- How to Do Perfect Pull-Ups in 28 Days: A Step-by-Step Plan
- How To Do Pull-Ups #1: Form
- How To Do Pull-Ups #2: Band
- How To Do Pull-Ups #3: Weaknesses
- How To Do Pull-Ups #4: Test
- A One-Month Pull-Up Training Program for Beginners (3-Days Per Week)
- 5 Simple Steps to do a correct pull-up
- How To Master The Pull-Up – One Of The Toughest Bodyweight Moves There Is
- How To Do A Perfect Pull-Up
- Pull-Up Assistance Lifts
- Pull-Up Form Tips
- Different Pull-Up Grips
- Pull-Up Challenges
- The Arched Back Pull-Up
- More Pull-Up Variations
- How to Train and Build Strength for a Pull-Up
- Why Pull-Ups are a Powerhouse
- Build Strength for a Pull-up
- The Proper Pull-Up
- 5 Exercises to Help Train for a Perfect Pullup
- The warmup
- The moves
- Transform Your Body With Pull-ups
- Here’s a 1-Month Pull-up Plan
- How to (Finally!) Do a Pull-Up
How to Do Perfect Pull-Ups in 28 Days: A Step-by-Step Plan
So you want to know how to do pull-ups and how to do a lot of them. This “How to Do Pull-Ups” plan is for all you fish out there. Perhaps you can relate. You flop under the bar like a hooked carp, until your chin accidentally clears it with one urgent, upward thrash. There is a better way to learn how to get better at pull-ups.
“The pull-up is a great exercise because it targets multiple muscle groups at once—back, biceps, abs, and forearms,” says Doug Sklar, a Spartan SGX trainer and owner of PhilanthroFIT in New York City. “Thus, it requires significant upper body, grip, and core strength.”
The four-step plan below will take your pull-ups from pathetic to perfect. But it won’t happen overnight, so take your time. Trust us, it’ll be worth it. “There’s something mentally powerful about being able to do pull-ups,” says Sklar. “You will feel as if nothing can hold you down.”
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How To Do Pull-Ups #1: Form
Hop on a bar and see how many strict pull-ups you can do (no kipping, jumping, or flailing!), right here and now. Record that number, as well as the goal you want to achieve within a reasonable timeframe, such as three to four weeks.
If you can’t manage even one, no worries. This plan is designed specifically to help you learn how to do pull-ups. “Know that it may take a long time to develop the strength necessary to accomplish the feat,” says Sklar. “However, once you can complete one rep, the next few will come faster.”
Related: Build Resilience With These 5 Bodyweight Back Exercises
Often, the inability to do a pull-up has everything to do with pull-up form. Compare your form against these guidelines and make any necessary corrections:
- Use an overhand grip on the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Wrap all your fingers around the bar for maximum grip.
- Hang freely under the bar. If your feet can still touch the ground, cross them behind you. Tighten your core to prevent your body from swinging.
- Retract your shoulder blades, as if you’re pinching a pencil between them in the center of your back.
- Drive your elbows down and back, and pull your chest up toward the bar. Keep your core engaged to prevent you from swinging under the bar.
- Pause for a moment at the top—with your chin over the bar—and then slowly lower back to the start under control.
How To Do Pull-Ups #2: Band
To improve your strength and work on learning how to do pull-ups, Sklar recommends assisted pull-ups, either with a partner or band. “For beginners, assistance bands are a great tool to help you progress to doing a full pull-up on your own,” he says. “Some people have the strength to momentarily hold their chin above the bar, but lack the strength to begin a pull-up from a fully extended position.”
But bands aren’t just for beginners. Even seasoned athletes can benefit because bands allow you to increase training volume and push past your typical sticking point by improving muscular endurance and strength.
To use a band, loop it through itself around a pull-up bar and pull tight to secure. Stand on a box, grab the bar, and place one foot inside the loop. Hold yourself with your hands as you step off the box and extend both legs so your body is vertical.
A training partner can also assist by supporting you from underneath. He or she stands behind you and holds your waist as you pull yourself upward, moving you through your sticking point to getting your chin above the bar.
Related: Pull-Up System of Training: 3 Key Strategies
A partner can also assist with a negative, or eccentric, contraction, which helps build muscular strength and power. “Negatives force you to resist gravity as your body descends, thus engaging and challenging the muscles you will need to eventually pull yourself back up,” says Sklar. Here, your partner helps get you up quickly from a dead hang to the top of the pull-up where your chin is above the bar, then let’s go as you lower yourself down to the start as slowly as you can manage on your own.
No partner? No problem: You can still take on step closer to learning how to do pull-ups. Stand on a box so you can reach the pull-up bar easily, then jump straight upward into the top of the move and perform your negative similarly.
“The key is to progressively lessen the amount of help over time,” notes Sklar. Use a “lighter” resistance band—one that offers less assistance—or have your partner help you only when necessary.
Sklar recommends using this sample program for three or four weeks to improve strength and pull-up potential:
- Monday: Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 band- or partner-assisted pull-ups
- Wednesday: Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 band- or partner-assisted pull-ups
- Friday: Perform 3 sets of 5 to 10 negative pull-ups, descending as slowly as possible
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How To Do Pull-Ups #3: Weaknesses
Besides doing pull-ups regularly, Sklar recommends incorporating these complementary movements into your programming to strengthen the upper body and shoulder complex, which will, in turn, help you learn how to do pull-ups.
