Because the pull-up is a multi-joint exercise, it requires a specific warm-up sequence in order to maximize performance.
So how should you warm-up for pull-ups? An effective warm-up for pull-ups should include exercises that raise your heart rate, activate key muscle groups (back, arms, & deltoids) and increase joint mobility (wrists, elbows, & shoulders). As well, specific pull-up drills should be included that work the intensity up to full bodyweight or wedighted pull-ups.
In this article, I will cover how to structure a warm-up using an evidence-based approach, how to apply it to pull-ups, and how to individualize warm-up drills for your body.
Why Should You Warm Up For Pull-Ups?
Whether you already have a warm-up routine or not, a safe and effective warm-up drill will improve training outcomes during pull-ups.
A pull-up warm-up will be able to:
- Improve your training range of motion
- Increase muscular performance
- Reduce chances of muscular injuries
Improve Your Training Range of Motion
Incorporating an appropriate modality of warm-up drills has been shown in research to increase joint range of motion.
This is important if you want to make the most out of your pull-ups, as training through a longer muscle length will be superior for gaining strength and muscle mass.
A common question when doing pull-ups is whether you should do them fast or slow. We talk about the pros and cons of both in Is It Better To Do Pull-Ups Fast Or Slow?
Increase Muscular Performance
Being able to perform better because you warmed up is going to contribute to you being able to put a bigger training stimulus on yourself.
Being able to put on a bigger training stimulus can lead to better strength and muscle mass gains, assuming that you can recover from it.
Research from Bergh et. Al has shown that the temperature increase from warming up can increase maximal muscle strength. This can lead to more reps or more weight being performed with bodyweight pull-ups or weighted pull-ups.
If doing a lot of pull-ups causes the skin on your hands to rip, investing in a good pair of pull-up gloves can help.
Reduce Chances of Muscular Injuries
Research from Woods et. al has shown that a good warm-up protocol can reduce the chances of injury, which can improve long-term progress with your pull-ups.
Warm-ups will not completely eliminate the chances of injuries, but if you injure yourself less often, you are able to make more gains in the long term. This is because you may have to reduce or completely cease training in order to recover when you are injured.
Did you know that pull-ups can help improve your deadlift? Learn more in my article Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How).
How Should A Warm-Up Be Structured For Pull-Ups?
A well-structured warm-up is not one activity; it is normally broken down into multiple parts that serve different purposes as they have different effects on the body.
An evidence-based warm-up structure was developed by a strength and conditioning coach named Dr. Ian Jeffreys. He developed and modified a warm-up protocol called the RAMP protocol, which can easily be applied to pull-up training.
The RAMP protocol can be applied to any major multi-joint exercise or physical activity that includes exercise outside of the training room, too.
The acronym RAMP stands for:
- Activation & Mobilization
The “raise” portion refers to warm-up activity that can elevate the heart rate, the body’s temperature, the body’s breathing rate, and blood flow to the muscles.
The way you increase your heart rate and body temperature does not need to be specific to pull-ups but should ideally include the portion of the body that is involved during the main workout.
Most often, the “Raise” portion of the warm-up will include some form of aerobic activity with a short duration and low-intensity effort.
Activation And Mobilization
The “activation and mobilization” portion refers to the activation of key muscle groups that are going to be trained and the mobilization of key joints and ranges of motions that will be targeted.
This portion can often include bodyweight movements with or without training equipment. There is normally some form of dynamic stretching (in which you move through a range of motion for multiple reps rather than holding a stretch for a certain amount of time) involved.
There may be dynamic or static drills that target the specific positions or movements that your body will be moving through.
Dynamic stretching is best to do before a workout, but static stretching can be used for recovery after a training session or on a rest day. Learn more in Should Powerlifters Do Yoga? (Yes, Here’s 6 Poses).
The “potentiation” portion refers to drills that can enhance the previous portions of the warm-up that have a more specific carryover of the tasks involved in the main training.
This portion of the workout exists to gradually build training intensity of effort up to the intensity of the main workout. This may include the same activity as the main workout but at a reduced intensity.
