The pull-up is one of those exercises that get’s you a lot of bang for your buck. It works your lats, biceps, abs, shoulders, forearms and triceps (yeah it’s true). It’s the only exercise that really needs some kind of equipment, but if you’re willing to be creative, you can always find something to hang from.
I need to be honest with you: Because I began with strength training by lifting heavy weights, I could already do a couple of pull-ups when I switched to bodyweight-only training. I guess I’m lucky to be a guy in this case, because men naturally have more upper-body strength than women. So women will initially find it harder to do pull-ups. Some might even think that they will never be able to do even one. I disagree. You just need to work a bit harder, ladys.
First off, it’s obviously easier to do pull-ups if you’re fairly lean. If that’s a problem for you, start eating healthier while you work on your pull-up progressions.
Although I never had to use these progressions from ground up, I have enough experience with other bodyweight progressions to be confident that the progressions below will help you get your first pull-up. And for all you strong people who already can do a couple of pull-ups, this article might still be worth your time. I included tips to improve your form and some of the exercises are a nice addition to work your pulling muscles from other angles.
Bodyweight rows are a useful exercise for their own right. I can do lots of dead hang pull-ups and I still do bodyweight rows about once a week. Because horizontal pulling is involved in this move, it helps develop your upper back muscles and it adds a nice amount of volume to target your biceps.
Find a bar that is about hip high. Alternatively, find something else that you can grip and get under, like a sturdy table or a few boxes with a broomstick on them. The higher the bar, the easier this gets. Most playgrounds have at least one bar that you can utilize for this exercise.
Grip the bar with an overhand grip, hands about shoulder width apart, get under the bar and keep your body in a straight line, with your heels resting on the ground, feet together. Pull your body up until your chest touches the bar. Engage your core, your glutes and your legs during the movement to keep your body in a straight line.
You can also grip the bar with an underhand grip. This will put more emphasis on your biceps. Hand positioning is a bit closer for underhand grip. In general, grip the bar so that it feels “natural”.
Try to get about 15 clean reps in one set, then find lower bars. The bar should still be high enough so that your arms are locked out at the bottom of the exercise and your back doesn’t touch the ground.
Decline Bodyweight Rows
Once you’ve become competent with bodyweight rows on the lowest bar you can find, increase the difficulty by putting your feet up on an elevated surface. Depending on your surroundings, this can be a couple of boxes, a chair, a table or another bar at the playground.
If you can perform 10-15 good reps with a feet elevation that is about as high as your gripping bar, you can consider yourself a strong animal.
Side Note: For those who can already do pull-ups, try decline bodyweight rows and see if you can hit that number. Because pull-ups utilize your pulling strength differently (pull-ups are a vertical pull, and the steeper your decline bodyweight rows, the more horizontal the pull), you might struggle with this even if you can bang out multiple pull-ups with ease.
Another side note: If your main goal is being able to do pull-ups, increasing the decline of bodyweight rows to astronomical degrees won’t help that much. Horizontal pulling should still be on your radar, though.
Once you’ve had a few weeks of practice with decline bodyweight rows, you should have a solid strength foundation to tackle the pull-up.
The first step here is to just hang from the bar. This might sound ridiculous to you, but think about it: Say you want to be able to do 5 good, controlled pull-ups. That might take you about 20 seconds. This means only hanging from the bar for 20 seconds shouldn’t pose a real challenge to you.
Side note: I used gymnastic rings for the photos (one of the few equipment pieces I own. I use them fairly often). Though my favorite shooting location did have something else to hang from, the lighting wasn’t good enough there. Everything I say in this article is equally true for bar and for ring pull-ups.
Besides the gripping strength improvements you will get from practicing hanging from the bar, you are going to teach your body the correct muscle activation that is needed for a proper pull-up.
To understand that last part, go and find a bar that you can hang from so that your feet do not touch the ground. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, hands are wider than shoulder width apart. Now forget the word “hanging”, because that is not the correct term to describe what you are going to do. With your arms still locked out, try to bring your neck, shoulders and chest as high as possible. Keep a “proud” chest and grip the bar tightly.
If you’ve never done pull-ups, this might not be intuitive because you probably never actively engaged your lat muscles. Activation of the lats is a direct result of actively hanging from the bar as I just described. (Lats is short for the latissimus dorsi muscles which are the “back parts” of your armpits.)
Take a close look at the pictures below and notice the difference between the left picture (me hanging there like a limp noodle) and the right one (proper flex hang).
To improve body tension and proper muscle activation even further, zip up the rest of your muscles to achieve a hollow body position. Press your legs together and engange your core. Your feet should be slighty in front of your torso. Look straight ahead. Keep the proud chest. You are now doing a proper flex hang.
Practice the flex hang by holding this position for up to 1 minute. This will help you tons on your way to your first pull-up. Your gripping endurance will increase. You’re teaching yourself to engage the right muscles for the pull-up. As a bonus, you will enjoy an improved posture.
Even if you can already do a few pull-ups, try this exercise once in a while. You’ll be surprised how this can help with your pull-up numbers.
Assisted Pull-Ups and Negatives
You don’t need fancy resistance bands or other equipment to do assisted pull-ups. In fact, resistance bands tend to undo all the good work you did by practicing flex hangs. They can create a tendency to use wrong muscle activation. By using bands, the move gets harder the closer you get to the bar. This means you’re not fully engaging the muscles you need to generate the force to pull yourself up the first couple of inches (the part most people struggle with the most).
Instead, use a simple chair or another object that you can step on. Put one foot on the chair and use some of your leg strength to pull yourself up. When your chin is over the bar, slowly lift your foot off the chair. Now, lower yourself down as slowly as possible without any assistance from your legs.
Every training session, try to use less and less assistance from your leg. Really focus on the slow negatives.
Once you’ve had a bit of practice with assisted pull-ups and are sufficiently familiar with the movement pattern, get under the pull-up bar again, now without the chair. Jump up to the bar and simultaneously grip the bar and pull yourself up. Use the momentum of your jump to assist you in pulling. Do slow negatives again.
Jumping, gripping and pulling with the right timing might require some practice. But after a few sessions, this should become natural. If you can find a bar that you can just barely grip while standing on the ground, that is an optimal bar to practice jumping pull-ups.
When you’ve arrived at this point, you can actually be pretty proud of yourself. You went from not being able to do one stinking pull-up to confidently jumping up to a bar and pulling your chin over it. That’s pretty effin’ cool.
Now every time you do this, try to use an as light of a jump as possible. You can force yourself to use less jumping strength by using only one leg to jump.
The First Dead Hang Pull-Up
Sadly, there is no magic step between jumping/assisted pull-ups and full dead hang pull-ups. You just have to work consistently with the progressions I laid out above. When you messed around enough with the jumping pull-ups (a few weeks, probably), just go ahead and try if you can do a pull-up. Not there yet? Keep practicing the lightest jump possible and the slowest negative you can manage.
Here is a little video demonstration of the progression steps.
Also, don’t abandon your flex hang work. Just hanging there might seem dumb to you, but it really is that beneficial in teaching your body the right habits.
If you do manage to perform your first pull-up (which I’m sure you will eventually if you follow the steps outlined above), try to maintain the hollow body position you learned from the flex hang throughout the movement.
For that, you need to engage your core and zip up the rest of your body to create tension. No kipping. Your legs should not be moving.
So there it is. With consistent practice, you should be able to work up to a full dead hang pull-up with these progressions. Tell me in the comments below if you have additional tips or any questions.
Photos: Sabine A
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