Every time I read an article on getting more pull-ups, inevitably the first thing in the comments section is “but I can’t even do one!” And the person’s plea usually goes unanswered. So this article is for you! I can’t think of a better goal for 2017 than getting strong.
Your first question is probably going to be, how long will it take me to get my first pull-up? My answer is this: it will take as long as it needs to, and it will depend on a number of variables, including your athletic background, resources, learning capacity, and physical and psychological assets. You just need to chip away at it.
But there are some other important considerations. First, if you are overweight or obese, you are going to find it even harder to pull your body weight to a bar. We can’t defy the law of gravity. If this is the case, then your first goal needs to be to get healthy, and to lose some pounds by eating healthily and moving more, while you start building up your strength with the progressions below. Your improved body composition will combine with your new strength to make your first pull-up or chin up a lot easier.
Second, if you are not strong in other areas already, it’s going to take you longer, as you aren’t working from a solid foundation or base. Many people are often surprised at how hard it is to do a pull-up, if they haven’t done much strength training previously.
So this may take some time. But that is ok; our goal is to get stronger in 2017.
Phase 1: Pulling Preparation
These are your initial benchmarks to achieve before moving onto working your pull-ups. Look to train these 3 elements in 2-3 workouts per week.
Just Hangin’ Around
One of the first steps toward your first pull-up is getting comfortable just hanging from a bar. Not only is this great for shoulder health and to decompress your spine, but it will build up your grip and forearm strength. First you can carefully try it with the shoulders fully relaxed (often coined a passive hang). The goal is to build up to an active hang, where you keep your shoulders pulled down and away from the ears, for the time you are hanging. In either hang, ensure your elbows are straight.
Target: 3-5 comfortable rounds of 30-60 seconds in this isometric position, with your shoulders down and active.
Come back for more: Once you have moved past the pulling prep phase of training, add 2- 3 sets of 10 reps of “scap pulls” at the end of your main pull up practice. From a hang, pull your shoulders straight down, pausing 2-3 seconds at the top. This is actually the first phase of a pull-up!
The flexed-arm hang is the next step in your pulling prep. Hold your neck to the bar in the top position of a pull-up. Strongly grip the bar, as if you were trying to bend it or break it in two. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your chest forward.
Target: Once you can hold this for 3 rounds of 30 seconds, then you are ready to move along.
Come back for more: Once you have passed the pulling preparation phase of your training, add a few sets of flexed-arm hangs at the end of your main pull-up training. These will really help if you want to add weight to your bodyweight pull-ups further down the track.
Row, Row, Row Your Body Gently to the Bar!
In your progress toward your first pull-up, I can’t think of anything more useful than rows. Aussie pull-ups, down-under pull-ups, inverted rows, or rows using gymnastics rings or any suspension training system will do. Even just plain old heavy barbell rows and dumbbell one-arm rows are awesome.
From a strength perspective, there is a direct correlation between your row strength and your pull-ups. In other words, if you can’t do strict rows utilizing almost your whole bodyweight, then you probably won’t achieve your first pull-up. The scapula retractors, rear deltoids, and external rotators of the shoulders are usually the weakest links for most people. When they are out of balance with the musculature on the front of the body, this can lead to shoulder pain. In some of my athlete’s programs, as soon as I take out rows, their shoulders start to niggle again. I am a big advocate that horizontal rowing exercises should play a part in all programs to balance out all the horizontal pushing and overhead work.
Target: You need to be able to do barbell bent-over rows with close to your own bodyweight for 10 strict reps. If you use down-under rows or Aussie pull-ups, you need to be able to keep your body straight and planked, with your feet elevated and a low bar for 10 strict reps. In either case, your chest should touch the bar on each rep. Use a slow and steady 4-second tempo, so you really own them.
Come back for more: Once you have achieved this benchmark, add a few sets of rows in at the end of the “Meat and Veg” component of your pull up training to keep your shoulders healthy.
Phase 2: The Meat and Veg
Once you have hit all the benchmarks on the pull-up preparation, this should be the main part of your pull-up training until you nail your first pull-up. Train these items 2-3 times per week.
Yep, you heard it! Negatives or eccentrics are where you are going to get strong! Negatives involve resisting the descent of the pull-up, extending the time it takes to come back to a dead hang. Be careful with these, as they are hard on the body and the joints. Eccentrics will make you really sore, so be diligent in your recovery.
Negatives begin with a hold in the flexed arm position at the top, followed by a very slow and strict descent. Pay special attention to the lower half or bottom position of the pull up, where it is the toughest. This area is the most challenging and is often the weakest link. Look to get strong there by controlling the action all the way down.
Target: Work up to super strict 5-second negatives, for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a 2-3-minute rest between, as a benchmark before moving on to the next step.
Get Some Help
The next level up is assisted reps, which are to be performed through the full range of motion of a pull-up. Include a 5-second negative, and a proper lock off (flexed arm hang) at the top. Assistance is best provided by partner who will spot under the lats. This is so the athlete can focus their mind on using the correct muscles to pull. I don’t like spotting the feet or shins, as many athletes will revert to pushing too hard with their legs instead of using all of their upper body muscles.
As before, focus on the weakest parts of the pull-up, which for most people will be the bottom half. As the person performing the pull-ups gets stronger, less and less assistance can be used. Work in the 3-5 rep, and 3-5 set range again with a few minutes of rest in between sets. Finish each session with some rows, active hangs or scap pulls, and flexed-arm hangs.
Target: Once you can do 5 assisted pull-ups in a row with a 5-second negative, and with little assistance, then you can progress finally to trying your first full pull-up.
Bands, Machines, and Other Assistance
While I have not used bands with my own athletes, I know of other coaches who have successfully used them with theirs. Don’t get caught up in the dogma about whether or not to use bands. The same goes for assisted pull-up machines and lat pull down machines in the gym. The cool thing about these machines is that they very closely simulate the recruitment pattern and movement pattern of a pull-up or chin-up, so getting strong on these machines in the gym can actually help. Different tools work for different people, so if it works, do it!
What worked for me, 16 odd years ago, was heavy bent over rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, dumbbell pullovers, and lat pull downs. The only caveat here is, don’t let them become your vice, security blanket, or crutch. You have to get up on the bar if you want to pull your body up or over it. Spend more time on the bar if you want to master it. Also, don’t be scared of adding some bicep and ab work to help with getting your first pull-up.
Once You Have One, Grease the Groove
You finally got your head above the bar. High five! Getting your first pull-up or chin-up is awesome. Once you’ve done it, you can look to add to that with different types of programming. A really simple concept is to grease the groove, where you just do one pull-up most times you go past a pull-up bar during the day. Look to add a rep each day. The most important thing is to stay completely fresh. This is a super easy way of building up volume over a period of time. Do this for five days, then completely rest a few days then test to see how many pull-ups you can do in a row. Your mind will be blown.
One final note: Keep up your flexibility work while you practice pull-ups. Your forearms, shoulders and t-spine will be worked very hard by these progressions, and it is not uncommon for people to develop shoulder pain or elbow pain when they first start vigorous pull-up training. This is why the pull preparation is vital to complete first. It is not just about getting your muscles stronger; it is also about your connective tissue getting stronger. Your joints, tendons and ligaments will take time to become accustomed and adapt to the rigors of heavy pull-up training.
You are welcome! Drop me a line when you hit your first pull-up; I’d love to hear about it.
Now that you can pull, how’s your push?