Pull-Ups Are Totally Possible! Just Follow This Plan

woman doing pull-ups in the gym

The pull-up: One of the most daunting, difficult, yet simple movements in all of physical activity, and a really common goal that people want to achieve at least once in their life. Memories of childhood P.E. classes may haunt you to this day—struggling to do something so seemingly easy in front of your peers—but if you’ve ever tried doing pull-ups, you know they’re far from easy.

And I’m talking about true pull-ups here, not the Kipping Pull-up popular at CrossFit gyms. As far as I’m concerned, swinging pull-ups are cheating—the momentum created does the work your muscles should be doing.

The truth is that only a small percentage of people can actually do a single pull-up, much less multiple. Frankly, I’m not even a huge fan of them as an exercise; there are so many alternative moves that are more efficient and easier to do with proper technique. That being said, I understand the drive to triumph over a challenge and make your elementary-school self proud. So, for those of you who want to experience that brief moment of glory—even just once—here are a few stepping stones that can help you graduate to doing a proper pull-up on your own.

Pull-Up Exercises That Get You Strong

Incorporate the exercises below into your regular strength-training routine two to three times a week. Go in order, starting with the first exercise, and after a couple of weeks—when you can do 10 good repetitions in a row—you’ll be ready to move onto the next exercise. 

CABLE LAT PULL-DOWNS

The primary muscles that you use in a pull-up are the lats (the broadest muscle of the back); the biceps and the brachioradialis (forearm) are secondary. Cable lat pull-downs will strengthen these muscles with a good amount of control.

Sit in the machine and engage your core, pulling your belly button towards your spine. Grasp the bar with both hands, palms facing forward a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull your shoulder blades down and back and lean back slightly but do not allow your back to arch. Keeping your feet firmly on the floor, drive your elbows towards the floor and pull the bar down until it reaches the top to middle of your chest. Pause then slowly return to the starting position. Try 3 to 4 sets of 15-20 reps.

MACHINE- OR BAND-ASSISTED PULL-UP

machine-assisted pull-ups

Many pull-up machines allow you set a counter-balance by adjusting the amount of weight the machine will lift for you. The lower you place the pin, the more weight of the stack you’ll use, and the more assistance you’ll be receiving. The actual amount of resistance you’re working against is the difference between your weight and the weight on the machine. If you weigh 160 pounds and the pin is set on 80 pounds, for example, you’re working against 80 pounds of force and effectively lifting 1/2 of your bodyweight over the bar. By gradually lowering the amount of weight you’re using for assistance, you’ll progress towards your first pull-up.

Set it to the lowest amount possible that allows you to complete 10 reps a set. Then, with your hands grasping the pull-up handles, palms facing each other, carefully lift your knees one at a time to place them on the padded knee rest. Engage your abs, pulling your belly button towards your spine. Roll your shoulders down and back. Slowly pull yourself up as far as possible and then slowly return to the starting position. Your arms should almost be straight. Do 3 to 4 sets of as many reps as possible, making sure you can do at least 5 reps each set.

If you don’t have access to a pull-up machine, you can make your own by securely attaching a heavy-duty resistance band to a pull-up station. The band will assist you in lifting your body weight.

ECCENTRIC CHIN-UP (NEGATIVES)

eccentric pull-up

One way to progress on your path to a pull-up is by integrating chin-ups into your routine. You’ll start engaging and strengthening your lats (the largest muscle of the back, located on either side), but the palms forward (supinated) grip and narrower hand positioning will make the movement easier by allowing you to recruit your biceps for added support. The eccentric, lowering motion will force you to keep tension on as long as possible.

Use a stool or bench to boost yourself to a starting position at the top of a pull up, and then slowly lower yourself back down until your arms are straight. You’re essentially doing the second half of a pull up. Do a set of 20, then 15, then 10, and then 5.

FULL CHIN-UP

full pull-up

Now that you’ve mastered the negative, slow-release motion, it’s time to start from the bottom up with a full chin-up. Done correctly, it will help build your back and biceps while engaging your triceps, shoulders, and even core.

Stand under the pull-up bar with your arms overhead, palms facing you. Reach, jump or lift your body off the floor to grasp the handles firmly. (I find that grip options are very personal, and while some can do a traditional wide-grip pull-up, others have an easier time with a narrow-grip pull-up. Do what feels best for you.) Engage your core, pulling your belly button towards your spine, and pull your shoulders back and down. Slowly bend your elbows and pull your body upward. Keep your body in a straight line and try to avoid swinging. When your chin is level with the bar or your hands, pause, and then slowly return to the starting position. Once you’re able to perform one full chin-up, do 4 to 5 sets of as many reps as you can twice a week to keep improving.

Now that you’ve mastered these four movements, it’s time to attempt your first full pull-up. Hop on the bar, engage your lats, and lift!

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