The Definitive Guide for the Everyday Girl who Wants to Pull Herself All the Way Up
by Allyson Goble
BodyTribe Fitness Head Trainer
Oh, the elusive pull up.
You want to do one, but.. but.. they’re so HARD to do!
I hear you, I do. I’m a female trainer who’s trained for them and I hear it frequently from the girls (and yes, some men), this goal of doing a pull up. Whether it’s your first one ever or you used to be able to do one or more and want to again (usually the former), it’s a common goal that’s often treated like a wish upon a falling star. I had the very same goal when I started to seriously work out in my early-30’s almost 10 years ago and became a trainer. I couldn’t do a darn one.
So we know women’s upper body strength is not as easy to develop as, say, someone with testosterone running through their system. But, so? Name one woman who hasn’t already learned the lesson that sometimes you have to work harder for things in this life, fair or not, but the pay off is that you are STRONGER.
I’m going to share how I learned to do pull ups and had success training a variety of women of all ages, sizes and abilities to do them, or start effectively training to do one.
How about a few FAQ’s right off the bat?
Let’s start with one of MY frequently asked questions for YOU, the discouraged, wannabe, soon-to-be puller upper:
Have you actually trained for one?
As the most common answer, ‘Not really,’ is generally preceded by a sheepish grin and a revelatory pause, I am tempted to advise something like, “Hey, pull ups don’t just HAPPEN y’know; you have to work at them.” But the truth is that sometimes the right factors come together and they do happen for women, for people, who haven’t really had to work on them. The majority of us simply have to train, and treat it like the max effort lift it truly is. If you feel like you have been training and are not getting anywhere, let’s see what we can tweak about your program design and/or technique.
What’s the difference between a pull up and a chin up? Is one better to do than the other?
Let’s keep it simple.
Pull ups: palms face away from you with a wide grip. Chin ups: palms face you and the grip is generally just outside your shoulders. Chin ups are considered a slightly easier pull because the arms play a bigger role in the game. Pull ups are often considered harder, especially if your shoulders are internally rotated or across the board if you have not developed lat strength, the main power source for your pull.
Here’s what I say: It is the main job of the lats, the layman’s term for the broadest (latissimus) muscle in your back (dorsum), to bring your elbows into your ribs regardless of the grip. If you can’t do at least one of either type, pick the grip that feels most natural right off the bat and go with it for a while. I WILL advise you to try both during your pull up journey.
Can girls really do a pull up?
If that girl trains hard with a goal, yes! And that goes for that guy over there who can’t do one either! To give some perspective, in a deadlift you get to use your entire posterior chain. It’s the most commonly met goal for both men AND women, deadlifting your bodyweight. A pull up is limited to your upper body as the power source and you’re asking it to lift your bodyweight. It’s possible; it simply requires training, time and tenacity. Simple does not equal easy! Having this mindset will help immensely.
Will losing some weight help me do a pull up?
Well, as a body weight exercise, of course it will help if you are lighter! But it will help if you are stronger at the movement and that is our goal here.
Since intense activity and building muscle (along with that stellar diet I just KNOW you’re working on) result in fat loss, training for a pull up will help with fat loss goals. It’s a win-win.
How long will it take to be able to do one?
That depends on your intent and determination firstly now, doesn’t it?
This, along with your natural ability and genetics, your past and current strengths, and the consistency and intensity of how you effectively train for one will reveal your own unique timetable as you go. I strongly suggest tracking your efforts and acknowledging the tiny victories along the way, for there will be plenty of them.
So who the heck am I and why am I saying I know what I’m talking about?
I couldn’t do a pull up to save my own or any one else’s life when I started to train at Bodytribe Fitness (www.bodytribe.com) 9-odd years ago. I frankly had never even thought of doing one. Until becoming a client I’d had very, very little true prior fitness experience. I’m an artist and musician first. I’d say I have a fairly natural amount of athletic ability but I’d only dabbled, and barely.
Currently, I’m 44 years old and BodyTribe Head Trainer with the nickname ‘The Technician’. I’m a powerlifter and coach with a passion for weightlifting and teaching it. My first area of great concentration was powerlifting, my seminal experience mapping out and tackling goals with measured success. For anyone curious, I’m 5’7″ and fluctuate near 130 lbs. I can now do multiple chin ups and pull ups.
