This pull-up plan is for all you fish out there. Perhaps you can relate. You flop under the bar like a hooked carp, until your chin accidentally clears it with one urgent, upward thrash. There is a better way to learn how to do pull-ups.
“The pull-up is a great exercise because it targets multiple muscle groups at once—back, biceps, abs, and forearms,” says Doug Sklar, a Spartan SGX trainer and owner of PhilanthroFIT in New York City. “Thus, it requires significant upper body, grip, and core strength.”
The four-step plan below will take your pull-ups from pathetic to perfect. But it won’t happen overnight, so take your time. Trust us, it’ll be worth it. “There’s something mentally powerful about being able to do pull-ups,” says Sklar. “You will feel as if nothing can hold you down.”
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Step 1: Assess Your Form
Hop on a bar and see how many strict (not kipping, jumping, or flailing) pull-ups you can do, right here and now. Record that number, as well as the goal you want to achieve within a reasonable timeframe, such as three to four weeks.
If you can’t manage even one, no worries. This plan is designed specifically to help you learn how to do pull-ups. “Know that it may take a long time to develop the strength necessary to accomplish the feat,” says Sklar. “However, once you can complete one rep, the next few will come faster.”
Often, the inability to do a pull-up has everything to do with form. Compare your form against these guidelines and make any necessary corrections:
- Use an overhand grip on the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Wrap all your fingers around the bar for maximum grip.
- Hang freely under the bar. If your feet can still touch the ground, cross them behind you. Tighten your core to prevent your body from swinging.
- Retract your shoulder blades, as if you’re pinching a pencil between them in the center of your back.
- Drive your elbows down and back, and pull your chest up toward the bar. Keep your core engaged to prevent you from swinging under the bar.
- Pause for a moment at the top—with your chin over the bar—and then slowly lower back to the start under control.
Step 2: Become a Fan of the Band
To improve your strength and work on learning how to do pull-ups, Sklar recommends assisted pull-ups, either with a partner or band. “For beginners, assistance bands are a great tool to help you progress to doing a full pull-up on your own,” he says. “Some people have the strength to momentarily hold their chin above the bar, but lack the strength to begin a pull-up from a fully extended position.”
But bands aren’t just for beginners. Even seasoned athletes can benefit, because bands allow you to increase training volume and push past your typical sticking point by improving muscular endurance and strength.
To use a band, loop it through itself around a pull-up bar and pull tight to secure. Stand on a box, grab the bar, and place one foot inside the loop. Hold yourself with your hands as you step off the box and extend both legs so your body is vertical.
A training partner can also assist by supporting you from underneath. He or she stands behind you and holds your waist as you pull yourself upward, moving you through your sticking point to get your chin above the bar.
A partner can also assist with a negative, or eccentric, contraction, which helps build muscular strength and power. “Negatives force you to resist gravity as your body descends, thus engaging and challenging the muscles you will need to eventually pull yourself back up,” says Sklar. Here, your partner helps get you up quickly from a dead hang to the top of the pull-up where your chin is above the bar, then lets go as you lower yourself down to the start as slowly as you can manage on your own.
No partner? No problem: You can still take on step closer to learning how to do pull-ups. Stand on a box so you can reach the pull-up bar easily, then jump straight upward into the top of the move and perform your negative similarly.
“The key is to progressively lessen the amount of help over time,” notes Sklar. Use a “lighter” resistance band—one that offers less assistance—or have your partner help you only when necessary.
Sklar recommends using this sample program for three or four weeks to improve strength and pull-up potential:
- Monday: Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 band- or partner-assisted pull-ups
- Wednesday: Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 band- or partner-assisted pull-ups
- Friday: Perform 3 sets of 5 to 10 negative pull-ups, descending as slowly as possible
Step 3: Shore Up Your Weak Spots
Besides doing pull-ups regularly, Sklar recommends incorporating these complementary movements into your programming to strengthen the upper body and shoulder complex, which will in turn help you learn how to do pull-ups.
“This mimics the motion of a pull-up with no weight bearing,” says Sklar.
Lean back against a wall so only your glutes, upper back, and head are touching. Raise both arms and place them flat against the wall, elbows bent 90 degrees and in line with your shoulders. Maintain contact with the wall with your wrists and forearms as you extend your arms overhead as high as you can, then lower back to the start. Do 3 slow sets of 8.
“These help you practice engaging and utilizing your back muscles to pull yourself up as opposed to focusing solely on your arms,” says Sklar.
Hang underneath a pull-up bar and relax all your upper back and shoulder muscles to come into a dead hang. Now, retract only your shoulder blades by drawing them inward toward your spine, keeping your arms straight and your body still. Release to return to the start. Do 3 sets of 10.
“This move is great way to develop back, arm, and grip strength while significantly reducing the percentage of bodyweight you are lifting,” says Sklar.
Hold a TRX handle in each hand, palms facing inward, and lean away until your arms are straight. Keeping your body rigid like a board, walk your feet underneath the TRX anchor until your body is 45 degrees or less in relation to the floor; the closer you are to parallel the more difficult the move becomes. Pivoting on your heels, keep your body straight as you drive your elbows back and pull your body up and in between the TRX handles. Lower slowly to the start and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15.
Step 4: Test Yourself Again
After three or four weeks of diligent work, again count the number of strict pull-ups you can manage. Compare this number to your original and see where you are in relation to your goal. If you hit or exceed your target, awesome. Now take on a new goal. If not, give yourself a few more weeks of consistent training and try again.
“Consistency and resiliency, while not actual protocols, will benefit you more than any specific training program,” says Sklar. “Also remember to do pull-ups when you are freshest, typically at the beginning of a workout, which gives you the most opportunity to maximize your strength gains and, in time, hit your goals.”
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