Power Up Your Pullup

You’ve been doing them the same way for years. That’s why you never improve. Take a lesson from a Russian strongman, and you’ll finally pass our bar exam.

The ability to pull your body to the bar (repeatedly) proves that you’re a man who can truly pull his own weight—not someone who just dabbles in fitness. And for years, three points have governed proper form: Keep your body straight from shoulders to knees, bring your chest to the bar, and squeeze your shoulder blades. Now a Russian trainer is questioning those cues, asking if there’s really only one way to do a pullup.

“Traditional pullups work great as a corrective exercise to improve posture,” says Pavel Tsatsouline, cofounder of StrongFirst.com. “But they’re not conducive to exerting the greatest amount of strength.” If that’s your goal, you’d do better to emulate a gymnast. “They’re the strongest people in the world for their body weight,” says Tsatsouline. “If you watch how they pull themselves up, you’ll see they use a ‘hollow’ body position: They’re concave, like a C, and their shoulders are a bit hunched.”

A “hollow pullup” not only engages more muscles—including your glutes, hams, and other powerhouses along your “posterior chain”—but also forces your lats and abs to work together, increasing stability, says Men’s Health training advisor Bill Hartman, C.S.C.S., P.T. Your job: Do both moves.

  1. The Classic Pullup
    Grab the bar using an overhand grip that’s slightly beyond shoulder width. Hang at arm’s length with your knees bent and your ankles crossed behind you (a position known as a dead hang). Your body should remain straight from shoulders to knees for the entire movement. Bring your chest to the bar, pulling your upper arms down forcefully and squeezing your shoulder blades (pretend you’re trying to pinch something between them). It helps if you imagine that you’re pulling the bar to your chest instead of your chest to the bar. Pause, and then lower yourself back to a dead hang.
  2. The Hollow Pullup
    Grab the bar using an overhand grip that’s hip-width to shoulder-width apart. Hang at arm’s length, pointing your legs slightly in front of you to form a wide C. Now press your thighs together and brace your abs; your body should remain rigid for the entire movement. As you pull yourself up, imagine that you’re pressing down on the top of the bar, and focus on bringing your belly button up; both steps will help engage your lats and core and boost stability. Look straight ahead and pull until your neck or upper chest touches the bar. Sink in your chest slightly rather than expanding it. Lower yourself.