While I was healing back issues from a skateboarding fall I started to really explore upper body strength including the bench press, which I was also competing in. I started concentrating on where I could push myself, literally in some cases, with presses of any and all types–bench, incline, overhead, push ups and all variations of these lifts. You name it, I’d try pressing it: different types of overhead strength from carries to old school and odd lifts–windmills, side presses, handstands, bottom’s up kettlebell presses, get ups, farmer’s walks and other stabilizing exercises. I was also working on my rowing strength, and I started to get stronger in all of these areas than ever before, if ever at all.
I’ve benched my bodyweight and then some, which is a significant benchmark for women (pun intended). You wouldn’t guess it to look at me. And when I first started training, the 45 pound bar seemed incredibly heavy! A pull up seemed SO hard, and along the way it started to kind of piss me off. So I made it a goal. And trust me, I was starting from scratch.
That said, training a variety of presses and pulls and doing max effort lifts with many of them were imperative to my pull up goal and should be a part of any pull up program. I’m not saying you have to do everything I listed that I’ve done in order to do pull ups, but if you’re not exploring one rep max lifts it’s gonna be a longer road.
In powerlifting you combine max effort lifting, the heaviest weight you can conquer ONE time(also heavy triples and other lower rep schemes leading up to this), and dynamic effort, or speed work. Again, in layman’s terms, in max work you lift as heavy as you can to failure with one rep, training the central nervous system and all appropriate muscles to fire that way. In speed work you train the muscles to fire quickly with a load that allows you to generate speed for several short sets.
The marriage of these two types of efforts plus supplemental lifts that assist or strengthen weaker parts of a lift truly results in stronger one rep max lifts. So I thought well, if you’re wanting to train what is initially a one rep max pull up, why not apply some of the principals of powerlifting?
If you’ve ever tried and failed to do a pull up, you know the exertion felt is a 9 or 10 on an intensity scale of 1-is-light-and-10-is-failure. Sometimes it’s 11.
I like to train the pull up with the principals of powerlifting combined with the Bodytribe basic template for program design, using what we call the Spectrum of Strength. Simply put, or as simply as I can, the Spectrum of Strength encompasses every rep scheme possible. At one end there is this one rep max we’ve discussed, and at the other end is low-level force development over a long duration: think marathons, triathalons and the like. In between these two opposite points lie many, many other rep schemes to play with, including the most popularly used 8-12 rep scheme yet hardly limited to that.
The basic Bodytribe template concept plays along the spectrum. It includes working on or toward a one rep max, a lift done for repetition and a combination of lifts to aid in what’s called General Physical Preparedness (a place in the workout to play with different types of force development, variables, complexes, and skill sets), all in the same workout. The pull up can fit in all of these scenarios quite well making you a better Puller Upper, so to speak.
We’ll address those who cannot do a pull up first, as well as those who want to make sure they’re doing it properly before they train for more. Now is a good time to reiterate that I do recommend a well-rounded workout ritual, meaning one that involves a variety of movements and set & rep schemes, cultivates stronger flexibility and mobility skills, and incorporates sufficient recovery and active countering of tension patterns.
In other words, promise you won’t just work on pull ups all the live long days. Unless you want to experiment with some heinous tension patterns and possible injury. Cool?
I. HOW TO GET STARTED
A. Lat Pull Downs
Most folks with a gym membership have access to a lat pull down machine. Most of these folks have pulled that bar down in one way or another. While it is virtually the same movement as a pull up, there is technique involved and it is a vastly different feeling to pull your actual bodyweight up to an actual bar. Use this sucker properly in the beginning and continue to pepper your pull up program with it if you so desire. It’s a great way for a beginner to understand good form to take TO the bar, and invaluable if you don’t have easy access to a bar but want to train.
On the flipside there is a strange phenomenon noticed by folks in ‘the biz': big muscle-bound dudes that look like they could do multiple, actual pull ups but are hogging the pull down machines and rarely going for the real deal. Just an aside: it’s a strange trend and mildly annoying to those who would gladly blast out a few pull ups on a bar if they could. Remember folks, the bar is the real deal. Machines, shmachines. Ultimately, take it to the bar.
Speaking of pull down bars though, the long bar is the most common and there is quite a variety of bars, all of merit for different reasons. The narrow-handled bar can be more comfortable for certain shoulders, especially ones with ‘issues’. Try different ones!
