The pull up is one of the best upper body exercises. It’s also one of the toughest ones to perform when you have minimal gym or sports background.
There are many different reasons why it's considered the best for upper body: the strength you develop from it is easily transferable to every day life, it works the biggest muscle of the upper body as well as many other muscles, it's a body weight exercise that requires minimal equipment and finally is a great injury prevention exercise when done properly.
The issue is that unlike most gym exercises, you cannot adjust the weight you move. If you look at an exercise like the bench press or the squat, when you did it with weights for the first time, maybe you used 20-40 pounds for the bench and similar weight for the squat. When you became good at those weights, you went heavier.
You cannot do the same with the pull up, since you automatically have to start with your body weight!
Say you weight 130 pounds, and assuming your first bench press weight was 40 pounds, the relative intensity of your starting pull up is 325% tougher. Keep that in mind next time you are struggling: pull ups are very, very hard for beginners.
Let’s take a look at how we can break it down and make it feasible for everyone.
Which muscles are you working?
The main muscle worked the the lats, biceps, traps and rhomboids. There are many other muscles involved like the trees major, brachioradialis, the brachialis, the core muscles and also, the pecs. The weird sounding ones help stabilize the elbow joint and the pecs and core stabilize the shoulder joint. When performing the pull up and any of it’s variation, it’s good to feel the pecs and core muscle flexing for that reason.
Yes but I can’t even do one rep by myself?
I hear yea, and I’ll tell you a few things about how to get there.
Yes, they do matter. If you have longer arms, it will be tougher to do them. It will always be possible though so let’s look at the other aspects.
You will practice for a long time with very minimal results. Remember what was said in the intro about why this is hard. The learning curve with this exercise is very slow.
So how long are we talking about here? This will vary greatly from one person to the next depending on training frequency, technique and lifestyle. To give you a rough idea though, when I started lifting, it took me over a year to bench my own body weight.
When learning a new skill, whether it's a new physical exercise or anything else, a language, a new mental skill, a new hobby, you must spend time doing it repetitively. Reserve 10-15 minutes of all your workouts to be dedicated towards improving your pull ups.
Exercises to get your first pull up
There's a video at the end of the post that summarizes all the exercises we will talk about. You will be able to see how they are performed, but first, let's go over a few things.
Stay in control!
Tempo will be critical to see the quickest improvement. Remember that we use tempo to eliminate all sort of momentum. Using momentum while practice pull ups is as effective as throwing rocks at a guitar hoping to get a nice sound. So far all the following exercises, make sure you stay in control the whole time with a good tempo.
You want to go a little slower than the usual 2-0-2-0, you can keep the way up at 2 count and play around with the way down and try 2-1-4-0. This means you would pull yourself up for 2 counts, pause for one count and lower yourself for 4 counts and have no pause at the bottom.
You want to add a pause at the top of your reps because it will help engage the targeted muscles. During that pause, you should be feeling your arms and back putting in some work.
Assisted pull ups
The strategy is to find ways to make your body lighter with the help of machines and bands to be able to work your way up from there.
The only trick with assisted pull ups, is to start with am engaged core. Because you don’t need as much stabilization with assisted variations, people often forget to engage the core and pecs. So they get really good at the pull up machine but their new strength doesn’t transfer to the pull up bar.
How do you know your core and pecs aren’t engaged? If you are able to “bounce” the start of the movement, using the elastic to propel you upwards, then you are not engaging properly. You want to use the bands/machine as a mean to facilitate your rep, not to do the work for you.
So make sure start with an engage torso and to pull your elbows down and back! Another common mistake with assisted pull ups is the elbow going down and forward with the bum sticking out. That will do absolutely no good under the pull up bar.
Pull up machine
Resistance band pull up
There are 3 grips you can choose from while performing this exercise, from easiest to hardest:
1. Parallel grip
2. Reverse grip
3. Normal grip
I would recommend doing all your practice pull ups with mostly the parallel grip with some underhand. The over hand grip places more emphasis on the back and you won’t be able to use your arms as much to help.