Raise: General Warm-Up for Pull-Ups
Using the RAMP method described above, we can start putting together a warm-up routine for pull-ups, starting with the “raise” portion.
During the “raise” portion of the warm-up, you should ideally choose some form of aerobic activity that includes the upper body, preferably the back and bicep muscles.
An appropriate choice of modality could include an assault bike or a rowing machine. Both of these cardiovascular machines involve the back and bicep muscles to a certain extent. Improving blood flow to these areas can improve the efficiency of getting oxygen and recovering between sets.
The duration of the aerobic activity should be anywhere between 5 minutes to 15 minutes. Generally, the more trained that you are, the quicker you can get your body to warm up.
So if you are a beginner to intermediate athlete, you should aim for 10 to 15 minutes. If you are intermediate to advanced, you should aim for 5 to 10 minutes.
It is not the end of the world if you do not fit your aerobic warm-up within the recommended time. Five minutes is still going to contribute a positive impact on your main pull-ups.
Activation and Mobilization: Moving For Pull-Ups
Activation for pull-ups will include activating the forearm muscles, biceps, and lats. Mobilization for pull-ups will include mobilizing the wrists, elbows, shoulder joints, and shoulder blades.
Many of the same drills that mobilize the joints used in pull-ups also activate the forearm, bicep, and lat muscles. Below are several exercises that warm up the joints and mobilize the targeted muscle groups at the same time.
Warming up the wrists will be useful for activating the forearm muscles, which will be beneficial for making gripping for the pull-ups easier.
Two appropriate wrist warm-up drills are:
- Weighted wrist rotations
- Wrist extension and flexion
Weighted Wrist Rotations
Weighted wrist rotations can be useful if you are doing pull-ups with different grips such as underhand and overhand grips. They activate the forearm muscles (the wrist pronators and supinators) and biceps.
How To Do It
- Hold onto the edge of a small dumbbell or a small weight disc.
- Hold your arm out or rest it on the edge of the surface.
- In a controlled manner, allow your wrist to rotate out until it has rotated 90 degrees.
- Repeat this for 10 to 15 repetitions.
- Allow the wrist to rotate inward in the opposite direction until it has rotated 90 degrees the other way.
- Repeat this for 10 to 15 repetitions as well.
Wrist Extension and Flexion
The wrist extension and flexion drill activates the wrist flexors and extensors (the muscles that enable you to bend and straighten your wrist).
How To Do It
- Place your forearm on a surface or bench with your fist hanging off the edge and your palm facing downward.
- Hold onto a light load with that same fist and allow your wrist to bend downward slowly in a controlled manner.
- Bend the wrist upward and bring the weight back up. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions (aim for 10 to 15 reps).
- Change the forearm position so that your palm is facing the sky.
- Allow your wrist to stretch downward slowly in a controlled manner.
- Bend the wrist upward and bring the weight back up. Repeated for the desired number of repetitions (aim for 10 to 15 reps).
Getting the elbows warmed up will improve blood flow around the forearm and bicep muscles. The biceps will be working hard in bending the elbow during the pull-ups, so it’s essential to get these moving.
Elbow circles activate the biceps as well as the triceps
How To Do It
- Hold your arm out with your palm and biceps pointing toward the ceiling.
- Bend your elbow so your forearm bends back towards the bicep.
- Rotate your upper arm so that your hand is by your chest.
- Extend your arm back out and finish in the start position.
- Repeat this for several reps, then reverse the movement pattern.
Shoulders and Shoulder Blades
Without a warm-up, the shoulder joint and shoulder blades can get very stiff and immobile.
Two effective shoulder and shoulder blade warm-up drills are:
- Serratus wall slide
- Scapula wall slide
Serratus Wall Slide
The serratus wall slide is very useful for getting the shoulder blade moving properly. It encourages the shoulder blades to rotate upwards as you reach up. This is important for getting your back muscles to lengthen properly when you descend in the pull-up.
The serratus wall slide activates the serratus anterior (a fan-shaped muscle in the upper body that aids in the movement of the shoulder blades) and lower traps (the muscle that runs along the back of the neck and shoulders).
