Zero to Hero: How to Make That Strict Pull-Up

Getting a strict pull-up is a great goal. Here are some exercises you can do to help you get there quicker.

Teach me a pull-up. Teach me a pull-up!

A common request from many eager students—and their bubbles are immediately popped when I explain I can’t just teach them a pull-up. That getting a pull-up might require months and months of hard work before there’s even a remote chance they’ll get their chin over the bar.

But like anything worthwhile in life, when you truly have to work hard for something, you’ll appreciate it, even more, when you get it. Or as I like to say, nothing worthwhile is ever free.

Even when people understand and accept that getting a pull-up is a lot of work, I often see them putting in the wrong kind of work.

Here’s what I mean: For months during strict pulling work sessions at my gym, a client of mine who was allegedly dedicated to improving her pull-up would hit the bar and log a few of what I call pretend strict pull-ups, where she’d jerk herself from the bottom to gain some momentum, and then pull her knees to her chest to pull her chin close to, but not quite all the way, over the bar.

For weeks on end, I tried to get her to choose a ring row option instead to build some more foundational strength, but she refused.

I just want to work on actual strict pull-ups, she would urge.

Well, you’re not really doing a strict pull-up at all, I would reply.

She continued to ignore me. Until one day, another woman who had been committed to ring rows and seated rope pulls for 12 months, hopped on the bar and tried a pull-up. The result: A flawless strict pull-up!

My stubborn client witnessed the other woman’s pull-up and her brows furrowed curiously.

Maybe there was something to this, after all.

She then approached me in a new light. She was ready to take a step back, ready to put in the time, and build pulling strength with intention. And within four months, she could finally do a real, strict pull-up.

Here are the strict pulling exercises with two warm-up movements I gave her to get her working on activating her lats and on her strict pulling, both in the vertical and horizontal planes.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: Warm-Up

Prone Snow Angels: This is a great way to warm-up your lats and shoulders before a big pulling session. Add 10 of them—10 seconds per rep—to your warm-up.

Band Pull Aparts: Though not all that sexy, band pull aparts are an effective way to log a lot of pulling reps and build some muscular endurance and even strength in the process. They’re also great for shoulder joint health.

Try the below band pull apart routine in your warm-up.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: Ring Rows

If you’re at a challenging angle, ring rows can be as difficult as pull-ups. The key is to keep a perfect hollow body position throughout the movement. Try adding a tempo (two seconds to pull and two seconds to hold your chest to the rings) to make it even harder.

Complete 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: 3-Position Negative

Holding your chin over the bar and using negatives are always a great way to build strength. I like this 3-position negative, where you hold your chin over the bar for a designated amount of time before lowering yourself until your arms are at a 90-degree angle, and then finally slowly lowering the rest of the way before holding an active, dead hang position.

Complete 5 reps of these 3-position negatives, where you hold for 10 seconds in each position.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: Box Pull-Up

Box pull-ups are an effective way to get you pulling vertically, which will translate well into a pull-up. All you need is a heavy rack, a barbell, and a box.

Complete 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: Seated Rope Pulls

Keep these super strict and controlled (both up and down). I find placing my feet on a box helps ensure I don’t use my hips for momentum.

Complete 3 to 5 sets of 3 reps.

Getting the Strict Pull-Up: Accessory Work

For your post-workout pulling accessory work, log 3 to 5 sets of 15-20 reps of lat pulldowns, or for an extra challenge, hollow body lat pulldowns.