So what does it mean to use this machine properly?
Grip the bar pull up or chin up style and sit with the hips close to directly under the bar if not slightly behind it. Try to replicate hanging from an actual pull up bar. Be careful not to lean back too far during the pull, turning it in to a row instead. We try to do this because we tend to be stronger rowers horizontally toward the chest. Always grip the bar as tightly as you can with a true ‘palm grip’. Some folks don’t even realize they are gripping it mostly with their fingers. If you grip the bar tight, you can concentrate better on pulling with your back, rather than just your arms.
The next instruction is mostly for learning purposes; we’ll do away with it once its goal of ‘lat awareness’ is met. With a tight palm grip, extend your arms fully above your head and release the shoulders, feeling a nice scapular stretch. Try to get your shoulders, namely your upper traps that help you shrug, as close to your ears as possible. Now look up at the bar creating an upper back arch and ‘pack’ your shoulders down and back, ‘down’ being the most operative word. One of my favorite cues is to ‘slide your shoulder blades down your spine’ and then try to contract your lats. If you’re not sure where your lats are, Google break here. Then try to create the biggest range of motion from your shoulders as high as you can take ‘em to as low as you can and then hold them there throughout the pull.
Now we’ve told the upper traps to lay off so our lats can learn to work. Remember the job of the lats is to bring our elbows in to our ribs. Another cue is try to ‘put your elbows in your back pockets’ as you lower the bar. Try your best to keep your elbows from winging outward on both the concentric portion (the down pull) as well as the eccentric (the up). This also helps facilitate keeping the shoulders, your ‘shrug and stress’ muscles, from kicking in. Be aware that they will try to; they have a lot of practice firing already and will think they can do the job. Consciously and consistently tell them to stay down and correct them when they try to help too much. “Retrain” them.
The lats are a major muscle mass in our body that are underused along with the rest of our posterior chains in this culture of stress and sitting too much. If we can train them well, they will serve us well in our goal! I’ve also found that men often rely on the strength of their arms alone to pull them up. If they’d train true lat strength, not only will they have better form but ultimately quality AND more quantity.
If you use a pull up grip, avoid pushing forward with your forearms as the bar gets close to your chest; it is an unneeded, extra movement. Bring the bar under just your chin without jutting said chin forward and that goes for any grip you choose. If I could, I’d rename chin ups ‘Chest Ups’ to emphasize this. Think of bringing your chest to the bar, though it doesn’t have to touch. I strained my scalenes, small muscles in my neck, early in my pull up career. Avoid this step. Ouch. It’s definitely a set back because of recovery time, plus any injury has the possibility to become a mental as well as physical roadblock.
Keep your chest out when you pull. If your chest is out it’s harder to flex, or round, your back and crunch your belly to get the bar down when your back gets tired. If you are training with any thing other than proper form you’re wasting your precious time, assuming your time is at least somewhat precious.
One more note here: do not pull the bar behind the head unless you have the shoulder flexibility and postural awareness to maintain proper form. If not you’re probably craning your chin forward to get your head out of the way of the bar which is what we’ve discussed trying to avoid!
C. Controlling the Bar Back Up
Once you get the bar down, check your shoulder blades to make sure they are still down and back, and control the bar back up. We’re re-checking this ‘shoulder pack’, as we’re calling it, to make sure the upper traps don’t kick in on the way up either. It’s our general theme here: they will try to kick in, especially when the muscles at hand are fatiguing. Don’t let ‘em! And don’t just let the weight on the bar help you bring the bar back up. ‘Controlling the bar up’ means it’s you in charge.
D. Do It Again, As In Frequently and In a Buncha Different Ways
This really is a great way to start. You can do this lighter for reps at first, heavier for fewer reps when form is under control and everything else in between. Use pull downs with these different rep schemes, different handles for variation, and also for negative pulls, discussed a little later.
Speaking of variations, here’s an idea for an occasional high rep exercise (with the agreement that this comes ONLY after you feel like you have a solid understanding and execution of proper form). The lat pull down drop set is a nice way to get in a little workload that will challenge your endurance and technique as you tire. Warm up nice and light for a handful of reps. Then choose a weight you know will feel fairly heavy right off the bat. Do as many as you can until you can no longer maintain proper form. If it’s too many more than 6 or so reps, go heavier the next time. Immediately drop the weight down to the next lightest and repeat. Finally, drop it down a third time and concentrate on volume with excellent execution. You’re done when your form breaks; do not keep going. Honestly, you probably won’t want to! Only one drop set round is needed.