“This mimics the motion of a pull-up with no weight-bearing,” says Sklar.
Lean back against a wall so only your glutes, upper back, and head are touching. Raise both arms and place them flat against the wall, elbows bent 90 degrees and in line with your shoulders. Maintain contact with the wall with your wrists and forearms as you extend your arms overhead as high as you can, then lower back to the start. Do 3 slow sets of 8.
“These help you practice engaging and utilizing your back muscles to pull yourself up as opposed to focusing solely on your arms,” says Sklar.
Related: How to Improve Your Grip Strength
Hang underneath a pull-up bar and relax all your upper back and shoulder muscles to come into a dead hang. Now, retract only your shoulder blades by drawing them inward toward your spine, keeping your arms straight and your body still. Release to return to the start. Do 3 sets of 10.
“This move is a great way to develop back, arm, and grip strength while significantly reducing the percentage of body weight you are lifting,” says Sklar.
Hold a TRX handle in each hand, palms facing inward, and lean away until your arms are straight. Keeping your body rigid like a board, walk your feet underneath the TRX anchor until your body is 45 degrees or less in relation to the floor; the closer you are to parallel the more difficult the move becomes. Pivoting on your heels, keep your body straight as you drive your elbows back and pull your body up and in between the TRX handles. Lower slowly to the start and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15.
How To Do Pull-Ups #4: Test
After three or four weeks of diligent work, again count the number of strict pull-ups you can manage. Compare this number to your original and see where you are in relation to your goal. If you hit or exceed your target, awesome. Now take on a new goal. If not, give yourself a few more weeks of consistent training and try again.
“Consistency and resiliency, while not actual protocols, will benefit you more than any specific training program,” says Sklar. “Also remember to do pull-ups when you are freshest, typically at the beginning of a workout, which gives you the most opportunity to maximize your strength gains and, in time, hit your goals.”
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A One-Month Pull-Up Training Program for Beginners (3-Days Per Week)
We have extensively covered the benefits of pull-ups for building back strength, size, and muscle hypertrophy. Often, for beginner strength, power, and fitness athletes (and general fitness goers alike) the pull-up is often one of the most challenging bodyweight movements to master. The upper body strength necessary for the pull-up (strict) is highly demanding; and often requires a systematic approach to maximize pull-up performance in beginners.
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Pull-Up Training Program
In the below sections we will lay out everything you need to know to master your first pull up and/or maximize your current pull-up strength and performance. This guide is jam packed with:
- 3-Day Pull-Up Training Program for Beginners
- Mastering the Perfect Pull-Up (Video Demo)
- Pull-Up Assistance Exercises and Scaling Options
- Female Pull-Up Training Guide/Program
5 Simple Steps to do a correct pull-up
Follow these for a correct formed pull-up from start to finish.
- Grip the bar with both hands slightly wider than shoulder width with palms facing away from you.
- Hang with arms and elbows fully locked out.
- Contract the back and core, and pull your chin over the bar.
- Stabilize and Hold for a 1 count.
- Slowly lower yourself in controlled manner until your arms are fully extended.
In the below video the pull-up (strict) is demonstrated. Note, that grip-width, palm orientation (supinated, pronated, or neutral), and even thumbs wrapped or unwrapped can have an impact on pull-up efficiency.
How to do a Pull-Up if You Can’t Do One
If you find yourself failing to perform a perfect strict pull-up, you can swap this movement for them instead. Note, that if your goal is to master a strict pull-up, doing these within a timed WOD may not be the best option, as you should focus on building strength and skill for this movement without high amounts of total body fatigue. If this is the case (that you are trying to get better at pull-ups by doing variations in WODs) I suggest you do some additional accessory exercises (or the program below) to truly increase back strength and muscle mass.
The band assisted pull-up is a great option if you cannot perform a strict pull-up, however it is often done incorrectly. Common faults, such as body swinging (lack of body tension), sloppy repetitions, and lack of muscular control with the lats at the top and throughout the movement can all lead to stalled results. Additionally, too many beginner lifters use too much band assistance and never force themselves to struggle to pull themselves up for sets of 2-3 reps (which actually will build strength necessary to pull your bodyweight up, rather than higher reps of 10+).
Exercises to Help with Pull-Ups
In the below program we incorporate a wide array of pull-up variations and alternatives to help you build a stronger foundation for back strength and muscle mass. Below, we will discuss a few of those pull-up accessory exercise.
How to Do A Chin-Up
Many lifters will be able to nail a chin-up before they can do a pull-up, primary due to the arms being involved to a higher degree (biceps and anterior shoulder). While the chin-up can be a great movement for building serious upper body pulling strength, it is important to (1) do it correctly, (2) not overuse it, and (3) not neglect pull-ups.
Tempo Banded Pull-Ups
Banded pull-ups, as discussed above, are a good pull-up option for beginners. That said, adding in tempos (similar to tempo pull-ups) can truly maximize muscle growth and strength to help beginners establish greater muscles coordination, activation, and growth.
Machine training for beginners (and more advanced athletes) allows us to isolate the specific muscles groups needed to perform a pull-up. While many band pull-up variations and isometrics are key, machine based training will allow a beginner lifter to add more loading to stress the muscle fibers enough to greater muscular damage without being limited by grip strength, body control, and/or general total body fatigue.
