By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
Pull-ups are a great way to change your body composition. Are you looking to turn heads in a strapless dress or a tank top? Some hard work and proper pull-up training can help you build the strong, defined back and shoulders that others can only dream of. Okay. Obviously this all sounds good, but thinking and doing are two completely different things. .If you’re struggling to even complete your first pull-up, you can take some pointers below.
The first thing I’m going to need you to do is to eliminate “can’t” from your vocabulary. I refuse to let you get in the way of your own success with self-limiting beliefs. Yes; performing a pull-up can be difficult, but when training for them both regularly and the right way, they aren’t impossible. The movement itself looks simple, but it is fairly complex and a true example of the strength we possess when we can get our body to work as one unit. In addition to reaching your desired physique, I can not think of many goals cooler than getting very strong and breaking through your limitations.
When it comes to performing a pull-up, total body tension is key. With more muscles engaged, there are less energy leaks, and movement is more efficient. Some common mistakes I see are lack of lat engagement at the start of the pull, lack of strength & full body tension during the pull, and finally lack of drive at the finish. This won’t be easy and it will take time, but the feeling of knocking out your first one is amazing. Here are 4 exercises to get you closer to completing your first pull-up.
Before we can get you crushing your first pull-up, you need to be comfortable hanging from the bar. This will help you enhance your grip and forearm strength, while also being beneficial for your shoulder integrity. Start out with a passive hang (shoulders fully relaxed) and then eventually build up to active hangs. In this position, work on engaging the lats and packing your shoulders into your sockets, while maintaining total body tension (squeeze your glutes, abs, quads, pump up your biceps, etc). Remember: the tighter the body, the easier the movement. Build up to being able to hold these positions for 3 sets of 30 seconds.
Your row strength will correlate to your ability to do pull ups. While I definitely recommend throwing movements into your programs like DB single arm rows and barbell rows, I’m a big fan of using suspension trainers to build up your horizontal pulling prowess. This exercise can do a great job of building up the upper back muscles like the rear delts, scapular retractors, and shoulder external rotators in an easily adjustable/non-intimidating manner. Start slow, but then build up to being able to do strict rows utilizing almost all of your body weight. Build up to being able to do 10 rows with your body straight and your feet elevated. I highly recommend the TRX training system ($99) if you don’t already have one:
When you can’t complete a pull-up, performing negatives or focusing on the eccentric (descending) portion of the pull-up is a great way to build strength. These are tough, and will definitely leave you sore—but it will all be worth it. Negatives begin with the elbows flexed at the top of the movement and progress to a slow, strict and controlled descent all the way to the bottom. Build up to being able to do 3 sets of 3-5 reps with a 5 second eccentric.
It never hurts to have a helping hand! I have seen tremendous pull-up results utilizing resistance bands with my clients. The thing with these is that you just need to be strategic with how you use them. You don’t want to become fully dependent on them, and you want to develop strength in the toughest part of the movement (the initial pull from the bottom). I utilize a combination of resistance banded and jump pull-ups with an eccentric focus. I think the two in tandem allow for proper technique work, increasing the volume of pull-up practice, and strength building throughout the movement. I don’t think you could go wrong with the bands from wodfitters ($10.99-109.00 for various sizes and combination packs):