II. THE REAL DEAL
Lat pull downs are lat pull downs but they ain’t pull ups. Let’s move to the bar and start working with it as early on as possible. It’s the real deal and will feel a lot different than a machine for sure. Though there are machines that will help you do a pull up we prefer bands, usually used in power lifting, for training on a bar. Why? Mostly because they’re not a huge expense and you won’t have to rely on a place that has a machine. Have bands, will travel.
Bands will help you go through the full range of motion of a pull up if you can’t do it on your own. They come in different sizes and help everybody differently according to one’s height and weight, and two or more can be used at once. A great place to get powerlifting bands is www.ironwoody.com and it’s nice to have a couple choices of sizes so you can control how much help you’re getting. Without bands a friend can help, but having bands ensures you can train whenever you want.
To use a band, loop it through itself on the bar, stand on a box or bench and step both feet into it at the bottom.
A. Gripping the Bar
Let’s get real basic. Firstly, can you grip the bar and hang? Fingers AND thumbs around the bar is ultimately a stronger grip but the fingers-only ‘suicide grip’ seems natural to some. Can you hang there for a little bit? You want a YES for each of those questions before pull ups are ever gonna happen. Pull up training is a grip strengthener itself, so that will improve as you go.
If you can’t hang with ‘packed shoulders’ so that it doesn’t feel like your arms are going to rip out of their sockets or you simply drop quickly with lack of control, you will want to just do some hang practice. In tougher cases, heavier lat pull downs will be the place to start, as well as using a band while simply hanging from the bar.
If you’re okay at hanging with packed shoulders without using a band but want to work on a better grip, time how many seconds you can hang before your grip or your shoulders give out and keep trying to beat that time. When your grip gets stronger, doing knee or leg raises hanging from the bar until your grip tires is an excellent supplemental pull up/grip training option. Especially on days where your lats are sore from prior training!
The question of whether or not to wear lifting gloves comes up a lot. Depends on the person. I personally covet my calluses and know that I can do pull ups (or garden, or play guitar) better with hands that are used to going bare to the tool. Besides what if you don’t have your gloves with you and a pull up bar is staring you in the face?
I recommend guerilla pull up training: reliance on as little assistance as possible and try pulling yourself up to anything you can. A pole? A tree branch? With consistent training, ya never know when or where that first pull up will happen. But remember when it does: stop, drop and do the Pull Up Dance, which you make up right there on the spot.
It’s a good time to mention that if you cannot jump from the ground up to a standard-height pull up bar and get a solid grip, this should also be a goal to commit time to. This of course depends on your own relative height. For folks on the underside of a certain point on the measuring tape, maybe a box or a boost will be a mainstay to which I say once again: So what? Just make sure the height of that box still requires you to jump a bit to the bar. Cool.
If and when you can hang from the bar with relative ease and control, this exercise will simulate our work on the lat pull down machine. Hanging from the bar with packed shoulders, let the ‘pack’ go and feel a stretch through the shoulders before packing your shoulders down and back again. Try this for reps to get stronger at this starting movement alone. Note this can also be done with a light band if needed.
Same as above but we’re taking it a tad further. After the hang and then the pack, well…Pull!
Okay, let’s discuss. If you can’t do a pull up, you’re probably not gonna get very far. YET. And THAT is what this exercise is for. Don’t worry about making it all the way to the bar; even just a third or half way up is absolutely fine. Then lower yourself with control and hang-pack-pull again.
This movement can be done for reps to train the beginning portion of the pull up using bands for a small range of motion or without bands just to see how far you might get and start training that type of exertion. The emphasis is not to reach the bar, but you want to exert like you are trying to reach the bar. The intensity is the key. If you don’t start to train for the very tough exertion of a full range of motion pull up, it probably won’t happen.
Pulling yourself up a tiny bit or no distance at all for one or some of these reps has absolute merit. Even a Static Pull, pulling and exerting for a few seconds even if you go nowhere, is still extremely helpful in terms of training your body for the intensity this pull up will require. This is all about training the bottom of how every single pull will start by deconstructing the lift and working on a portion of it, like in powerlifting and other sports.
