The pull-up has always been one of the most badass exercises around. One of my first fitness related goals was to do a pull-up. When I realized how hard that was going to be it only became clearer that it was something I needed to achieve. I loved, and still do, the raw strength that pull-ups signify. Over time, I went from being unable to perform a single pull-up, for the life of me, to being able to do 8+ reps with relative ease and even completing weighted pull-ups with up to 30lbs of additional weight.
So how do you go about completing your first pull-up? Once you’ve done that how do you go about increasing the amount of reps? Check out the following guide to help you take your pull-up game to the next level.
In part one I will talk about a few exercises that you can utilize to build the back strength, grip, and stability, needed to complete your first pull up.
Ring row/TRX row
A good first step towards completing your first pull up is mastering the ring row/TRX row. This will help build the upper back strength needed to complete a pull up. It will also serve to improve your core stability as it is vital to keep your core engaged in order to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
Complete a Ring/TRX row:
- Hold onto the handles and walk your feet in front of you
- Lower yourself by straightening your arms, keeping shoulders locked and shoulder blades retracted, and core tight so you’re body stays in a straight line
- Pull yourself back up by pulling your elbows back, keeping them close to your body
You can make this movement harder by walking your feet farther in front of you. This transfers more of your bodyweight off the floor and to your hands increasing the difficulty of the pull.
Hanging Lat Engagement
Once you’ve mastered the horizontal pull you can start working your way towards a vertical pull by using hanging lat engagements. This movement will not only help you build strength from the bottom portion of the pull up movement but will also improve grip strength.
Complete a Hanging Lat Engagement:
- Grap a pull up bar with your grip a bit wider than the outside of your shoulders. Your starting position should be hanging your weight off the bar with your arms straight.
- Next what you want to do is engage your lats. If you’re not sure how to do this you can either think about “putting you lats in your back pocket” or pulling your shoulder blades down and together (without moving your arms).
- Hold this position for a few second before releasing and repeating.
A negative pull up involves completing the eccentric (lowering portion) of the pull up as slowly as possible. This exercise helps you to work on staying stable throughout the movement as well as utilizing all the muscles that you use when completing a pull up.
To complete a negative pull up begin by jumping into the starting position from a box, chair, or ladder. From here, just lower yourself as slowly as possible until your arms are straight. Repeat for reps. Work on increasing the time you take to lower yourself as well as the amount of reps that you can do in a row.
Banded/Assisted Pull Ups
A banded/assisted pull up allows you to go through the full movement of an actual pull up with the added assistance of a resistance band. This can help you practice the movement as well as getting the volume in working the muscles you use for pull ups.
To complete a banded pull up, tie a resistance band around a pull up bar. Place your foot or knee (it will be harder using your knee) inside the band and start from a hanging position. Pull yourself up towards the bar, leading with your chest, and maintaining stability (try not to swing back and forth). Start with a heavier (thicker) resistance band and work your way up to lighter (thinner) versions.
If you have an assisted pull up machine or a friend to help you out you can also do assisted pull ups. An assisted pull up machine allows you to take a certain amount of weight off of what you are lifting. So say you select 40lbs and you weight 150lbs, then you will be lifting 110lbs. You can also have a friend assist you by holding your ankles/waist as you complete your pull ups, and effectively taking some of the weight off of what you have to pull.
I personally slightly prefer using negatives or assisted pull ups to work up towards a full pull up. This is because these exercises require you to lift (or lower) the same amount of weight for the entire movement. Alternatively, a banded pull up helps you the most at the bottom of the movement and very little at the top making it a bit less specific to a full pull up.
What about Lat Pulldowns?
Although lat pulldowns are a great exercise for building strength in the lats and other muscles used in the lat pulldown, I would not recommend it as the sole or primary assistance exercise to work up to a pull up. The reason being that the lat pulldown requires very little stabilization which is key when it comes to pull ups. So in summary, the lat pulldown is definitely helpful in working up towards a pull up as long as some of the above exercises are included as well!
Stay tuned for the part 2 of my pull up article where I will talk about mastering pull up form and increasing the amount of reps and weight that you can do 🙂