When it comes to adding strength and size to your back, one movement you can’t afford to not have in your arsenal is the pull-up. It’s a staple bodyweight movement, but one that builds muscle just as effectively as any barbell or dumbbell move. Muscle building aside, the ability to lift your own bodyweight against gravity is a pretty functional skill with plenty of real work carryover – one most people should endeavour to keep in the locker for as long as they can.
All that being said, many people struggle to nail those first few reps, and if you haven’t hung from a bar since junior school it can feel like a daunting movement to get to grips with. With that in mind we’ve put together a three-move strategy that will take you from zero to one in no time flat, building new strength and pumping up your back and biceps along the way.
Three Exercises to Nail Your Pull-Up
1. Inverted rows
The best place to start and a useful movement in its own right, inverted rows will kick of your pull-up journey by strengthening the muscles in your upper back, arms and core, as well as increasing your grip strength and getting you comfortable with moving your whole body through space.
How to: Grab a bar at hip height, walk your feet forward until you’re hanging with straight arms beneath the bar (A), keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body, row yourself up towards the bar. Focus on pulling your elbows down, towards your pockets and squeezing your shoulder blades together as your chest makes contact with bar— pause here for a second (B) before lowering yourself under control back to a full hang, repeat.
With legs fully outstretched (or even elevated) and arms hanging straight, directly beneath the bar, aim for five unbroken sets of 10 reps, with a strong chest to bar hold on each rep, before moving on to movement two.
Even though you’ve ‘graduated’, inverted rows are still an extremely valuable muscle-building movement, no matter how far along your training journey you are – so remember to revisit them weekly for 4-5 sets, even adding weight, if you can.
2. Banded Pull-ups
Moving into the territory of ‘proper’ pull-ups is going to require some assistance. Using a resistance band will alleviate some of your bodyweight, making each rep slightly easier and allowing you to perform enough reps to move the needle on your goals.
How to: Loop a resistance band over your pull-up bar then back through itself (or stretch a band across a set of j-pegs at chest height in a rack). Grasp your bar with an overhand grip, hands wider than shoulder width-apart and step into your band, hanging at full stretch (A). Pull your shoulders blades down and together before pulling your chest up towards the bar. Think about pulling your elbows down and ‘into your pockets’. The tension of the band will help you upwards. When your chest touches the bar (B), squeeze hard and pause here for a ‘one’ count to build strength, before slowly lowering yourself over 2-3 seconds back to a dead hang. Repeat.
Begin with a thickness of band that allows you to reach 8-10 reps, where the last 1-2 reps of each set are a real challenge. Once you can perform 15 reps, squeezing your chest to the bar on each rep, upgrade to a thinner band and begin working your way back up the reps again.
Once you’ve upgraded bands once or twice, you’re going to graduate onto the third and final movement, however— keep 3-5 sets of banded pull-ups in your workout routine at least once or twice a week to keep ‘greasing the groove’ and improving your skill and strength.
3. Jumping eccentric pull-ups
The final piece of the puzzle sees you working with your full body weight, if only for half of the movement. The ‘eccentric’ or lowering portion of the pull-up is the part of the movement where you’re strongest— we’re going to take advantage of this to build even more strength, until you smash that first pull-up.
How to: Set up a box or bench beneath your pull-up bar, at a height that enables you to grip the bar (A) and jump up, touching your chest to the bar (B). Each time you jump, try to hold yourself above the bar for a second or two, before slowly lowering yourself over 2-3 seconds, into a full hang. Step back onto the box and repeat.
Begin with your box at a height that requires no effort whatsoever from your upper body to reach the bar. Once you can perform 8-10 reps, perfectly controlling the lowering portion of the pull-up (this is where you build more strength), then graduate to a lower box.
Continue in this fashion, lowering your box or switching to just pushing off with one leg, using progressively less assistance until you no longer require the box at all, and can simply heave yourself to the bar.
Congratulations, you’ve mastered the pull-up! But don’t get complacent— keep that form tight, make sure you’re concentrating on those big squeezes at the top of each rep and lowering yourself under strict control on the way back down.
Continue using some of these regressions in your training to add additional volume until you feel comfortable performing sets of 10+ full pull-ups.
Once you’ve got 10-15 strict reps in the bag, it’s time to start thinking about that muscle-up, right?
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