A reminder at this point about the form you learned on the lat pull down machine is in order here. Remember not to shrug yourself up. Put your brain in your lats and pull from there.
D. Pull Ups, Full Range of Motion with Assistance
Okay, with the appropriate amount of band or otherwise assistance to make it so, let’s go for some reps of the entire movement. All the way up you go this time.
At first start with the hang, then the pack, then the complete pull and control yourself down checking your upper traps constantly along the way. Try to generate speed going up without forfeiting form. ‘Use your breath’ by inhaling and engaging your belly before you pull. Exhale about halfway up; this will keep you tighter for the exertion rather than exhaling the entire time you pull. Repeat for whatever rep scheme you have determined!
You have choices here. If you’re getting assistance from bands: use the stretch reflex, or bounce, of the bands on the way up every time or control yourself down to a complete stop, a ‘dead hang’, before each pull. You can also choose to unpack your shoulders at the bottom, repack and pull like we discussed for the lat pull down machine when you’re first learning as well. I recommend trying that for a while and then work on just trying to keep your shoulders packed throughout the lift soon. It’s a nice lesson in the beginning.
E.Tips About Technique Plus Requisite Reminders
Try not to let your feet swing forward too much when in bands; you’ll lean back and row yourself up which is not quite a pull up, is it?! Using the box you most likely used to step up to the bar to block your feet and keep you from swinging can be helpful. Mostly you want to really concentrate on thinking about pulling from your back, from your lats. Here’s the requisite reminder that on the way down you want to make sure the upper traps aren’t kicking in.
A common thing to feel when first starting out is excess fatigue in the forearms and arms in general. More lats, less arms. That’s hard in the beginning. Also, if your grip is too narrow during chin ups it will be hard to engage the lats and the arms will try to take over. Try hands in line with or just outside the shoulders. Beware of an unfortunate and common consequence of overtraining and/or poor form: elbow tendonitis. If this happens, contrast bucket bathing and deep tissue massage are your new friends, plus a renewed commitment to good form and proper recovery.
Create an upper back (thoracic) arch and think not of craning your neck toward the bar but of bringing your chest up it. The smaller muscles in your neck cannot support your body weight so again, focus on pulling from your back. An indicator that you’re pulling from your arms too much is uneven pulling up to the bar. Your dominant arm is probably trying to take over. Chest out, rethink from your lats.
Always, always, always go for a full extension of your arms for reps. Don’t start pulling again until you’ve straightened out those arms. I call only lowering yourself three quarters of the way down ‘ego pulls’ because that’s what folks do to get more reps, going for the numbers. Numbers, shnumbers. Full range of motion is where it’s at folks. Oh it’s a bit harder, but it makes you stronger. Yup.
Another great tip is to tighten both your belly and your tush. Contracting your abdominal muscles and glutes during the pull will help give you more stability and power, and nothing centers the body like contracting this power combo will. Once you know the lift enough to actually focus on other nuances this tip will be the one that helps take you up to the top! Remember this and revisit this tip!
1. Tips for Spotting with Bands
If you do have someone to spot you using bands, have them keep your feet from swinging forward. Also, they can help push you up ever so slightly only at the top where the bands don’t help you, if appropriate for the goal. For example if you are shooting for some higher reps, say 10, and number 7 finds you close to the bar but you’re having trouble at the top, a spotter could help just a hair so you get the benefit of more full range of motion reps with intensity. On a different day or without a spotter, you might just be doing as many as you can until you can’t reach the bar. It depends on the goal of the sets. The best spotters help just enough, not too much.
E. Jump Pulls
Let’s train the top of the pull now. Not an exercise for use with bands. From the ground or most likely from a box, jump up and absorb the bar with your hands as you pull your chest to it.
Sounds doable, right? Maybe, maybe not. For some this will be tougher than for others. There are so many factors including your current strength, your height, height of the box you’re jumping from, your jumping skills, your mental attitude towards this slightly weird and possibly scary movement, your coordination and spatial relation skills to determine where that bar is in space in relation to you, etc., etc., etc.
It’s all about the doing and the practice. Come back around often to an exercise like this to see if you’re stronger is highly recommended. From one day to the next it can change if you’re really training.