Isometric Pull-Up Holds
Isometrics can be a great way to increase muscular strength necessary for a pull-up. Many beginners will benefit (advanced lifters will benefit as well) from doing these, which are included in the 3-day pull-up program for beginners below.
How to Do a Pull-Up in a Month: 3-Day Pull-Up Program for Beginners
In the program below we have outlined a 3-day pull-up program to help beginners achieve their first pull-up in under one month. While this program is geared to help beginners maximize their pull-up abilities, it can also be used to kickstart stalled progress in non-beginners or as an accessory back training program for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
Perform each of the three workouts below every week, for four weeks. Each workout consists of 3-4 exercises, totalling about 30 minutes per workout. Progressions can be done using heavier loads, as this is geared to build strength and muscle. Challenge yourself to add weight each week, yet still be able to FEEL the back muscles working.
- Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds in between sets (Add weight if can, using a belt and weight around hips)
- Isometric Pull-Up Hold: 4 sets of 10 seconds, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Perform 10 second hold at top of the pull-up, chin over bar, elbows down towards butt)
- Inverted Barbell Row: 4 sets of 5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Use a pronated grip, slightly wider than shoulders. Add weight and go heavy)
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Add weight and go heavy, perform controlled eccentric and get a full lat stretch between reps by elongating the arms at top)
- Towel-Grip Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds between sets (Add weight if can, using a belt and weight around hips)
- Eccentric Pull-Up: 4 sets of 5 reps (each rep is 3-5 seconds negative), resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Start at top of barbell with chin over bar, and perform a three-five second negative, focusing on feeling the back muscles stretch and lengthen smoothly as you descend by allowing the elbows to straighten)
- Band Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Use a pronated grip, slightly wider than shoulders. Choose a band that will make you struggle for your last rep, yet still maintain good form. Be sure to perform a slight one second pause at the top and bottom of every rep)
- Supinated-Grip Dumbbell Bench Supported Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Be sure to have palms facing away from you as you row, with your shoulder blades down the back and your elbows going towards your hips BEFORE the go up. This motion is not a straight up pulling row, more like a back and up motion)
- Fat-Grip Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds in between sets (Add weight if can, using a belt and weight around hips)
- Band Assisted 1 ½ Pull-Ups: 4 sets of 3-5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Start at the bottom of the pull-up. Pull your chin over the bar, and perform a slight pause to engage the back muscles. Go down about halfway, so that your elbows are in line with your eye, which is about 4-6 inches from the top. From here, go back up to the bar so that you chin is over it again. That is a 1 ½ pull-up. Repeat for 3-5 total reps; so perform three-five, 1 ½ pull-ups)
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Add weight and go heavy, perform controlled eccentric and get stretch between reps by elongating the arms at top)
- Seal Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Make sure your shoulder blades stay down the back and your elbows go back towards your hips BEFORE the go up. This motion is not a straight up pulling row, more like a back and up motion)
Female Pull-Up Program
In a previous article we covered the foundational movements female lifters need to master (and males too) to develop a stronger basis for pull-up training. With the help of some strength athletes, like Stefi Cohen, we were able to uncover some great exercises females can do to build grip and back strength. Be sure to take a look “A Ladies’ Guide to Your First Pull-Up” to get maximize your pull-up performance.
Let Us Know How It Goes!
Ready to nail you first pull-up? Be sure to comment below with any questions you may have throughout the month program, and be sure to tag @BarBend in your pull-up posts!
Featured Image: @luis.lopez.photo on Instagram
So on that note, to begin with: Increasing how strong you are is a lifestyle endeavor. Unfortunately, learning specific skills and movements isn’t just a matter of showing up to the gym and spending enough time there. You have to train (somewhat) smart, and you have to take care of yourself. By take care of yourself, I mean you need to eat, and you need to sleep and rest. You’re probably not going to get your pull-up by training to exhaustion every single day, and you very likely can’t get it by not eating enough. Muscles are not made of nothing, and are not fueled by nothing. They need you to give them enough food and protein so they can get stronger, so be nice to them. The time your muscles are resting after you use them in the gym is when they are actually rebuilding and getting stronger, so it’s important to have days off from heavy lifting and get good sleep.
Back to the training: A proper pull-up requires upper back strength, as well as arm strength. It is a pulling motion, so anything you can do that involves pulling (any kind of row) or maintaining tension in your upper back (conventional deadlifts, for instance) will help. But pull-ups are also more of a full-body movement than you might realize: You need your core to stabilize you so your body doesn’t swing around, for instance. Fortunately for the pull-up aspirant, full-body strength training will train all the muscles you need together, and maybe more importantly, train them to work together.
The thing that may help you the most is doing modified versions of real pull-ups. A good pull-up program will give you what lifters refer to as “volume.” Volume is a tricky concept to explain, but the gist is, doing a lot more work (or reps) of a movement at a lower intensity will train you to eventually be able to do higher-intensity versions of that movement. This applies for all movements: Doing squats for sets of 10 at a relatively lighter weight will help me do sets of five at a heavier weight, which will help me do a single squat at a much heavier weight. Likewise, it’s harder for me to get better at pull-ups if I can do only one or no pull-ups. If there is something I can do that is like a pull-up, but slightly less hard, that I can do more reps of, I should train that movement because doing so allows me to get better at pull-ups without actually having to do something as hard as pull-ups. In other words, doing some kind of assisted pull-up—and lots of them—will go a long way to helping you eventually get strict, unassisted pull-ups.
