Pull-ups… people either love them or they hate them.
Those who can do them generally love them, and those who can’t generally hate them.
So, I’m gonna try and help you get on the road to loving pull-ups by showing you the route I take my clients through to getting to their first pull-up.
If anyone has ever told you that you weigh too much to do a pull-up I’d like for you to stick with the article because I’ll tell you right now I have multiple clients over the 200 pound mark that are working hard, and closing in on, their first EVER pull-up.
So, Why Pull-ups?
-Other than making you feel stronger than a horse the pull-up is a fundamental exercise that should be used in every program.
-Pull-ups work ALL of your upper body pulling muscles, so clearly when you are trying to get strong and lean fast this is an exercise to be doing.
-Pull-ups also require an immense amount of strength and to be able to do 1 you’re definitely on the right path to being an true, blue athlete.
-Pull-ups increase your grip strength and lucky for you grip strength is a great indicator of OVERALL strength.
So, if you want that iron grip that helps with other major exercise like Deadlifts or Bent Over Barbell Rows then let’s get to work on pull-ups.
Here’s my unofficial breakdown on ranking your pull-up abilities:
1-5 consecutive pull-ups makes you smart for starting.
8-10 consecutive pull-ups makes you strong.
12-15 consecutive pull-ups makes you awe inspiring
20+ consecutive pull-ups makes you the beast to be reckoned with at your local gym.
Now in all seriousness, when I am working with “athletes” or “seasoned gym goers” I have the expectation that they can do between 8-10 pull-ups… at least.
Do I require that of everyone I work with?
Everyone has their own starting point, but just know that I expect that you are working toward that goal of being an “athlete” or “seasoned gym rat.”
So, let’s get to work making you a local legend and level up your pull-up game…
Here are a couple of notes:
Your weight DOES and DOESN’T matter…
I know, you’re thinking, “what the hell is he even talking about??”
Look weight IS a factor; if you weigh more, obviously, it is going to take more effort to pull yourself up to the bar successfully.
But I also know that when I was in high school and 175 pounds I could do 3 pull-ups and now that I am better trained and weigh 218 pounds I can pump out 15-18 pull-ups.
Understand, that your weight will not completely stop you from completing pull-ups; you just need to persevere and continue training for what you want to achieve.
Crush your goals, ignore nay sayers and surround yourself with like-minded individuals (a life lesson that is useful in many situations).
Pull-ups are complex movement patterns that are amazing. BUT they will take time.
So again I tell you follow through, persevere and know your END goal: PULL-UPS and MORE PULL-UPS.
Don’t be surprised if this takes time, all great things do.
When going through each phase below you should be able to do each exercise, with confidence, for 3 or 4 sets with a total of 10-12 reps before moving on to the next phase.
Once you begin to hit those bench mark sets and reps you know you are ready to crush the next phase and move forward.
Alright, enough talk let’s get down to business.
First things first, we need to get a strong back. To do that we need to be doing HEAVY and EFFECTIVE back exercises.
The two that I love when I am getting people to pull more weight are Body Weight Inverted Rows and Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns.
Body Weight Inverted Rows:
Here are some body weight rows you can do with a TRX Suspension Trainer.
Body Weight Inverted Rows are amazing because they are a compound exercise (an exercise that involves more than one MAJOR muscle group) that work your back, traps, biceps and your core. I mean what more could you want.
Ok you want more… Well, they don’t require much equipment so you can get the work done quickly without changing out weights constantly.
Also, this workout will slowly get your body used to pulling your own weight, so this is an exercise that will boost your back strength fast, getting you that much closer to doing a pull-up sooner.
Win, win win.
Wide Grip Pulldowns
Wide Grip Pulldowns are awesome and simple because you will be at a cable machine of some sort.
BUT, these are not the same as a pull-up.
Yup, I have actually been asked if these can substitute a pull-up and the resounding answer I have for you is NO.
These are an isolated exercise, which will be great for building strength for your back and biceps and that’s about it. But I love to program these in for beginners, and seasoned athletes, because this is still a great movement to build muscle on your back.
Phase Two; Part 1:
Now that we have you working on back strength we need to get you used to pull-ups by actually having you do them, but with assistance.
And there are a few ways to do pull-ups with assistance.