If you can do a jump pull and bring your chest to the bar, you’ll want to work on controlling yourself all the way down to fully extended arms and a controlled shoulder pack. You can make it a slow, negative pull (see below) or simply work on lowering yourself down with control. Mostly I’m hoping you can jump up to the bar, pull your chest to it, work on eventually being strong enough to slightly pause at the top and check your shoulders before controlling yourself to the box again. You’ll often see jump pulls done on a high box used as a jump-up-and-drop-quickly-back-to-the-box-with-out-much-of-a-pull-at-all-a-zillion-times exercise. Yeah that’ll get your heart rate up, but let’s be more concerned with building a skill that will truly facilitate our goal.
Do not be frustrated if the jump pull takes a while. Sometimes it does. So what?
(I’m trying to toughen you up here. Watch your expectations of a timeline that might turn out different than you created in your head!)
This will train the eccentric portion of the lift, or the controlling of your body weight down to starting position so you can pull yourself up again!
This can be done with bands but of course ultimately you’ll want to be able to do this without them. Treated on its own, it starts at the top of the bar so a higher box or bench can be used and then slowly (slower than usual) control the body down to fully extended arms with shoulders packed. I like to say ‘heartbreakingly slow’, of which my clients have re-named ‘arm-breakingly slow’.
Eventually you can add a jump pull to get up to the bar and then do your negative. Of course proficiency with jump pulls helps here but if you can’t jump to the top of the bar and pause for a moment, starting up there close to the bar or simply using a lat pull down machine will have to happen first, and that’s okay! Most will start this way. Using a lat pull down machine correctly for these can be really beneficial. It’s especially effective to work with a weight that’s so heavy you have to have someone help get it to your chest where you control it up with a markedly slow pace, correcting the shoulders down and back if needed before you raise the bar. Low reps are fine for this movement, think 4-6 reps but there’s room to play either way up or down the spectrum.
The concern or even danger in a negative pull from the bar is, maybe obviously, lack of strength and control resulting in dropping too quickly and that feeling of almost pulling your arms out of the sockets. If control is even close to questionable, a band or pull down machine are great ways to get stronger here.
1.) Alternative for Negative Pulls
Say you’re sore from your last pull up session a couple days ago but you’d still like to train for them. Negative curls are a nice alternative. Hold dumbells or a barbell at your chest with your palms facing you and hands just outside your shoulders. Straighten out your back and tighten your glutes and belly to stabilize. Control the weight down very slowly to fully extended arms; think of a three-alligator count (one-alligator, two-alligator..). Lats on the whole time and you’re always checking your shoulder pack. Be careful not to hug your rib cage with your elbows for too much support, and also try not to let your elbows travel too far backward as the weights decend.
Clean the weight(s) back up by shrugging and jumping at the same time to bring the tool(s) to the starting position without curling them or using your arms and start again; save your efforts for the negative curl itself.
III. HOW TO GO ABOUT THIS WHOLE SHEBANG (Program Design and Supplemental Lift Suggestions)
If you are serious about your pull up goal, and you are if you’ve read this far, I’m recommending following a few basic strategies pretty much across the board.
However, here are your Four Golden Rules before we talk more:
#1 Always have a fair amount of control of form during the exercise before you add challenge, be that speed, reps, variations or whatever the challenge is.
#2 Ask yourself after every true ‘working set’ whether or not you achieved true intensity. A working set is the set you’ve deemed challenging but doable after a proper warm up. True intensity means out of your comfort zone. This is a work out, not a walk out in the park (or whatever else you want to put at the end of that sentence that is also not a work out).
#3 Take the time to warm up. It is also an equal sized piece of your puzzle, for any workout. We tend to rush through this important step, if we give it time at all. Give your body a head’s up for what you’re about to ask it to do. It does a lot for you; do this much for your body.
#4 Try to counter the tension patterns you may be creating when you increase specified training. This involves balanced strength and releasing tension. Example: If you’re trying to get stronger at pull ups, get stronger at its opposite movement as well, the overhead press. Have a well-rounded work out that involves several types of movements. Too much specificity can lead to said tension patterns. Releasing tension through self- or professional massage is pretty much imperative. Don’t wait until you’re a bundle of knots and HAVE to get a massage. Use a tennis ball or foam roller to manipulate your precious, hard-working muscles on a daily basis.