But not any kind of assistance will do. I spent months on an assisted pull-up machine to no avail, because it didn’t teach me to engage my body the right way, and it let me use my arms too much and my back too little, so even though I was probably getting better at using that specific machine, I wasn’t really working the muscles I needed to be working to get a pull-up. There were two training methods that worked best for me when I was training to get a pull-up. The first was using super-bands (giant rubber bands) looped around my feet on one end and to the pull-up bar on the other. With this setup, the band will bear some of my weight while still allowing a full range of motion, which let me do more pull-ups at a time. I also trained with “negatives,” which involve jumping to the top of a pull-up and slowly lowering myself down, with the goal of lowering myself more slowly as time goes on. For instance, if I could only do a 10-second negative once, I might do three sets of four five-second negatives. And then I was done! And I could carry on with my life. Pull-up training doesn’t have to be wildly intense; even if you can’t do any of these, just hanging from a bar will help you build your grip strength and learn to activate some muscles. Just building on what I already have slowly and sustainably allowed me to get where I am today, where I can do probably five whole pull-ups at a stretch, if I am allowed to cheat and kick my legs very much on the last one.
How To Master The Pull-Up – One Of The Toughest Bodyweight Moves There Is
You probably don’t need us to tell you that the pull-up is just about the toughest bodyweight exercise there is. If you’ve ever attempted to knock out a set in the gym, or just pull yourself up over a wall out in the real world, you’ll know the demands it places on your back, shoulder and arm muscles.
In the back it’s the lats, traps and rhomboids that bear the brunt of the effort, while you can challenge different parts of your arms by changing your grip (which you’ll learn all about below). The move also improves your core strength, and it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to leave your entire upper body quivering with fatigue when training at home because a doorframe pull-up bar is the only equipment you need.
Alongside form guides for pull-ups and many variations on the exercise, you’ll also find a series of moves that help you build up the strength to execute a full pull-up, because if you’re not able to do more than a couple at a time you’re better off starting with something like assisted pull-ups or dead hangs. There are also form tips to help you pull off the perfect pull-up below, plus a few pull-up challenges you can try once you are adept at the exercise. Enjoy.
Why is the pull-up important?
“It’s the ultimate test of upper-body muscular strength and one of the very few bodyweight moves that works your back and biceps,” says former Royal Marines PTI Sean Lerwill. “A lot of guys get fixated on their bench press best, but I think your total pull-ups effort is a far better indicator of a strong, stable and functionally fit upper body that has real-world performance capability.”
How many should I be able to do?
The Potential Royal Marine Course (PMRC) requires you to do three full pull-ups to stay on the course, while 16 gives a maximum point score. “A guy in good shape should be able to do about six perfect-form pull-ups at a slow and controlled tempo, with an aim of getting to 12 reps,” says Lerwill. “Once you get to that point you should make them harder by holding a dumbbell between your ankles or wearing a belt with weight plates attached.”
What do I do if I can’t do any?
“The best way to build pull-up power is by doing wide-grip lat pull-downs, both heavy-weight sets and high-rep sets,” says Lerwill. “Eccentric pull-ups – where you ‘jump’ to the top position and lower back down very slowly – are also very good training drills.”
How To Do A Perfect Pull-Up
- Leap up and grip the bar with your hands shoulder width apart and your palms facing away from you. Hang with your arms fully extended, you can bend your legs at the knee if they’re dragging on the ground.
- Keep your shoulders back and your core engaged throughout. Then pull up. Focus on enlisting every upper body muscle to aid your upward endeavours.
- Move slowly upward until your chin is above the bar, then equally slowly downward until your arms are extended again.
- Aim for 10 pull-ups, but be prepared to fall short.
Do not be daunted if the idea of smashing out 10 pull-ups seems laughable right now, there are plenty of ways to build up to even your first full pull-up. Start by getting used to your own bodyweight by holding a dead hang for as long as possible without even bothering to try and pull yourself up.
You can also prep for pull-ups by strengthening your back muscles. Exercises like bent over dumbbell rows and inverted bodyweight rows will help. Many gyms will also have assisted pull-up machines, where you kneel on a platform that will give a certain amount of help in raising you up depending on what weight you set it at.
Pull-Up Assistance Lifts
Try these supportive machine moves to power up your pull-up prowess.
This machine move most closely replicates the muscle actions required to do pull-ups. The wider your hands on the bar, the more you isolate your lats, making each rep harder.
Cable face pull
This works wonders for your pull-up ability by not only improving your hunched-over posture from too much sitting but also making you learn how to retract your shoulder blades properly, which is key to perfect pull-up form. Do three light sets of 15 after your back or shoulders session.
Make a positive effort to up your pull-up max with negative reps. Your muscles are stronger when lowering a weight than lifting it so at the end of a set, jump to the top, then lower as slowly as possible. Keep going until you can no longer control your descent.
Pull-Up Form Tips
Recruit the glutes
It’s tempting to think of the pull-up as an upper-body move and relax everything below the waist. But squeezing your glutes before you pull up will help you recruit as many muscle fibres as possible.
Use the full range
Using a full range of motion engages more muscle fibres and works them harder. Hang from the bar with both hands so your arms are fully straight. This is the start and finish position. Keep the full-range reps slow and smooth to reduce joint stress.
Get tight at the start
Bracing your body will engage your big and small stabilising muscles, making it easier to manage your weight. Keep your chest up and abs and glutes engaged. Initiate the move by retracting your shoulders, then drive your elbows down to pull yourself up.