How To Do It
- Stand about 10 inches away from the wall while facing it.
- Keep your elbows bent and forearms against the wall.
- Make sure your forearms are parallel to each other and about shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your whole back flat and keep your abs tight.
- Without getting any closer to the wall, slide your forearms vertically upward as much as possible.
- Bring them back down to the starting position and repeat.
Scapula Wall Slide
The scapula wall slide is similar to the serratus wall slide in the sense that it improves the ability of the scapula (shoulder blades) to rotate better. It also helps the shoulder blades to rotate downward when you pull yourself up in the pull-up.
The muscles activated in the scapula wall slide are the:
- Rear delts (the muscles of the back of the shoulders)
- Rhomboids (muscles on each side of the upper back that help move the shoulder blades)
- Rotator cuff muscles (a group of muscles that surround the shoulder joint and help keep the upper arm bone attached to the shoulder)
- Lower traps (the muscle at the back of the neck and shoulders)
- Upper back extensors (in addition to the rhomboids and traps, this includes the lats, which are the large muscles in the mid and upper back that help you raise and extend your arms)
How To Do It
- Stand facing away from a wall with your feet about 10 inches away from it and your knees and hips bent. Keep your head back against the wall.
- Lean on the wall with your back flat, arms bent, and elbows flat against the wall. Imagine the pose you would have if the cops asked you to put your hands up.
- Slide your arms vertically up as much as possible until your elbows are straight.
- Slowly slide and bend your elbows vertically down as if you were mimicking the pull-up movement.
Do you need to do more than just pull-ups to train the back and biceps? We cover this in detail in Are Rows & Pull-Ups Enough For Back And Biceps?
Potentiation: Specific Warm-Up For Pull-Ups
After the general warm-up and activation and mobilization work, you can move on to more specific warm-up protocols that allow you to work your intensity up towards doing a full bodyweight pull-up or a weighted pull-up.
The best thing to do is to perform pull-up specific movements at intensities less than a bodyweight pull-up.
Here are 2 potentiation drills for pull-ups:
- Single-arm resistance band pulldown
- Resistance band assisted pull-up
Single-Arm Resistance Band Pulldown
The single-arm resistance band pulldown is a great way to engage the pull-up movement one arm at a time. This may especially benefit those who have a discrepancy in strength and/or muscle size when comparing the left and right sides of the body.
How To Do It
- Attach a resistance band on top of the pull-up bar.
- Position yourself in a kneeling or half-kneeling position with your knees on the floor with the band above your shoulder.
- Grab onto a resistance band and loop it around your hand several times if there is still slack in the band.
- Bend and pull your elbow down towards the side of your hips.
- Slowly return the resistance band back upward and repeat for the desired number of reps (10 to 15 repetitions is sufficient).
- Repeat the same process for the other side.
Resistance Band Assisted Pull-Up
The resistance band-assisted pull-up is a great way to warm up to a full pull-up by having the band pull you upward.
How To Do It
- Attach a resistance band on top of the pull-up bar.
- Put your knees or feet onto the bottom of the resistance band loop and grab onto the pull-up bar.
- Allow yourself to hang below the pull-up bar, and keep your hips extended (straight).
- Perform 3 to 6 repetitions of the assisted pull-up.
Putting It All Together: Sample Warm-Up Routine for Pull-Ups
Here is what a good pull-up warm-up routine looks like:
- Rowing machine 10 minutes low intensity
- Wrist circles 15 repetitions
- Elbow circles 15 repetitions
- Serratus wall slide 15 repetitions
- Single-arm pulldown 10 repetitions
- Assisted pull up 5 repetitions
- Main pull-up workout
If you’re having trouble feeling your lats when doing pull-ups even after a thorough warm-up, try some of my favorite tips for activating the lats more during pull-ups.
Additional Warm-Up Guides
To warm up intelligently, you need to reflect upon what you need as an individual to decide whether you need to do more of one thing. If you generally feel like a certain muscle group gives out more during pull-ups, it may be useful to add more repetitions with the drills that cover those joints and muscle groups.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com