at how it's performed ...

How To Do The Negative Chin-up

01: Stand on a bench/box so your body is in the top position of a pull-up.

02: To provide stability, before each rep, take a deep breath in through your stomach, brace your core, gently tuck your ribs towards the hips so your body is in a slight hollow body position, and squeeze your glutes and cross your legs.

03: Extend your hands above your head, and grab on to the bar, setting your hands so they are approximately shoulder width apart, and your palms are facing you (for a chin-up) or away from you (for a pull-up).

04: Jump and pull your body up to the top position, and perform the eccentric, lowering part by slowly lowering yourself down in a controlled manner by using the muscles in your mid and upper back, and scapula stabilisers.

05. Repeat the movement, either jumping or using the box to get up and then continuing in the same fashion.

Some extra notes you might wanna be aware of:

Keep your back and shoulder blades engaged throughout the entire movement.

Maintain proper alignment the entire time. Your spine should remain in neutral alignment, your ribs should remain down and your pelvis and torso should not rotate.

You can either bend your knees, or keep your legs straight, but it is important that you squeeze your glutes and muscles in your legs as a rigid body will be easier to control.

Now although this movement seems pretty simple, it helps massively with strength and muscle growth in several areas ...

What muscles do pull-ups work?

The pull-up's main target muscle is the lats (latissimus dorsi) followed by the biceps as the secondary muscle – this helps with giving you a much wider appearance (with some guns too).

The biggest difference between the chin-up and pull-up is the activation upon the bicep.

"Biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up." - Youdas JW, Study

However, both do an amazing job at placing a lot of weight and stress on the biceps.

This exercise also strengthens the shoulders, the anterior core and the forearms (through using your grip to hold on to the bar).

What are the benefits of the negative pull-up/chin up?

  • Improved upper body strength and muscle growth (primarily in the lats, traps and rhomboids)
  • More mobility improvement in the shoulders
  • Secondary muscle growth in the upper arms and forearms
  • An increase in overall core strength (in the erectors, scapula stabilisers and the anterior core)

"As an ectomorph, how many
pull-ups should I be able to do?"

Damn good question, my friend.

As you're here, I think it's safe to say you're a skinny dude, which typically means you're going to struggle more than most when it comes to strength in the early stages (you'll soon be a back machine).

Through training guys inside The Skinny To Superhero Formula, we've noticed that most are able to hit 8 negative reps within the first 5 weeks and then progress into doing 5 chin-ups.

Once you've mastered the negative pull-ups and you're repping out a solid amount of regular pull-ups, you'll want to progress on to these variations ...

Pull-Up Progressions
​(Easiest to hardest)

After doing negative chin-ups, you'll want to move on to a series of different pull-up bar exercises ...

Right now, I'm going to walk you through the pull-up (and chin-up) progressions that I recommend the most (that are within reach within 12 months of training).

1. The chin-up

The chin-up uses a underhand grip. Because of this, it allows your biceps to

activate fully, which in turn allows you to lift heavier.  

It also allows you to use a larger range of motion, activating even more muscle fibres (including the ones in your upper pecs). These two factors make the chin-up perhaps the best muscle-building exercise for your entire upper body.

2. Neutral Grip (hammer head) Pull-Ups

This is great for people with shoulder injuries, or if there's a large gap between your performance in chin-ups and pull-ups (think of it as the middle sibling).

If you're great at chin-ups, but are struggling to do pull-ups, then it might be because your biceps are strong, giving your back muscles a lot of help on chin-ups.

On pull-ups, your biceps are more or less neutralized, with the arm power coming from your brachialis (a thick, strong muscle that lies between your biceps and your humerus) and brachioradialis, the forearm muscle that crosses your elbow joint and assists the brachialis in elbow flexion."

Nate Green, T-Nation

What does this mean?

Well, with the neutral grip, you have help from your elbow flexors, which helps other muscles catch up, to help with progressing to the normal pull-up.

3. The Pull-Up

This is similar to the chin-up, with your palms facing away from you. It also limits the amount of muscles you can use to pull yourself up and allows

you to hit the lower traps a bit harder.

You'll typically see more bodybuilders using this to bring up a specific weak area of the back, and for skinny dudes, it's recommended secondarily to chin-ups.

4. Wide Grip Pull-Ups

This is the same as the pull-up, the main difference is the placement of your hands. You'll want to take a wider than shoulder width apart grip.

This movement limits the amounts of muscles lifting you. In fact, most people will see a large decrease in the amount they can perform these vs. regular chin-up/pull-ups.

5. Weighted Pull-Ups

A chin-up, neutral grip and pull-up are all made difficult by adding weight (using a weight belt – if you don't have one, hang a dumbbell between your feet, although it's no way near as nice).

At this stage, you should be able to pick which you prefer, and go for personal preference. Your strength differences between the chin-up, neutral chin-up and pull-up shouldn't be vastly different from one another.

Putting Them To Work

So there you have it –that's all about the negative pull-up, and what you can do after you've mastered them to build a stronger and more muscular back.

Wondering where this would go in a programme?

I've put together a free example workout for skinny dudes, you can grab it here.

I'm excited to see how you use the negative chin-up in your own workout programmes.

Any questions?

Drop them in the comments below

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