Pull-Up Progressions For the Pullup Impaired

Do You Need a Great Pullup Progression?

For some reason, among bodyweight exercises, the pull-up is often one that encourages fear. I can’t do a pull-up! I might hurt my shoulders. I can’t get myself off the ground! Guess what–a good pullup progression can help you past all those obstacles.

Excuses! Excuses, I tell ya.

Back machines, lat pull-down machines, and other sorts of contraptions mimic the movement of the pullup without the power and strength benefits. I did these for years.

I made those excuses. But I was told that I should not consider myself anywhere near being strong, fit or in shape without being able to do a pull up.

Whereas most people are willing to drop to the ground and try a push-up, there’s an immediate reluctance to try pull-ups. Why?

Maybe it’s because pullups kick ass?

Many may start their Bodyweight Training journey needing to improve their ability to lift their own body weight. Practicing this exercise regularly will improve the way you look and feel.

Ninety days of pullups — even a few times a week — will boost your strength, your overall health, and your confidence.

Follow these suggestions to be able to bust out 10 or 20 at any time!

  • Avoid pulling up to failure. People want to max out on pullups because it feeds their ego, but once you get past where you can comfortably complete the motion, your form is likely to degrade and you won’t benefit from the extra work. Do more sets while avoiding going to failure, rather than blowing out all your energy on only one or two sets.
  • Pull with the Lats first. Pull with your back muscles first, NOT with your arms. Your back muscles are larger, for one thing. It may help to imagine pulling the bar down to you, and imagining that you’re pulling the ends of the bar towards each other, in order to get the right form.
  • Keep your elbows pointing back and down. This will aide you in firing your lats in the movement. Try to image elbowing someone behind you in their stomach. Like the guy who convinced you to add this grueling exercise to your Bodyweight training sessions (just kidding!). Pulling your elbows down is the other visualization I see taught for novice up-pullers. Try it!
  • Get your chin over the bar. There’s no need to go chest to the bar like some trainers claim. Anything much beyond your chin does little to add further to your back development–although, if you choose to progress towards the Muscle-Up, that changes things a bit. For the basic pull-up, however set your goal as getting your chin over the bar.
  • Switch up your grips. Okay technically speaking pull ups are when your palms are facing you. Chin ups are when your palms are facing away from you. Neutral grips are when you are using a bar that allows your palms to be facing each other. Do a few sets of each when you train upper body. Do some with one hand facing you, and the other facing away! This will help build your back from different angles and also do wonders for your grip strength!
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Pull-Ups, Step By Step

Here’s the step-by-step, based on material posted at Greatist:

  1. Get your grip right. Hands shoulder-width apart, facing away; reach up and grab the bar. Note that as you progress, you can widen the grip which will emphasize the lats more.
  2. Hang there. Your starting position should be a dead hang. With arms fully extended, engage your core and pinch your shoulder blades.
  3. Squeeze the bar and bring your elbows down. This is how you’ll actually perform the exercise. Keep going until your chin clears the bar. Remember, you’re primarily using your back muscles here rather than your arms.
  4. Lower yourself. To complete the rep, return to the starting position by slowly lowering yourself. This negative part of the exercise is just as important as the positive, the lift itself.

Need more help? Check out the Pullup Solution!

pullup solution

How do I train myself if I can’t do one?

Many people who want to incorporate the pull-up can’t do one to start with. There are several key exercises you can practice to build up your ability to do a pull-up. These are listed in order of easiest to more difficult.

  • The Dead Hang – This move involves simply hanging from a bar. That’s it. Why? It improves your grip and stretches out the back muscles. If done correctly, you’ll be holding your shoulder blades down and conditioning your body to do so when hanging and pulling.
  • Vertical Pulls – Vertical pulls involve standing next to a wall or door, bracing your hands on either side of the object and pullign yourself towards and away from it. This is a beginner move but it’s good training for muscles and soft tissues to get yourself conditioned to progress.
  • Suspended Row. Lie under a bar and pull yourself up to it. This means you’re only lifting the top half of your body, while the bottom half is supported by your feet. Note – if you’re having trouble with this, try a bent-over row with a dumbbell. This trains the same muscles, one arm at a time.
  • Chair assisted PullupTo train for this exercise alone, you can setup a chair under you and use that for assistance. Put one leg on the chair, and try to use that leg for support as little as you can.
  • Negative Pullups. This is another favorite of mine–jump up so that your chin is already over the bar, and then lower yourself down slowly. Doing this with a slow, controlled movement is what builds your strength towards being able to do a full pullup.
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Once you’ve mastered the pull-up–really mastered it–you may find the need to make it more difficult. There are a number of ways to do this, but the most interesting involve positioning yourself closer to one arm than the other, and using the further-away arm for assistance while focusing on the primary arm.

You can do wide-grip pullups, and you can look for side-to-side varieties as well to keep things interesting and keep building more strength.

Eventually, you can work up to one-arm pullups, which are an advanced exercise that will be the focus of another article.

What benefits do pull-ups offer?

Balancing shoulder pushing exercises. Pull-ups work the muscles of the back really well from a pulling perspective, so they help to balance the pushing work you get from shoulder pressing–or in the bodyweight world, perhaps the handstand pushup if you’ve gotten to that.

Balancing chest development. If you’re doing lots of push-ups and you don’t develop the back, you may encourage imbalanced muscle development. You risk ending up with shoulder pain if you train on one side with significant imbalance to the other.

Ab development. I’ve combined pullups with hanging L-sits–that is, I raise my legs parallel to the ground whenever I do pullups. I’ve personally found that this isometric ab exercise helps my core more than situps, and lets me be a little more productive by getting ab exercises in with my back and shoulder work.

Pullups build the arms as a result of being fit. Rather than doing exercises designed to build muscle mass without usefulness, pullups are an exercise that is functionally beneficial and happens to build muscle mass as a side-effect. I like this passage from Nerd Fitness:

Want big biceps? Do close-grip chin ups.  I guarantee if you’re banging out 3 sets of 12 at the gym, maybe even hanging some weight around your waist, your arms will be built like cannons.

Remember, appearance is a consequence of fitness.  Pull ups are a true test to somebody’s level of fitness, so where do you fit in?

What else?

What else should our readers consider when it comes to the pull-up?

Tell us in the comments!


Image source: Flickr