A. Program Design
Ideally, I recommend doing something pull up training related at least three times a week. This is simply a good, average number of days a week of training that will certainly gain you the skills you’re wanting to develop. It’s an ideal amount; one or two days is not as good, and four might be great but may also be too much to recover fully from for some folks. You know your life and your schedule. I just know your goal requires a certain amount of time, commitment and consistency.
I’ll refer to both pull ups and chin ups simply as ‘pull ups’ from here out. Do full range of motion pull ups (assisted) or pull downs for higher reps (say 6 reps and above) on one day, for lower reps (say 5 reps and below) on another day, and then something from the list of supplemental lifts (see below) on yet another day. Note that there is no order here for what to do on what day; that is to be determined by you.
Also note that the supplemental lifts can be done on any or all of your days, but at the very least as one of the three. They also come in handy if and when your lats are too sore to do more pull up work! Remember folks: recovery is no joke! It is an equal sized piece of your pull up puzzle. Don’t over train. It’s a ‘kick yourself’ setback.
I recommend trying to schedule out your workouts in 3 week cycles. This will allow you to get better and stronger at something by revisiting it and pushing it three weeks in a row. Going about something in a random fashion will wield random results. Also, there are so many set and rep schemes to treat the pull up and the reps on the pull down machine, choices of grips and bars, plus all the supplemental lifts, you’ll need and want to mix it up and will have these 3 week cycles to fit it all in.
I’ll give a examples in a bit, but first…
B. Supplemental Lifts
These are lifts that strengthen and assist your pull up skills but are not full range of motion pull ups.
1. For the beginner who is working on their very first pull up:
Timed hanging from the bar with shoulders packed.
Hanging knee or leg raises from the bar, for grip strength and callus building!
Jumping up to the bar
The Hang-Pack and the Hang-Pack-Pull
Negative pulls (on bar with bands or unassisted, and on pull down machine)
Jump Pulls (or attempts!), with or without a negative pull
Static Pulls: sustain pulling and form for a few seconds once you’ve stopped travel on the pull. Doesn’t matter if the distance you pulled is millimeters or inches; keep exerting and pulling for 5-10 seconds longer.
Presses, all kinds with tools of choice: bench press, dumbbell chest press, incline press, overhead press, push ups, etc. and every variation on any of these lifts as possible
For grip and overall strength: deadlifts, farmer’s carries, lifts using a fat grip bar
Box jumps and other jumping drills can assist you in jumping up to the bar if this is not a strength
Overhead strength and stabilizing exercises and all their variations: overhead farmer’s carries, jerk and push press, heavy jerk recovery work, handstands, get ups, windmills, side press, bent press (we’re getting in to the advanced lift section; make sure you are informed about proper technique)
Jump pulls from ground or low box
Introduce weighted pulls after about 3 pulls in a row is doable, hanging weight from a belt during the pull
3. For the Advanced (can do 5 pulls or more), continue with choices from above lists but add:
Weighted pulls for reps or max work
Pull up variations
C. Suggestions and Examples
Let’s take a base beginner. Along with whatever other lifts and training you’re doing, the first two 3-week cycles could look something like this, using our guideline of a ‘high rep, low rep and assistance exercise’ weekly template:
Cycle One: Workout Day One (high rep), work on 3 sets of 6-10 reps on a lat pull down machine working on form and technique discussed earlier. Workout Day Two (supplemental), practice and time hanging from the bar with packed shoulders. Workout Day Three (low rep), 3 sets of 3-5 reps on a lat pull down machine. I’d also recommend working toward a max effort lift of some type to start training to fire your system in this way. Begin training now to eventually max on the bench, overhead presses or deadlifts. Any exercise you choose will teach your nervous system this valuable lesson; these three lifts are great to start with and will facilitate your pullup goals best. As the weeks go by work on controlling and strengthening your technique on a lift, go incrementally heavier for less and less reps through your different 3-week cycles and then finally do a cycle of one rep maxes.
Cycle Two: Workout Day One (high rep), 3 sets of 6-10 pull up reps on a bar with bands. Workout Day Two (supplemental), sets of knee raises hanging from a bar until grip tires. Work out Day Three (low rep), 2 or 3 sets of 4-6 heavier pulls with slow negative eccentric pulls. Continue working on pressing and rowing skills and whatever max effort lifts you’re developing.
