How to Achieve your First Pull-Up
Let’s be straightforward off the bat. Pull-ups are hard and can very well be unattainable for some. This isn’t to discourage you but simply to let you know without putting the proper time and effort in, getting to performing a pull-up or chin-up will be difficult.
Another simple note to mention, guys are stronger in their upper body relative to their bodyweight in comparison to females. This isn’t a sexist comment but just science. All this means is that the ability for a guy to gain the strength to achieve a pull-up, can happen well before a female is able to do so. So females, don’t compare yourself to guys and their process. Focus on yourself and doing the necessarily adjustments.
We all want to perform pull-ups as it is a great display of strength. Your survival in crucial or dangerous times can very well be dependent on your ability to pull yourself to safety. This is a bit extreme but how many times in movies have people died because they couldn’t pull themselves over that ledge, building, or their survival was predicated on someone else’s strength? Imagine if Sarah from ‘Cliffhanger’ had followed my program below. The movie would’ve gone an entirely different way. Watch Sarah Fall
Now before you can even attempt to start your journey towards pull-ups, your body-fat levels need to be in check. If you have excess body-fat that is holding you down, all the pull-up exercises in the world won’t help.
In fact, if you know for sure you need to drop body-fat, don’t even continue reading this article until you shed a few unnecessary pounds. Your ability to drop from 25% body-fat to 20%, will drastically increase your chances of doing a pull-up well before you even start doing pull-up strengthening exercises. Caveat: Being thin with low level of body-fat doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to do a pull-up. You still need strength. There are a lot of yoga girls out there that are extremely thin but have zero strength required to pull themselves over a bar. So, if you want to do a pull-up, drop body-fat then get specific with your training.
Note: A chin-up is where your hands are supinated (underhand) and in a pull-up, your hands are pronated (pull-up). I believe it’s easier to perform a chin-up and that should be attained first. However, for the purposes of this article, I use pull-ups and chin-ups interchangeably.
Although an inverted row or sometimes referred to as a reverse push-up, works the pulling muscles slightly differently than a chin-up, the ability to pull yourself up is a capability that must be performed and mastered.
Often-times, we will program inverted rows or use them as a modification/regression towards chin-ups with the intent of teaching clients how to pull their bodyweight.
Seated TRX Pull-ups
This can be performed using a barbell in a squat rack but we’ve found that when attempting to get the barbell to the right height, you may spend too much time adjusting the rack position.
With the TRX, we can adjust the straps rather quickly and get set-up.
With this exercise, we sit on the ground with our legs extended or in butterfly position directly under the straps. Reach up and grab the straps. Supinate your hands by rotating your palms behind you so it mimics where they would be in the chin-up position. From here, will minimal support from your legs, pull yourself up. It’s important for your torso to stay in an upright position as leaning back will turn this back into inverted row. When going back down, keep your butt elevated.
As the name implies, this is simply hanging from the bar in a dead hang position. This will build your grip and also teach you how to brace your body. To prevent energy-wasted swinging and swaying, tighten up your body. It’s good to stretch your lats, shoulders, and decompress the spine.
This old-school bodybuilding exercise is a great way to train the muscles being recruited when you perform a pull-up. The lats, shoulders, and your grip need to be firing, so any weakness will prevent you from reaching your full chin-up potential. However, specificity when performing chin-ups are important so doing lat pulldowns is an accessory but not a primary strength builder for pull-ups.
Flex Arm Hangs
In grade school, you had three options during the presidential test. Flex arm hangs, pull-ups, or opt-out entirely. If you couldn’t do a pull-up, then the next regression down would be holding your chin over the bar for as long as you can.
I use this regression as a teaching tool and program starter when building strength. I like my clients and athletes to be able to hold themselves above the bar for at least 30 seconds. If I can get them to hold themselves up for 30 seconds, then we can possibly start to work the actual pull-up.
A negative chin-up is when you lower your body down from the bar in a tempo-controlled fashion. I will generally do four to six seconds, although I’ve seen longer. After jumping your chin over the bar, lower yourself down for a 4 to 6 second count. It should take that amount of time for your arms to straighten out. Once you do that, put your feet down, jump back up and perform another repetition.
Negative chin-ups are going to be the money-maker. If you take anything away from this article, let this exercise be it. I can pretty much guarantee that negative chin-ups will send you on your way to performing a chin-up or pull-up. Every season when I train athletic teams, we test our chin-up strength at the beginning. Negative chin-ups are programmed into the seasonal workouts heavily. At the end of the season, when we re-test, I have about a 90% rate of athletes increasing their pull-up strength by 1, 2, or even more repetitions.
During the eccentric (muscle lengthening) part of any lift, research shows we are stronger. Now although the research shows that eccentric strength doesn’t correlate to new found concentric strength (muscle shortening), I’ve found that many clients can transfer that strength.
I’m writing this article in the airport but if I had the team files with me showing the differences between Week 1 and Week 12 of an off-season program, you’d believe me without a doubt. Bottom line: Negatives will set you up for success.
Negatives with Partner Assisted Chin-up
The next step is train the pulling phase with assistance. Basically, you’ll perform the negative as you did before, but have someone either holding your waist or legs. When your arms extend, immediately pull yourself up with your partner assisting you.
One quick thing on your partner’s assistance: It’s simply that, assistance. If your partner is simply pushing you back up without you doing no work, then it’s pointless. It should require work for you to pull back up.
Band Assisted Chin-Ups (Not a Fan)
This exercise is unfortunately too overemphasized and done way too often. The problem with these is it works opposite our natural strength-curve. It provides assistance at the wrong places. The bottom of the chin-up is where we need to gain the MOST strength to start the momentum for us to come up. Unfortunately, because the band is stretched entirely at this point, it gives us assistance here and this is exactly where we need to get stronger at. This is precisely why I rarely program banded chin-ups.
Barbell row variations including Pendlay(dead-stop) rows, Seal rows, and traditional bent over rows are not necessarily the top pull-up building exercises however they will build strength in your back and grip. This strength will undoubtedly help when it’s time to pull yourself up over the bar.
4 Week Chin-Up Program (Keep in mind the prerequisite required as mentioned earlier. All the exercises mentioned and program below won’t help if you are pulling unnecessary weight. Make that a priority before attempting to gather your chin-up)
I would do the below exercises each day at the beginning of your workout. Before any fatigue starts to set in, dedicate your time towards performing the below program.