By Matt Evans
Pull-ups and dips are among the best bodyweight exercises you can do when it comes to building muscle, but they’re certainly not the easiest to perform. Unlike exercises such as push ups or bodyweight squats, not everybody will be able to perform a pull up or a dip on their first attempt, let alone for reps.
This guide will show you how to get started performing these milestone moves, along with the science behind them, some exercises you can do to work up to them and some exciting variations once you’ve mastered both moves.
Pull-ups and dips: why do them?
Pull-ups and dips are worth practicing because together they hit almost every muscle group in your upper body. Pull-ups work your back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi. These are the back muscles responsible for developing that “V” shape in muscular men and women.
However, an overhand pull-up actually activates no fewer than seven different muscle groups in your back, arms and chest, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
While “pushing” muscles such as your chest and triceps are easy to work on your own without any equipment, most “pulling” muscles such as your back and bicep require equipment or weights to work out. Once you’ve mastered the pull-up, you’re able to train those muscles on a bar in the gym, on a climbing frame, a tree branch, a home pull-up bar or any other apparatus you can hang off.
Dips are the opposite of pull-ups. If pull-ups are working your biceps and the muscles in your back (especially your lower back), dips work your triceps and chest, along with muscle groups like the deltoids in your shoulders. It’s especially tough on the triceps, as a study by the American Council on Exercise found out.
The research showed dips are among the top three exercises for activating your triceps, beaten only by the triangle push-up and tricep kickback. Together, these two exercises work with just your body weight to hit almost every muscle group.
Pull-ups and dips: How difficult are they to do?
Pull ups and dips are challenging exercises, even for the physically fit, as you have to be able to pull or push your own body weight away from the ground. The University of Dayton found even after a three month period of bicep and back-focused strength and conditioning, only four of 17 women in the study were able to perform a pull-up. It’s a very tough exercise to complete, and your first pull up is a real achievement.
However, it’s certainly possible, with training and time, to work your way to performing your first pull up or dip: before the Dayton study began, none of the 17 women could perform a single pull up. With time and training, there’s a few very common ways you can progress to doing pull ups and dips for multiple repetitions and sets.
Pull-ups and dips: How do I get started?
Whether you can already do one or more repetitions or you’ve never been able to do one before, there are a few specific ways to improve.
One is to train the same muscle groups with easier exercises. For example, if you’re working towards doing pull ups, you can perform rows with a dumbbell or barbell to work on your back and bicep muscles. If you’re doing dips, you can do push ups, especially “triangle” push ups which work your triceps.
Another way to build up your strength is to perform “negatives”. For these, you’ll need a pull-up bar, or a pair of parallette dip bars, just as you would need to perform these exercises normally. These can be either accessed at a gym or purchased online.
The principle behind a negative is very simple: you grab the bar or bars as if you were really going to try the move for the first time, jump up and use your muscles to slowly lower yourself down. This trains the muscles to move the way they’re supposed to. The slower you can lower yourself down, the stronger you’re getting.
One final way to work towards this move is an “assisted” version. This is often done in the gym at an assisted pull up and dip station, which contains a pulley weight attached to a kneeling platform.
If you kneel on the platform and add weight to it before beginning the move, this removes some of the strength needed. This can also be done with resistance bands instead. Over time, you can take away more and more weight until you’re performing the move without any assistance at all.
How to do a pull-up
- Stand up tall and grab hold of a pull-up bar with an overhand grip. That means your palms should be facing forwards, with your fingers wrapped around the far side of the bar. Your hands should be about twice shoulder-width apart.
- Lift your feet off the ground and cross your ankles, so that your bodyweight is being supported by your arms and back.
- Pull your body up as far as you can go and pause for a couple of seconds. The top of your head should be above the bar. If possible, bring your shoulders up to the bar.
- Lower yourself down to the hanging position to complete one repetition.
How to do a tricep dip
- Begin in the dip position. Grab hold of the bars of a dip station with your arms
- bent at the elbows. Your elbows should be close to your body, and your core braced tight. Lift your legs off the floor and cross your ankles.
- Lift yourself until your arms and upper body are both straight. Pause, and then lower yourself down into the dip position to complete one repetition. Your chest should naturally lower and move forward as you dip.
Variation: Close grip pull up
Believe it or not, using a closer grip makes the exercise slightly easier. That’s because it shifts some of the workload to your biceps.
- With your hands placed shoulder width apart and with an overhand grip, grab hold of the pull-up bar.
- Then perform a pull-up, raising your body as far as it will go.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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