Squeeze at the top
Once your chin is higher than your hands, squeezing your working muscles will recruit even more muscle fibres for greater strength and performance gains. Pause for one second at the top to squeeze your muscles, then lower back to the start.
Mix your grip
“Vary between wide, narrow and hammer grip hand positions to recruit more muscle fibres and correct any weaknesses for greater overall strength,” says trainer Andy Watson (@functionalfitnesstraining).
Break them down
“Remove momentum to target all three phases of the lift,” says Watson. “Pull your chest to the bar, pause for three seconds, lower halfway, pause, then lower to the bottom and repeat.”
“If your grip goes, you go. Get used to hanging from the bar with extra weight until failure. Then raising your own bodyweight when doing pull-ups will feel easy.”
Different Pull-Up Grips
An overhand grip pull-up is the hardest to do, because it places more of the workload on your lats. The wider your grip, the less help your lats get from other muscles, making a rep harder.
This grip turns a pull-up into a chin-up, and places more emphasis on your biceps, which makes it more of an arms move than a back one. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
A neutral or palms-facing grip is your strongest hand position because it distributes the workload between multiple muscles. Use it initially to start building strength, or even as your final grip for a drop set.
When you become a relative pull-up pro, test your mettle with these challenges.
Russian Special Forces Challenge
This test stems from the entrance exam undertaken by new recruits to the Russian Special Forces. It’s not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to perform 18 complete pull-ups without sacrificing form or technique. If that doesn’t sound tough enough, you’ll have a 10kg weight attached to your body – either in the form of a kettlebell, plate or weighted vest.
Dead Hang Challenge
Select a weight with which you can perform 15 comfortable pull-ups. That may be your bodyweight alone, or you may be able to add 5-10kg via a weighted vest or dipping belt. Your challenge is to hang at the bottom portion of the lift for 1-2min (depending on fitness level). It’s not as easy as it sounds, and to make it tougher, retract your shoulder blades as if you were about to perform an actual pull-up – and hold that position. This is extremely useful for those looking to quickly gain strength on the pull-up.
The 10 Set Press-Up / Pull-Up Combo
Five pull-ups, straight into ten press-ups. No rest in between. Ten sets. Ideally perform this at the end of your session for a strength and endurance test. It’s a favourite of Combined Strength coach Andy MacKenzie (@ironmacfitness), and while appearing relatively simple at first glance, will lead to a lung-busting finish.
The Arched Back Pull-Up
“The pull-up is the key lift for upper-body strength, and I prefer the arched-back pull-up to maximise back muscle size and strength,” says Viktor Genov (pictured), a personal trainer at Fitness First Tottenham Court Road. “Arched-back pull-ups are more difficult than conventional pull-ups and that’s why most people don’t do them, but it is one of the very best ways to work to the lats, lower traps and forearms, and also recruits the middle traps, rhomboids and erector spinae muscles. Your lower back, glutes and hamstrings should also be engaged to keep your lower body from swinging back and forth.
“The ideal hand position for pull-ups is to have your hands grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. This position will ensure optimal engagement of the lats, whereas taking your hands too wide will put too much pressure on your shoulders and going too narrow will restrict your range of motion.
“In the bottom hanging position, push your shoulders forwards and ensure they are externally rotated. This is very important to keep the shoulder joint stable and the ball of the joint secure in its socket. Starting a rep with your shoulders in a position of weakness can increase the risk of injury and dislocation.
“You want to start by depressing and retracting your scapula, which happens when you pull your shoulder blades down and together. Squeeze your lats, then initiate the move by pulling from your elbows and keep them close to your torso so they don’t flare out to the sides.
“You want to raise your chest up to touch the bar for the fullest range of movement – simply raising your chin to bar level or just over the bar won’t achieve the fullest range. Going to this top position will also improve the development of the connective tissues around the shoulder joint and increase muscular engagement across your entire back.
You can start with band-assisted reps to build up strength, and then introduce additional weight when you need to. “Add weight when the reps you can do no longer fit your training goal,” Genov says. “So if you can do 15 reps but want to train for muscle so you need to be in that eight-to-12 rep range, can add extra resistance to stay in that hypertrophy range.”
- Beginner Up to 5 band-assisted reps at a 3120 tempo
- Intermediate Up to 5 reps at a 3110 tempo
- Advanced 10+ reps at a 2110 tempo
- Viktor Genov’s PB 18
More Pull-Up Variations
We’ve put together 11 variations plus the classic pull-up – from the first-time negative pull-up to the ultra-difficult towel grip pull-up – to help progress your pull-up game. Once you can do a set of six to eight reps, move up the scale – adding an extra pull-up each week is a good rule of thumb.
How to Train and Build Strength for a Pull-Up
Like push-ups, pull-ups are a fitness mainstay. The motion consists of pulling yourself up to a bar, then lowering yourself back down. However, just because it’s straightforward, doesn’t mean that it’s easy. We tapped Kristin McGee, celebrity yoga and pilates teacher, fitness and health expert, and author of Chair Yoga: Sit, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Way to a Happier, Healthier You to help us learn how we can perfect form and build strength for a pull-up.
Aaptiv has strength training workouts for every level. With our workouts and your motivation, you’ll be crushing your pull-ups in no time.