An auxiliary exercise, or assistant exercise, is one that will work the same muscle group from a different angle. An auxiliary exercise for the squat could be lunges or Bulgarian split squat, for the bench press it can be the flies or dips and for the pull up, my favourite one is the reverse grip lat pull down, the hammer curl and the single arm kneeling cable row.
Reverse grip lat pull down
In this one, you put your upper body in a very similay position as a regular pull up, so the same rules apply:
- Engage your core and pecs, and most importantly, do not swing your whole body backwards to help you get the bar down.
- Pull you elbows down and back.
- Get the bar close to your chest, well below the chin.
Single arm kneeling cable row
This exercise is one of the best to isolate the lats and make them stronger.
- Pull the handle towards you, with you elbow staying close to your body.
- Finish with your torso up right, lats contracted like crazy, and slowly start the rep again.
This exercise works your biceps in the exact same manner as a parallel grip pull up. The strength you develop will be transferable to your pull ups.
As with all curl type exercises:
- Stay in control of the rep, avoid swinging your arms
- Extend your arms fully at the end of the movement to work on the full range of motion of the biceps
- Stare people down
Once you feel comfortable with the assisted pull ups and auxiliary exercises, it’s time to bring out the big guns.
Eccentric pull up
See video for demo (skip to 2:50)
The term eccentric refers the portion of the rep in which you muscles lengthen and stretch. For the pull ups, it’s when you lower your body from the top of the bar.
In order to know if you are ready for this type of training, see if you can hold yourself up, chin over bar in a pull up position, for at least 10 seconds. If you pass that test, you can think about incorporating eccentric exercises to your pull up plan.
In order to do an eccentric pull up, use a box that you can stand on to bring you as close to the top position as possible. Once you are in position, just let your feet gently off the box, and lower your body SLOWLY to the ground. An eccentric rep should be at least 5 seconds long. Then step on the box again and start over.
You can start with 3 reps in a row and then take a big break. Once you can do 5 eccentric reps, either try a full regular pull up, or add a dumbbell in between your legs and start over from 3 reps.
Check out the video for full demonstration of the exercises
If you can already do a few pull ups and want to increase your number of reps, here are two different protocol you can use:
1. One set method
Do 1 set, maximum amount or reps every day. I like this one because it’ll take you less than a minute to do. Make sure every time you do you set, you go all out. You won’t hit a new record every single day so get that idea out of your head now. However, with consistency you will see the number go up slowly.
What I don’t like about this is that in order to be effective, you do need to do it every day.
2. Ten sets method
Better for people that can only workout 2-3 times a week as it is more time consuming. Do your first set with a number of reps the feel comfortable. Rest 1 minute and then go again. Do that for 10 sets. Maybe that means you only do 1 pull up per set, maybe you do 4 or 5, what’s important is that you can do the same amount of reps every set. Once you can do this, then you can add 1 rep to each set for your next workout. Instead of doing 1, you now do 2. Now say you can only do 4 sets with 2 reps and then you have to go back to 1 rep. All you have to do is to keep increasing the amount of sets you can do with 2 reps. So next workout you can maybe do 6 sets with 2 reps. The workout after that it’s 9 sets. The goal here is to add the total number of pull ups you do per workout.
15 minutes pull up workout
Try this workout next time you want to practice your pull ups.
Remember, the focus is on the technique first, then once you have correct technique you can add the weight.
Invest the time to be able to do a pull up. The process will be slow, and at times it’ll feel like you’re not achieving much, but like anything tough, you need to trust the process. Monitor your progress by using smaller bands, lighter weights on the pull machine or improving your eccentric pull ups by either adding weight or reps to your sets.
The biggest issue people have is with their TECHNIQUE! Most of you have the strength already, and need to focus on engaging all the right muscles. Remember its not just lats and arms. During you assisted pull ups, focus on technique more than anything. Use more assistance if you need to and trust me, the strength will come.
Enjoy the gains,