Just because you can’t do a pull-up right now, doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do one.
Just like any acquired skill, you’ll start from scratch and build yourself up. Aaptiv has workouts that can help.
In this pull-up guide, we’ll provide tips on how to do more pull-ups, going from zero to one, from ten to 30, and beyond.
Before we get into the expert tips, here’s how to do a pull-up.
How To Do a Pull-Up
Muscles Worked: latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, brachialis, trapezius, teres major, infraspinatus
How to Do It: Hang from a pull-up bar, monkey bar, or a very sturdy tree limb using a double overhand grip. Pull yourself up until your chin is higher than your hands. Lower yourself back down until your arms are fully extended. That’s one rep.
Pull-up vs. Chin-up: A chin-up is when you supinate your hands, meaning that your hands are in an underhand grip with palms facing you. Chin-ups work the biceps more than pull-ups and tend to be easier.
Now that you know how to do a pull-up, follow these ten tips to become proficient at this functional move.
Do dead hangs.
If one pull-up is too many for you, start with hanging from a sturdy overhead structure, such as a pull-up or monkey bar.
This will work your support grip, the type of grip where you’re required to maintain position or move your own bodyweight while hanging.
Use a box or chair to step up to the bar. Set a timer and grab the bar with a double overhand grip, then let your legs and arms hang completely straight. Aim for ten seconds without swinging much.
Once you can hang for ten seconds, go for 20, 30, and 60 seconds. If you’re having trouble staying on for even ten seconds, you may need to improve other facets of your fitness.
Train back twice per week.
To do more pull-ups you need to make a commitment. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, like learning a new language or driving a car.
If the hanging thing isn’t working out for you, increase the amount of time that you dedicate towards training your back muscles.
This same rule applies if your goal is to increase the total number of pull-ups you can do. Do the following strength training exercises for three to four sets of ten to 15 reps to increase your back endurance.
- Machine lat pulldown
- Machine seated row
- Dumbbell row
- Barbell row
- Reverse machine fly
- Dumbbell bent over lateral raise
- Back extension
Try assisted pull-ups.
Assisted pull-ups can be done one of three ways. First, you can use an assisted pull-up machine where you hold an overhead bar, but a weight stack helps you pull yourself up.
On these machines, the more weight you add the easier the pull-up gets because it’s assisting you on the way up.
Another assisted pull-up variation is a banded pull-up where you attach a looped strength resistance band over an actual pull-up bar, step onto the band, and pull yourself up.
To do the resistance band pull-up, toss one end of the band over the bar, feed it through the other end, and create a secure anchor point on the bar.
Place a box under the bar, step on the box, then place one foot over the band. Now, you’ll sink down towards the ground, but the rubber band will help you on the way up.
The third way is to have a friend or trainer literally help you do the pull-up with their hands. Have the spotter hold your ankles then try to pull yourself up until your chin is over your hands.
The spotter can also push you up from your back for one to three reps so that you get a feel for the range of motion. You’ll still need to build up to doing pull-ups on your own.
Row your own bodyweight.
In addition to weighted exercises, you’ll need to be able to move your own bodyweight through space.
Specifically, doing suspension trainer rows or inverted rows to a barbell are great ways to prepare for pull-ups.
A suspension trainer row is when you grab both handles of the suspension trainer with arms straight, tighten your core, straighten your legs, and bring the handles towards your sides.
Essentially, you’re bending your elbows so that they are behind you at the end of the movement. Once you really feel the squeeze in your back, straighten the arms again.
You can make the move harder by making the handles higher and hanging directly below the anchor point of the suspension trainer; this is called a suspension trainer inverted row.
Now, your arms are straight, your back is barely above the ground, and your knees are bent or straight. Row yourself towards the ceiling for five to ten reps.
You can also do inverted rows to a barbell or Smith machine. Place a barbell three to four feet high in a squat rack so that it’s supported by the safety bars below.
Bend your knees for an easier time, or keep them straight to make it harder. Keeping a straight back and tight abs, pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar.
Release yourself back down towards the ground while maintaining your straight spine; that’s one rep (this can also be done on a Smith machine). Do three sets of five reps, eventually working up to three sets of ten reps.
Work on your grip strength.
The reason that you can’t do a dead hang or a pull-up could be lack of grip strength. There are three types of grips: crush, support, and pinch.