Why Pull-Ups are a Powerhouse
You may be one of the few people wondering why pull-ups are as lauded as they are. The most obvious draw is that they build and strengthen your upper body—specifically, the muscles in your back, chest, shoulders, and arms. Not only that, but they also target your latissimus dorsi, the broad muscle that spans from the back of your shoulders down your back. Being that it’s a bodyweight exercise, you only need a pull-up bar to perform them. This means that you can customize the movement to your current needs and fitness level.
Likewise, pull-ups can help in building your core strength, which directly affects your posture. It’s regarded as a functional movement, which means that it’s one of the many movements we tend to perform on a daily basis—think standing, walking, twisting, turning, pushing, and (of course) pulling. Consistently doing exercises that improve functional movements contributes to a reduced risk of injury, while also improving the relationship between you and your nervous and muscular systems.
If, somehow, none of that sounds appealing, consider this—we spend a large portion of our lives sitting, be it while we drive, work, or relax. All of that sitting puts quite the load on our backs. By including pull-ups or similar moves into your routine, you’ll be strengthening your core and back, which lessens your chance of back pain and injury. This becomes increasingly important as we get older and want to maintain our strength.
Another great way to maintain strength is to get into the habit of working out regularly. Aaptiv has short, equipment-free workouts that can help you get started.
Build Strength for a Pull-up
Despite how straightforward a pull-up looks, the move can be a great challenge. Luckily, there are other workouts that we can do, plus modifications that we can make, to build strength for a pull-up. Below find three moves and three modifications that McGee recommends to anyone attempting to perfect the pull-up.
Lat pull-downs: When done correctly, lat pull-downs can be extremely effective at strengthening your upper body. Like the name suggests, they target your latissimus dorsi, one of the main muscles used in pull-ups. Many of the same muscles in your shoulders and arms are also targeted here.
To perform, sit facing the pull-down machine. Grab onto the bar with both hands, just outside of shoulder width. Keep your chest tall and elbows pointing down. As you pull the bar down, think about squeezing your lats and pulling from around your armpits. Pull the bar down until it reaches just below your chin, then slowly release.
Bicep curls: This popular move is easily doable with the use of dumbbells or a resistance band. It’s simple, effective, and can help you achieve the arm strength needed to do pull-ups. To do standard bicep curls, stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. With your elbows tucked close to your torso, turn your palms so that they’re facing forward. Now, exhale and contract (or “curl”) your biceps until the dumbbells are at shoulder level. Squeeze the muscle and hold for a moment before inhaling and lowering to the starting position.
Hanging leg raises: While it may not be obvious, your core is a key part of building strength for a push-up. Hanging leg raises target this area, while also giving your arms a major burn. To perform, find a chin-up bar and reach both arms up to grab onto the top. Keep your arm width at a medium (just outside shoulder width) if you’re new to this exercise. If you’re experienced, try a wider width. With your arms still extended, exhale and lift your legs until your torso and legs create a 90-degree angle. Hold for a moment before slowly going back to starting position.
For further instruction and form cues, check out the strength visuals in the Aaptiv app.
Assisted pull-up machine: “You can use the assisted pull-up machine and slowly go lighter and lighter on how much it helps you,” says McGee. An assisted pull-up machine works by using counterbalance weights that make your lifting load lighter. The higher the set weight, the easier the pull-ups will be.
Chair pull-ups: Just like it sounds, these are pull-ups done with a chair beneath you. Set your pull-up bar three to four feet above the ground. From there, place your chair underneath and sit or stand on it. If you’re sitting, grab the bar, keep your hips and back straight, place your feet on the floor, and pull yourself up until your chest meets the bar. Likewise, if you’re standing, McGee recommends that you “place a stool under your feet and come to the upper position of a pull-up, then slowly lower down.” This variation helps you focus on, and improve, your form while also lessening the amount of bodyweight you’re lifting.
Band pull-ups and assisted pull-ups: “You can also loop a band around the bar and your feet to help, or ask a friend to help you by holding your waist as you jump up and helping you lift to the top,” McGee explains. Both of these modifications help you reach the top of the pull-up by giving you a boost. Using a band gives you momentum by taking the bodyweight you place down on it and pushing it back up. Similarly, a friend or trainer holding your waist can help lift you to the top, thus making lowering yourself back down easier.
The Proper Pull-Up
When you think you’re ready, refrain from jumping straight into a full pull-up. First, you need to make sure that you know the proper form and motions. McGee takes us through the motions, explaining, “ hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your lats to pull your arms closer to your body as you lift yourself up off the ground.” At this point, think of how you’d use your lats for a lat pull-down. “Keep your abs engaged and the tops of shoulders down and away from the ears. Lift all the way up until your chin is above the bar and slowly lower down. Don’t swing up or jerk up.”
Not swinging or jerking up is crucial, since doing so requires momentum and not your muscles. To the untrained eye, it might look impressive, but you won’t be getting nearly the workout or benefits you could be getting. If this is your first time attempting pull-ups, try to have a friend, trainer, or someone with experience standing by to assist.
Ready to give pull-ups a try but not sure where to start? Try Aaptiv’s strength training classes!
5 Exercises to Help Train for a Perfect Pullup
Don’t let anyone fool you: Pullups are hard, even for those who work out religiously. It takes remarkable strength to pull your body weight up above a bar from a static position. But guess what? We know you like a challenge!
To master a pullup, you’ll need motivation and determination combined with strategic training. Pullups use your lats and biceps primarily, while also recruiting your deltoids, rhomboids, and core. These are the muscles you’ll need to strengthen.
