By Lori Brand
Nothing makes you feel like more of a bad ass, earns you gym cred, and tests your fitness quite like the pull-up. Pull-ups foster self-belief and determination, and they signal that you have overcome your obstacles. Plus, they give your upper body that sexy V-taper which makes your waist look smaller! What’s not to like?
Mastering the pull-up can essentially be broken down into three main parts. The three parts are not consecutive. You should be working on all three at the same time — or at least Parts 1 and 2 initially, and then add Part 3 to the mix. Without further ado, the three parts are as follows:
Part 1: Get Lean
Okay, so this is the sucky part. I’m really sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you have to be relatively lean to make this work. An extra ten pounds is like doing a pull-up with a ten-pound plate hanging from your hips.
There are a million articles out there on how to lose fat, so I won’t get into specifics here. They can all basically be distilled down to this: Eat 500 calories less a day than you burn, and you will lose about one pound (3,500 calories) a week. Again, this is the sucky part. Sorry.
Part 2: The Strength
The main muscles working in the pull-up are the latissimus dorsi (lats) and the biceps. These are your pulling muscles (hence, the term “pull-ups”). Lat Pull Downs and the Assisted Pull-up machine are the two best exercises to increase your strength in these muscle groups, while also working in the same plane of pulling as the pull-up (vertical).
Do two or three sets of 3–6 reps (strength range) of Lat Pull Downs and/or the Assisted Pull-up machine at least twice a week. Easy enough? Now what?
Part 3: The Mechanics
Once you’re feeling pretty good about your level of leanness and strength, it’s time to conquer in the mechanics. Buzz kill alert: the mechanics will take some time. “But wait”, you say, “I know the mechanics, I just pull myself up, like when I get out of the pool, or like when I use the assisted pull-up machine.” Not quite. There is a bit more to it. While the assisted pull-up machine may be great for helping you build the necessary strength, it doesn’t completely mimic the mechanics of a true pull-up.
So, what more is going on with the mechanics? The un-supported part of the lift. With the assisted pull-up machine, your lower body is supported and stabilized throughout the entire process. Without this support, the pull-up becomes increasingly more complex, particularly during the initiation. A good way to give your body some support, and a little stabilization during the initiation, is with the semi-supported pull-up.
Semi-supported pull-ups:The following two semi-supported pull-up modifications do a nice job of simulating pull-up mechanics.
- Rubber Band on Squat Rack.Rubber bands are great! They provide more support where you need it most (during initiation) and less where you don’t (top of the ascent).
On a squat rack, place a thick rubber band around the supports, right around where the band will hit your mid-shin when you hang. Then, grab the pull-up bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than your shoulders. Step onto the band carefully. Allow yourself to hang from the bar, supported by the band. Next, retract your shoulder blades, engage your back muscles, and pull yourself up (think of pulling your chest towards the bar) until your chin clears the bar. Pause, then slowly lower your body back down to your starting position, maintaining the engagement of your muscles at the bottom of the movement to protect your shoulders. Throughout the movement, keep your core tight, and try not to let your body swing.
Too easy? Lower the band. Find a spot where you are challenged, and where you can do only 3–6 reps. Got the spot? Great! Now do two more sets.
- Step Stool (or chair or bench). While a step stool doesn’t provide the graduated support of a rubber band, not everyone, or every gym, has a giant rubber band available.
Place the stool directly under the pull-up bar. Standing on the stool, grip the pull-up bar overhand, slightly wider than your shoulder width. Use the stool to push off on your ascent. Perform the pull-up the same as noted above (Rubber Band method). As you descend, use the stool to support the last bit of your descent. Use the stool only as much as necessary so that you can do 3–6 reps. Now do two more sets.
Once you are doing Part 3 (in addition to Part 1 and Part 2), startyour lifting session with two to three sets of the semi-supported pull-ups, thendo two or three sets of Lat Pull Downs and/or the Assisted Pull-up machine. You want to prioritize the semi-supported pull-ups, as these do the best job of mimicking the real thing.
Prime Time: Putting It All Together
When you’re barely using the stool or rubber band, it’s time to take off the training wheels and fight for it. Even if you don’t make it all the way up, see how far you can make it on your own. Fifty percent? Great! Hold that 50% as long as you can (static hold). After a few attempts on your own, return to your semi-supported method. During your next training session, start with no support and shoot for making it 60% up and holding. Keep at it, inching up more day by day.
Pro tip 1:When performing unsupported pull-ups, cross your legs at the shins/ankles. It helps!
Pro tip 2:After your last pull-up, don’t just drop down. Instead, lower down with control, inch by inch, using your last bit of strength. This is called a “negative.”
Prioritize pull-ups. Do them first, when you are fresh and have plenty of resources, and do them at least twice a week. Remember, practice makes perfect. Stick with them, and before you know it, the clouds will part and divinity will shine down upon you. The first time you clear that bar all on your own, you won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face for days!
Lori Brand is a spinning and strength instructor, yoga teacher, NPC competitor, engineer (she has a Master’s in biomedical engineering), and mother of three. She truly believes that strength training can change your life! If you have a fitness-related question, feel free to contact her @cultivate_hunger.