Keep in mind that high reps are fatiguing! And it happens fast. That’s why there’s a window of reps (6-10 or 8-12, etc.), because your third set WILL be a shorter set of less reps than that first set, trust me. Don’t be alarmed. Normal. Do not underestimate the longer rest period for this type of form-based work.
Maybe a little down the line a 3-week cycle for the once-beginner could look like this:
Workout Day One (low rep), 3 sets of 2-3 pull ups using bands on a bar. This will feel intense; the goal is to not be able to do more than three so the amount of bands or assistance otherwise must be appropriate. Workout Day Two (supplemental), several sets of jump pull practice. Workout Day Three (high rep), a lat pull down drop set. At other points during the week maybe you’re maxing your bench press and going for some heavy deadlift triples or something (hint hint).
You’re the artist. Here’s your pallette, the brush is in your hand. In this way Unique You can move intuitively through a program, continually reassess your needs and work to strengthen areas that are specific to you.
IV. HOW IT MOST LIKELY WILL GO
Funny things start to happen when you train for a specific goal with consistency and intensity. When you work toward measured success with patience and tenacity, goals start to look and feel more attainable.
Revisit frequently the above paragraph’s list of sure-fire ways to make progress and see where you’re slacking. Then refocus. Take small breaks if you need to. Remember the multiple variables that can effect any single day of training (fuel, lack of sleep or recovery time, stress levels, etc.) and don’t get caught up in dwelling on the valleys of a very normal peaks-and-valleys training experience. Be forgiving when need be and celebrate every little gain in progress. In pull up training, little is BIG!
Beyond this, the best advice I can give is to jump up to that bar often and at least TRY. Some days you’ll go a little higher and some days you’ll hardly go an inch. But you’ll get used to jumping up to the bar and pulling. Then one day, and often happening when you least expect it and therefore your expectations are lowered, you’ll jump up to the bar and you’ll clear it. And this is official, bona fide, stop-drop-and-PULL UP DANCE time!!! Here’s that expression of exuberant joy and celebration we mentioned earlier. Drop it like it’s hot. A Pull Up Party follows later that evening.
What’s next? Keep on working in the same ways, but now you’re also determined to make that solo pull a little easier and easier. Beef up your negative pulls, make your high rep days even more intense, your pressing exercises heavier for less reps, etc.
Here’s the scoop, the skinny, the low down: the second one in a row seems to be just about as hard to do as the first one, pretty much across the board. It makes sense though. I mean, you just nailed your one rep max which dictates by definition that you can’t do another full rep as you’ve expended all your energy on one. It will take a little extra time to work on that second full range of motion pull. But there’s good news too: once you’ve reach 3 pulls in a row, the 4th and 5th seem to come a little easier. And by then you’ve set your sights on 10 in a row and doing some weighted pulls, right? That’s how it goes when you’ve reached badass status..
V. THE BIGGER PICTURE
I don’t need to spiel on about the benefits of pull up training but I’ll spew a few.
In this modern gym culture of ‘arm day’ and ‘leg day’, wouldn’t it be a better idea if any and every day was ‘spine day’ or ‘back day’? A stronger back sounds like a good idea to me, and the person training for pull ups correctly will achieve this reward, plus better spinal awareness when the goal is impeccable form.
The modern workout and bootcamp trends also love lots of reps. We NEED to reevaluate this ‘kick your ass’ and ‘feel the burn’ mentality in program design and talk about the merit of doing something only 1 or 5 or 3 intense reps, again with focus on the best form possible. There is a high probability that doing all those reps all the time will wear on your joints down the line. Let’s face it, we can get a touch sloppy as we’re pummeling through to that prescribed high rep number. Form first, people.
I think the most rewarding benefit is the feeling of empowerment and accomplishment when you’ve conquered a goal, especially one that took time and some real work. And I suppose we should touch upon the aesthetic benefits, as we are all human and wouldn’t be upset if this goal we’ve been working toward makes us look a little more fly in our bathing suits. When you work HARD, eat WELL, and rest WELL, guess what? You don’t just look better, you feel better. Ah, the by-products of strength and ability…
Well, I won’t wish you good luck; luck is not what you need. Instead I will wish you good training, always! Don’t give up. Remember, as awesome as doing a pull up is (and your awesome Pull Up Dance), the greater reward is in the journey. Trust me. Be open, journal your growth along the way, and you’ll see.