5 Pull-Up Tips for Aerialists

Are you an aerialist still struggling to do a pull up? Have you convinced yourself that as a woman it’s a skill that will always be beyond your reach? Have you decided that it’s a skill that you don’t even need? This article gives you pull-up tips for aerialists that you can immediately add to your technique or programming.

First off, your self-worth is not defined by your ability to haul your chin over a bar. Pull ups are difficult skills for the average person. Whether you’re a beginner aerialist or a seasoned pro, you are asking your body to do things that will often test your limits. That’s what makes circus special. 

If you want to stay safe in the air, you should be able to do a pull up. But not just any pull up. A pull up that will keep your shoulders safe and allow you to control your body through the movement. Aerialists need to be able to perform through the movement and be able to do it when fatigued and at height. This is not your average gym rat’s pull up.

The goal in a pull up is to move your body in a vertical direction. That means that whether your center of mass is higher or lower should not impact how much force you need to make that movement happen. Women tend to have more body fat and lean body mass, which makes bodyweight exercises like pull ups more challenging, but certainly possible. 

You’ve got this.

The PULL-UP Set Up

Pull Up Tips for Aerialists. Jessica John demonstrates hanging.

Begin by grabbing the bar at a little more than shoulder width. Your palms should be facing away. Wrap all of your fingers around the bar. 

Look straight ahead. Resist the urge to look up at the bar. This position best stabilizes the shoulders and improves range of motion. 

Relax your shoulders. Allow them to lift up toward your ears. 

(Already starting to slip? Start working on timed hangs or farmer’s carries.)

Now you’re ready to move! Here are my 5 pull-up tips for aerialists.

1. Set the Shoulders

Pull-up tips for aerialists. Jessica John demonstrates the "break the bar" cue.

First, externally rotate your shoulders and draw them away from your ears (depress).

Use the “break the bar” cue. Imagine that you are a super hero and that the pinkie sides of your hands are trying to bend the bar you’re hanging onto forward.

2. Connect Through the Front Line & Wrap Around the Armpits

Next, draw your sternum (chest bone) down toward your pubic bone (pelvis) to connect your “aerial abs.”

Wrap around the armpits. Actively contract the lats to pack the shoulders down in relationship to the torso. 

If you find that this position is difficult to hold–i.e., your ribs want to flare out (move forward)–tight lats are probably the culprit. Take a foam rolling time out and give them some love with a lat prayer stretch

If you are having trouble understanding the wrapping action, lie on your stomach with your arms overhead and palms facedown. Press the pinkie sides of your hands into the ground, drop your sternum down toward your pelvis, and lift your belly button off of the ground as your pubic bone stays connected. This is what you also want to feel in your hanging position.

If you cannot create a straight line in your body from your hands to your toes and maintain your shoulder wrap, I’d encourage you to improve your overhead shoulder mobility.

3. Draw Your Elbows Forward

Pull-up tips for aerialists. Jessica John demonstrates the elbows reaching forward.

Next, keep externally rotating and draw your elbows toward your center line (by externally rotating the shoulder). Do not allow those suckers to flare out. 

4. Push, Don’t Pull

Pull-up tips for aerialists. Jessica John demonstrates the top of the pull-up motion.

At this point, you might be thinking I’ve lost my mind. “This is a PULL UP, Jessica. Not a PUSH UP.” I hear you. But here’s the problem. Your muscles might not. 

We have a muscle called the serratus anterior, which holds your shoulder to your ribcage. If it does not do its job to stabilize, your lats cannot do their jobs to haul your butt up in space.

The serratus is your protracting muscle. And we protract our scapula by pushing. So if you think about pushing, it is easier to get the serratus to fire correctly and then the lats can do their jobs.

So as your elbows bend, think about them reaching toward the wall in front of you, as if you were in a forearm plank position.

Then, drive them down toward the ground. Imagine that you have small oranges in your armpits that you are squeezing. 

Once the bar gets to mouth-level, drive your elbows back to the wall behind you. This will allow you to get your chin over the bar. 

Push, push, push.

5. Use Breath to your Advantage

Finally, inhale to prepare and exhale as you move. A forceful exhale will contract core muscles and make your body feel easier to lift. It might seem obvious, but breath gives your movement life.


We have reached the part of the list where I have to deliver some bad news. You have my 5 pull-up tips for aerialists. Unfortunately, simply having the intellectual understanding of how to do a pull up, does not mean that you can now do one. Every once in a while, that gambit pays off. If it does for you, congratulations; I’m a magician. 

Most of the time, however, it does not, because we need to build neural connections in the body and acquire the new strength, stability, and mobility that the skill requires. 

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