Crush grip is the grip between your fingers and your palm, while support grip requires keeping a hold on something for a long period of time.
Pinch grip works the space between your thumb and your four other fingers and recruits the forearm extensor muscles.
Improving your crush grip will transfer into the ability to hold onto the bar for longer, even if your back muscles are tiring out.
Do dumbbell farmer’s walks, barbell deadlifts for sets of five reps (pretty heavy), and dumbbell/barbell shrugs to train crush grip.
Bodyweight rows, dead hangs, and holding an object like a bucket or sandbag against your chest, or over your head, helps work support grip. Support grip works the muscular endurance in your back, abdominal, and arms muscles.
Pinch grip will not only build the forearms and finger endurance, but also mental grit. Try to pinch some weight plates between your fingers and see how hard it is.
To perform a plate pinch hold, lift a weight plate (start with ten pounds) off the ground in each hand using just your fingertips.
Hold for as long as possible (aim for at least 30 seconds) in the space between your thumb and four fingers, then place them down.
Don’t forget your arms.
The strict pull-up uses the muscles in your biceps, forearms, shoulders, and triceps, but, mostly biceps.
Incorporate extra biceps training into your workout routine to ensure that you’re ready to take your pull-up game to the next (or first level). Try the following strength training moves.
- Dumbbell biceps curl
- Resistance band curl
- Barbell biceps curl
- Machine preacher curl
- Single arm dumbbell preacher curl
- Low cable biceps curl
- Incline bench dumbbell curl
Aim for three to four sets of 12-15 reps of at least four of these exercises per week.
Don’t psych yourself out.
Are you one of those people who can do virtually every other exercise except the pull-up? You can do dead hangs, push-ups, heavy dumbbell rows, curls, lat pull-downs, deadlifts, etc., but not a single pull-up.
More likely than not, you’ve created a mental block in your mind which has disabled you from going from hanging to pulling.
After failing a few times at pulling yourself up, you’ve decided you can’t do a pull-up. This is incorrect. You can do a pull-up. You just haven’t trained for it, yet.
Whatever is keeping you from raising your chin over the bar is more mental than physical. At the end of the day, all you have to do is travel a few feet in the air.
Keep trying to do more.
You did one pull-up! Congrats! Now work up to two. Try to do more pull-ups slowly. Do three, four, and five pull-ups.
Once you get to five strict unbroken (not letting go of the bar) pull-ups, let go of the bar. Aim for two sets of five pull-ups with 30-60 seconds rest between.
Once you can do that, follow this progression to officially get decent at pull-ups. There may be weeks or months between each of these tasks
- One set of ten reps
- One set of ten reps, then one set of five reps
- Two sets of ten reps
- Three sets of five reps
- Three sets of eight reps
- Three sets of ten reps
Once you can do three sets of ten unbroken strict pull-ups, you may want to sit down and think why you need to do more pull-ups.
Thirty pull-ups is an adequate amount to give you muscular endurance. Typically, doing more than 30 is reserved for CrossFitters where kipping (see below) is allowed, or military members where there are never enough pull-ups.
If your goals are more strength and muscle oriented, meaning that you want to lift heavier weights or build muscle fast, consider adding resistance to the pull-up.
Of course, only do this if you can do three sets of ten unbroken strict pull-ups. To add weight to a pull-up, loop the chain of a dip belt through a kettlebell or weight plate then secure the chain to the belt and the belt to your waist.
Start with ten pounds and work your way up to 45 pounds of added weight. The goal here is three to five sets of five reps.
You can also add weight by holding a dumbbell between your legs, but this is a more dangerous way to increase resistance, as the weight may fall from between your legs to the ground.
Try the kipping pull-up.
Popular in CrossFit, the kipping pull-up is when you use the momentum from a hip drive to bring your chest towards the bar.
CrossFit requires only the chest to touch the bar, not the chin, so elite athletes use a more efficient version of the strict pull-up to do more reps in less time.
To do a kipping pull-up, start in a dead hang, use your legs to swing back and forth, and, once your legs are behind you, drive your chest towards the bar using your back, as well.
Only try the kipping pull-up once you can do three sets of ten strict unbroken pull-ups. Kipping may allow you to do 20+ reps in a single set.
Remember, it’s completely different than a regular pull-up and requires a whole different guide to perfecting.
Mark Barroso is a NSCA-CPT and Spartan SGX Coach.
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