We’ve curated five exercises as a starting point to train for pullups. Get started earning your sweat equity today.
Do 5 or 10 minutes of brisk cardio to kick off your workout, then add in some dynamic stretches to get your body ready for strength training.
Mix and match these five exercises throughout the week, aiming to perform three of them at least two days a week.
For the bodyweight exercises, challenge yourself to add more time or a few more reps each week. For the weighted exercises, go as heavy as you can go while maintaining correct form, aiming to progressively overload your muscles.
1. High plank
The first step to executing a push-up is perfecting this foundational movement, in which you’ll support your own body weight with a stable core and upper body.
- Start on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees slightly behind your hips. Keep your neck neutral.
- Bracing your core, push up from your toes to straighten your legs, forming a straight line from your head to your feet. Make sure your lower back doesn’t sag.
- Hold until your form starts to wobble.
- Complete 3 sets.
2. Hollow hold
This floor exercise mimics part of the movement of a pullup, teaching you to engage your back and core.
- Lie down on your back on a mat with your arms extended above your head.
- Bracing your core, raise your head, arms, and legs so each forms a 45-degree angle with the floor.
- Holding steady here, pull your arms and legs toward your midline, stopping when each is perpendicular to the floor. Hold for 5 seconds.
- Return to the starting position from step number 2 and repeat.
- Complete 3 sets of 5 reps.
3. Bent-over row
Strong upper back muscles — especially your lats — are required to master a pullup. The bent-over row targets them specifically, while also strengthening and stabilizing your core.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and hinge at the waist until your upper body forms a 45-degree angle with the ground. Your knees should be slightly bent.
- Begin to bend your arms, pulling your elbows up and back until you reach the top. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower back down and repeat for 10 reps.
- Complete 3 sets.
4. Dumbbell pullover
This exercise hits the lats and chest, both of which need to be strong to do a pullup. Use a light dumbbell, like 10 or 15 pounds, until you perfect this movement.
- Grab the dumbbell with both hands. Position yourself on a yoga ball or bench so your upper back is supported on the surface, arms are extended above your head, your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, and your torso is straight.
- Maintaining a strong core and keeping your arms extended, start to pull the dumbbell up and over your head. Stop when your arms are perpendicular to the floor.
- Lower the weight back down.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
5. TRX row
from Exercise GIFs via Gfycat
Of these five exercises, the TRX row is most similar to a pullup, as you’ll pull your body weight by engaging many of the same muscles. Remember that the closer to parallel your torso is to the ground, the more challenging this exercise will be.
- Grab onto the TRX handles, and step away from the anchor to pull the straps taught, arms extended.
- Walk your feet underneath and in front of the TRX straps, and bend your legs so they form a 90-degree angle. Your core should be tight, forming a straight line from your knees to your head, and your arms should be supporting your weight.
- Inhale and begin to pull yourself straight up by bending your arms, pulling your elbows down toward the ground. Make sure your back and butt don’t sag.
- Once you reach the top, slowly lower yourself back to the position in step number 2, and repeat.
- Complete 3 sets of 6 reps.
This process will take time. Especially if you’re a beginner, you’ll need a few months to work toward the goal of completing a pullup with good form. Once you’ve mastered the five exercises above, move onto assisted pullups, either with a machine or by using an assisted pullup band.
Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.
Transform Your Body With Pull-ups
Let’s be honest, pull-ups are badass. It doesn’t get more empowering than pulling your entire body over a bar. Holy shit does it feel good. And doing pull-ups will also develop great looking arms and a terrific back.
Especially for the ladies when there are bullshit articles out there like this one explaining why women shouldn’t be able to do pull-ups. Ok, maybe it is harder for women to do pull-ups. That’s the truth because generally speaking women have less muscle mass and more body fat than men do. So yes, that fact makes the act of pulling yourself over the bar more challenging.
But just because something is harder, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try anyway! I’m here to tell you that ANYONE can do a pull-up. If you currently can’t do one, no worries, that’s what today’s video is all about.
We’ll show you 2 pull-up variations you can do right now to work towards your first pull-up. And if you can do pull-ups, that’s great – we’ll have a video coming soon showing you some advanced variations of pull-ups.
For now, let’s discuss the 2 best exercises to train for pull-ups.
Band Assisted Pull-up – Using the resistance band will reduce the amount of bodyweight you have to pull-up (especially at the bottom when you need it most) allowing you to perform more reps than you otherwise could.
Eccentric / Negatives – This is a great way to build strength in your major pulling muscles. Try to lower yourself down for 5 seconds with each rep.
Here’s a 1-Month Pull-up Plan
Using basic progressive overload principles, you will perform the same number of band-assisted reps (10), but you will add 2 sets each week. The negatives will stay the same at 3 sets of 5 reps each week (see below for the exact details).
Julie couldn’t do 1 pull-up a few months ago. Now she can do up to 5 or 6 on a good day. Here’s Julie in the park busting out a few. And that’s only with 1 month of training. She has her eye on 10 and I think we’ll be there within a few months.
Here’s the plan for the next 4 weeks. You will carve out 3 sessions per week to work on your pull-ups. You will perform these 2 variations every session. Follow the reps and sets listed below. These sessions should take about 15-20 minutes.
Week 1 – 3 sessions per week. Rest for a full 1-2 minutes between sets.