You can do Band assisted pull-ups, partner assisted pull-ups or my least favorite… assisted pull-up machines.
Band Assisted Pull-ups
These poor guys get a bad rap for giving the bulk of their assistance at the bottom of the pull-up (the hardest part/ sticking point), but in my experience you just gotta plan appropriately so that you can slowly decrease the assistance and still get great gains from using a pull-up band.
I have gotten many athletes to produce a better pull-up through pull-up bands so until I stop seeing results I will be continuing to use them.
This is one of the best ways to train for a better pull-up because the band allows you to do a full range of motion pull-up AND assists you through the “sticking point” at the bottom of the pull-up, which is where many people have the most trouble.
Partner/ Chair Assisted Pull-ups
If you lack pull-up bands the next best thing is to have a lifting buddy help you through the pull-up.
Key word “help” don’t make the poor guy (or girl) lift your ass up to the bar.
The other thing you can do is grab a box or chair and set your feet on it.
What this will allow you to do is use your lower body to take some weight off of your arms and assist in pulling yourself up to the bar completing a “self-assisted” pull-up.
If you’re all on your own and have no access to bands because you are lonely and your gym isn’t a real gym then you’re more than welcome to use an assisted pull-up machine.
I definitely prefer the band assisted pull-ups and the partner assisted pull-ups over the assisted pull-up machine because if you are doing pull-ups in a machine you are not using all the secondary and accessory muscles that are required in an unassisted pull-up.
If you have no other option then some pull-up is better than no pull-up…
Phase Two Part 2:
Ok you are getting pretty damn good at pulling heavy stuff, and you’re feeling pretty comfortable with assisted pull-ups.
So now it’s time to do a pull-up, right? Nope.
Now we need to work on increasing your failure threshold by doing eccentric training (aka negative reps).
What negative reps allow us to do is push ourselves past our normal failure point.
So how do we do something that sounds so awful?
Glad you asked, but cool your jets I was getting to it.
Eccentric Training/ Negative reps For Pull-ups
Once you get comfortable doing 3 sets of 8 assisted pull-ups, I want you to remove all assistance.
Then I want you to get to the top portion of the pull-up exercise with help of a box or a chair.
Holding the pull-up bar I want you to step off the box or the chair and slowly lower yourself to the ground (take about a 5 or 6 count through the lowering process).
Once you get to the ground let go of the bar step back up on the box or chair and do the same thing for 4-6 more reps.
This is eccentric training. You are just doing the LOWERING part of the lift you aren’t doing the pulling portion of the pull-up.
By doing eccentric training you are changing your muscle at the molecular level and this change will result in a much more powerful pull-up.
This is pretty simple but incredibly effective at increasing your pull-up strength.
Once you have done a few weeks of eccentric training with assisted style pull-ups it’s time to move on.
And guess what?
That’s right we can now do a full, body weight pull-up.
You have done all the necessary prep work to be here.
Welcome to the pro’s, we are happy to have you here.
Just don’t disappoint.
And I’m not talking about kipping here; I’m talking straight up strict level pull-ups for the strong and the strong only.
A proper pull-up should be able to be done without jerking your body towards the bar. You should have complete control at this point to pull yourself up.
There is no shortage of pull-up variations to make sure you stay strong and only get stronger. The two that get used most often and rightfully so are the standard pull-up and the chin up.
The pinnacle of back exercises for strength and size should be done under complete control, with hands slightly past shoulder width, and with your palms facing away from your body.
These are slightly easier than a standard pull-up because you get a greater initial activation from your back and biceps. These should be done under complete control, with hands slightly closer than shoulder width, and with your palms facing towards you.
Now if you are crushing your pull-ups at this point you can still make this more difficult in order to continue to progress your pull-ups.
The easiest way to progress a standard pull-up is with a weighted vest or you can use a weight belt where this allows you to hang the weight between your legs.
I currently use a weight vest because that’s what I have but I have used a weight belt, I would personally chose the weight belt over the vest a vest is more expensive and generally limits the amount of weight you can add.
A weight belt has almost no limit because you can use weight plates to increase the overall weight to your pull-ups.
There it is this is how I plan out teaching my clients how to do a pull-up and this has been incredibly successful. So go now and begin your mission to successfully complete as many pull-ups as possible.
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