Listen - it's not just about getting yourself up there, one way or another. Most people will have to start with a small number of reps or an assistant when doing a pull-up. It is a very difficult move to master. And once you put everything in its place in order to execute it correctly - eliminating momentum and the misuse of the muscles - you will have REAL strength to show off!
1. Make sure you are exhaling as you lift, inhaling to lower. That exhalation is really going to help you power the concentric contraction of the sub-scapular muscles and the lats in the back.
2. As you lower, extend your arms fully and with control (fighting gravity's yank of your body weight), and never lock your arms at the bottom. This will ensure the muscles you are using are still gripping that load. You will get stronger (allowing you to do more proper pull-ups in the longrun) with that little extra fight at the bottom of each repetition. If you let the arms release completely, Â you are letting the muscles take a break (wimp).
3. At the bottom of each repetition, squeeze your shoulders down, press the chest up and force the muscles beneath the scapula to dig deep for that pull! This is the root area of the back. If you are not involving the sub-scapular muscles, the overlying muscles will not contract to their fullest potential, and you will be ripping yourself off of the postural benefits of the exercise as well. You can use the shoulder-blade squeeze as a separate step of the exercise, before each repetition. It is an important investment in the rest of your execution.
4. At the top of the exercise (you will have fully exhaled), your shoulders should still be pulled down, as you will have pulled them down further as your chest reaches up and above the bar. Your chest will be slightly expanded (pressed forward) in order to have all the muscles on the other side (the rhomboids, the lats and the subscapular muscles) shut tightly enough to absorb the benefit of the contraction. If your shoulders and elbows are forward, instead of tightly at or behind your sides, your chest will be closed in and your back open - defeating the entire purpose!
5. KEEP YOUR CORE TIGHT! Pull-ups are amazing for the core, and a strong core is amazing for pull-ups. You will recruit a big boost for your pull-ups if you think about recruiting your abdominals along with all of these other pointers. As you pull up, you should feel a tight "ripping" sensation through the core. "Ripping" refers to a sharp muscular tightening through the abdominals, and perhaps enough micro-tearing to lead to fantastic muscle development.
Pull-Ups can be avoided by those intimidated by their difficulty, and can be overused by those who prioritize the idea over the form due to a fitness ego.
For the intimidated: this exercise is one of the most empowering ones you will perform. Start small, recruit a helper, use proper form from the beginning in order to progress. They are addictive - not kidding! For the sloppy egos - there are NO EGOS IN FITNESS! Fitness is about being strong at your roots by doing things properly, not APPEARING strong by executing a higher number of sloppy, useless repetitions.
If you've been doing them wrong, be patient, drop your ego and learn to do it right. Fellas, the hot girl in the gym who would watch you grunt and blast out reps is not going to be impressed when you can't really scale the wall to rescue her cat...
*Image from sinistrarossoverde.com