- Band assisted pull-ups – 4 sets of 10 reps (40 total reps)
- Negatives – 3 sets of 5 reps (15 total reps)
Week 2 – 3 sessions per week. Rest for a full 1-2 minutes between sets.
- Band assisted pull-ups – 6 sets of 10 reps (60 total reps)
- Negatives – 3 sets of 5 reps (15 total reps)
Week 3 – 3 sessions per week. Rest for a full 1-2 minutes between sets.
- Band assisted pull-ups – 8 sets of 10 reps (80 total reps)
- Negatives – 3 sets of 5 reps (15 total reps)
Week 4 – 3 sessions per week. Rest for a full 1-2 minutes between sets.
- Band assisted pull-ups – 10 sets of 10 reps (100 total reps)
- Negatives – 3 sets of 5 reps (15 total reps)
Who’s starting today? Let me know in the comments!
How to (Finally!) Do a Pull-Up
All it takes is these five key moves, he says: Hanging shrugs create a neuromuscular pattern that teaches the shoulder blades to lower and recruit the muscles that will be doing the work. Bent-over reverse flyes strengthen the muscles that maintain stability by keeping your shoulder blades down. Ring rows build the primary muscle groups that you’ll rely on. Banded pull-ups help you work on nailing the movement pattern. Negative pull-ups create the strength and control that you’ll need to lower yourself. (Want even more? These eight moves will also help you master a pull-up.)
Follow Stahl’s weekly plan of five strength exercises below and you’ll be able to check “do a pull-up” off your fitness bucket list. “If you’re starting from a place of very little strength, you’ll need to put in about 12 weeks of work before you can expect to do a pull-up,” Stahl says. “If you’ve already got a decent strength base, you’ll need closer to six weeks, and if you’re strong already, you could accomplish your first pull-up in as little as one week.” (But be careful not to over do it: one woman’s pull-up workout almost killed her.)
Hanging shrug: Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Bent-over reverse flye: 3 sets of 10 reps
Assisted pull-up Do 3 sets of 5 reps.
(Give yourself two to three rest days between sessions.)
Bent-over reverse flye: 3 sets of 10 reps
Ring row: 3 sets of 10 reps
Negative pull-up: 3 sets of 5 reps
Master the Moves:
Hang (completely relaxed) from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep arms straight and slowly pull shoulder blades down your back, shrugging your shoulders toward your ears. Then slowly release that tension to return to hang. That’s 1 rep.
Doing a proper shrug is the first step in completing a pull-up. “It creates a neuromuscular pattern that teaches the shoulder blades to lower and recruit the muscles that will be doing the work, including the traps, lats, and rhomboids in the back and the pecs in the front,” Stahl says. It also strengthens your forearms and grip.
Bent-over reverse flye
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a light weight (such as a 5- or 8-pound dumbbell) in each hand with arms by sides. Bend knees slightly and hinge forward from hips until torso is almost parallel to floor, letting arms hang down from shoulders with elbows slightly bent, palms facing forward, to start. Squeeze your back to slowly raise weights out to sides until elbows are in line with shoulders. Slowly return to start. That’s 1 rep.
“This exercise strengthens your assisters, the muscles that work to maintain stability by keeping your shoulder blades in the correct position during a pull-up,” Stahl says.
Stand facing a set of rings (similar to the ones used in gymnastics, usually in the weight room at the gym) or a TRX suspension trainer ($130, TRXtraining.com) that’s anchored overhead, feet hip-width apart and hands gripping rings or handles with palms facing in. Lean back and step feet forward, lowering straight body until arms are extended directly up toward ceiling and straps are taut (weight is in heels). Keep body straight and bend elbows behind you tight to ribs, pulling chest up between your hands. Lower. That’s 1 rep.
Think of this as a horizontal pull-up. “This move will build strength in all the primary muscle groups that you rely on when doing a pull-up, plus it will get you used to the motion of the movement,” Stahl says. “And because it’s done horizontally rather than vertically, it’s easier.”
Wrap a superband (one of those giant colored-rubber resistance bands, such as the Spri Superband, $20 and up, spri.com) around the pull-up bar by tossing one over the top and threading that through the bottom end and pulling the knot tight to the bar. Put one foot in the center of the band at the bottom, then grab onto the pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’ slightly wider than shoulder width; hang. Pull your body up until your chin clears the bar. Lower. That’s 1 rep. (You could also use an assisted pull-up machine; many gyms have one.)
Doing a pull-up with a little help lets you work on perfecting the movement pattern (pulling and rotating shoulder blades downward to engage your back, then retracting your shoulder blades as you lift your chest and bend your arms to pull your chin over the bar) without as much weight. “You’ll get stronger and be able to work through the full range of motion to ensure proper sequencing of muscle recruitment during the real thing,” Stahl says. As these start to get easier, use a lighter band or do more reps.
Use a bench to start at the top of a pull-up (chin over the bar, hands slightly wider than shoulder width with an overhand grip, elbows bent tight to sides, body straight), then, lower your body for a four count to a dead hang. That’s 1 rep.
“The greatest strength gains occur during the negative, or lowering, motion of an exercise,” Stahl says. Studies show that your body can handle up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically than concentrically. “Training the lowering phase of the movement isn’t just to teach you that you can hold your weight up by your arms, but it creates the strength and control that you’ll need every time you lower during a pull-up,” he says. Technically, you’re doing half of a pull-up every rep.
- By By Jaclyn Emerick