Pull-ups are one of the most intimidating strength training exercises, but just like with anything and everything, all it takes is time and practice. Having the right information will help you be on the right path to achieving your very first pull-up and the best way to explain how to get there is by comparing it to learning how to ride a bike.
When it comes to riding a bike (and doing pull-ups), there are three things that will hold you back from achieving success...
1. You don't use your training wheels.
2. You try to pedal with one foot.
3. You try to go uphill in the highest gear.
It might not make sense now, but overcoming these challenges will help you achieve pull-up success faster. Let's break this down so it makes more sense...
Ease into it
We all know that the smoothest way to learn to ride a bike is by training wheels. But what if kids never had training wheels?? Learning would come with a lot more road rash, bruises, and tears. They might even quit because of how discouraging the pain is.
When it comes to pull-ups, you're that kid. Your muscles are just barely learning to do pull-ups, but you don’t ease into it. You just go for a regular pull-up and fail. You try again and fail. You can only take so much disappointment, so you move on. But you shouldn't! You just need a proper strength training program that will help you build upper body strength so you can conquer your first full-up!
Here are 5 pull-up training wheels that you should include in your training program:
Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Before hitting the pull-up bar, you should complete the most basic of back exercises! This training wheel is mostly for those who are starting from square one. Bent-over dumbbell rows are compound, functional exercises that target your upper and middle back muscles. So it's an essential back exercise that beginners should conquer before trying to perform a pull-up.
Pick a weight that allows you to perform at least 5 reps for each set. Do three sets with 8 or more reps while gradually increasing the weight. Once you can comfortably perform 3 sets of 8 reps with 25lb dumbbells and proper form then you can move onto assisted pull-ups!
Extra tip: Add a variety of back exercises to make sure you're targeting all muscle groups. Other great exercises to train before doing pull-ups are - lat pulldowns, hollow hold, TRX row.
Assisted Pull-up Machine
This machine lets you do pull-ups without having to lift your whole body. It supports your knees or feet and gives you a shorter path to CRUSHING pull-ups.
How it works: These assisted machines let you set a counter-balance by adjusting the amount of weight the machine will lift for you. So the lower you place the pin, the more assistance there is. Set a weight that allows you to perform 10 proper pull-ups. Keep your shoulders rolled down and back, pull yourself all the way up, and then return to the starting position, your arms should be straight. As you progress, you'll start gradually decreasing the weight you're using for assistance so eventually, you won't need the assistance!
Long Resistance Band
This is a great option for those who don't have an assisted pull-up machine at the gym! Resistance bands are an elastic band that hangs from a pull-up bar, you stick your foot through it and then you pull yourself up with the assistance of the band (just like the assisted pull-up machine).
Few tips to keep in mind:
- Keep your core tight and try not to swing like crazy.
- Your shoulder blades should be pinched behind you throughout the entire movement.
- Get a resistance band set with a variety of resistance levels, that way you can decrease the resistance the stronger you get.
Once you can properly perform 3 sets of 8 reps then you're on track to your first pull-up!
This one makes it so you don’t need any more equipment if you already have your pull-up bar at home! You can put your feet in front of you and rest them on a chair so that it supports some of your weight. Your feet are only there for support, try to use as much of your upper body strength as possible. You can start by putting both feet on the chair, then work your way to only having one foot on the chair.
If none of these suit your style, you can always find a lower pull-up bar and jump up to grab it. Try to jump high enough so that your chest almost touches the bar. Then, lower yourself as slowly as you can. This is known as a negative pull-up! If you don't have a lower bar then just put a bench or chair under a pull-up bar. Get onto the chair, grab onto the bar with an overhand grip, jump so your chest touches the bar, then slowly lower yourself down.
This one is sure to get your back and biceps burning hot! Just remember to keep your speed controlled when lowering yourself down.
You can either choose one or do all of these training wheel exercises! Try all of them to see which method works best for you.
Engage all muscles
Let's continue with the bike analogy... When you’re biking you have two pedals and you use BOTH of your legs to push BOTH of the pedals, so why not do the same with pull-ups?
There isn’t just one set of muscles that lift you up, there are many. We all know that your back is the main contributor, but pull-ups even target your biceps, shoulders, and chest. Not using these muscles is just as silly as biking to work with one leg.
The easiest way to engage some of these other muscle groups is to do pull-ups with your palms facing you, and your hands about shoulder width apart. This lets your biceps lift some of the load off your back, letting you see improvement quicker.
Take it slow
So you know how bikes have gears, right? The higher the gear you’re using, the more difficult it is to peddle. The upside of this is that you go much faster, but since it’s so much harder you rarely use high gears when going uphill without doing it the wrong way. Slowing down, doing it the right way, and going up the hill in a lower gear is what will actually get you to the top.
It’s the same with your pull-up goals. Most of the time, the inability to do a pull-up has everything to do with your form. You need to take it slow and do it right rather than just pushing and seeing how fast you can get to 5 pull-ups with horrible form.
Here is a guide to help you achieve proper form:
- Keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip.
- Do a "dead hang" under the bar. This just means hang freely, relaxing your shoulders and lats, but keep your core tight.
- Make sure to keep your shoulder blades pinched behind you.
- Push your elbows down and back, then pull your chest up towards the bar. Maintain your core tight and engaged.
- Once you reach the top, pause, and then stay controlled and slowly lower yourself down.
Aside from that, remember to go through the full range of motion - Letting your arms go straight at the bottom of the move and touching your chest to the bar at the top. Compare your form to this guide to help you find what you need to correct in order to achieve full range of motion.
Bottom line is, to achieve your goal of performing the perfect pull-up, use your training wheels, engage all muscles, take it slow and make sure your form is correct because at the end of the day 15 bad pull-ups will never be better than two good ones. Another key factor in perfecting pull-ups is having an effective workout plan that will help you gradually build strength. Doing all of this will make pull-ups as easy as learning how to ride a bike 😜
P.S. If you need help planning an effective workout routine that is goal-focused, then the Fit With Iulia app will be your new best friend. Iulia (IG: @fit.with.iulia) plans new goal-focused workouts every week, so you never have to think about planning a workout again! The first workout for every goal is available for everyone to try for free! Pick your fitness goal, and try it out yourself!