In my opinion, the pull up is an indispensable exercise. That is, if you can actually do one.
And when I say “do one” I mean full range of motion, dead-hang with shoulders disengaged and elbows straight at the bottom, chin above the bar at the top, real-deal frickin’ pull up. Too many times I’ve seen guys at the gym claim they can do 20 pull ups only to watch them bang out a bunch of crappy “shorties” where they never return to the complete hang between reps. But I digress . . .
This article isn’t about doing 20 pull ups (my personal best is only 14), it’s about doing one pull up. Your first pull up. And although it might take a while to achieve, the time and effort spent is well worth the feeling of getting your chin above the bar that first time.
This Is Strength Training
If you are still working towards your first pull up, you have to approach the training to some degree the same way you would when trying to increase your one-rep-max on a squat, deadlift, or overhead press. That means using low repetitions, heavy resistance, and plenty of rest between sets.
This Is Skill Training
In addition to using the parameters of strength training, you want to do some lower resistance work that allows you to work through the full range of motion for higher repetitions. Here we are working more with the nervous system than building muscular strength. You know how you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth or type on a keyboard or use your knife and fork? Well at one time you did have to think about those things, and they took great effort to accomplish. But after uncountable repetitions, those skills became second nature.
The same goes for any physical skill including the pull up – the more repetitions of correctly moving through the movement you can complete, the closer the skill comes to being second nature. That being said, the higher repetition work must be tempered by time for recovery to reduce the chance of injuries (elbow irritation being the most common with the pull up).
This Is A Battle Of Inches
I recommend testing the pull up each week. From a dead hang, and with all of your might, do your damnedest to PULL. At first it will feel like you are trying to pull Excalibur from the stone. But inch by inch, you’ll get closer to reaching your goal. I also recommend (gasp) using partial repetitions on this test day, but again more as a test than a workout that pushes to the point of fatigue.
Body Weight As A Factor
The less you weigh, the easier that first pull up should be. This is not a call to aspire for the body weight of a 14 year old female gymnast, but a simple acknowledgement that losing a few pounds (or several pounds) will be a factor to consider for some people when striving for that first pull up.
Pull Up vs. Chin Up
A pull up usually refers to positioning the hands on the bar about shoulder’s width or slightly wider with the palms facing away from you. A chin up usually means that your hands are shoulder’s width or narrower with the palms facing towards you. At various times over the years, I’ve used the terms interchangeably saying things like, “I don’t care how you do it, if you go from a dead hang to chin above the bar it’s a damned pull up!”. But recently I’ve been going with distinguishing between the two, as the chin up is typically easier for most people and can be a step in the progression towards the pull up. You may want to consider using the training program below to get your first chin up, and then attacking getting your first pull up.
The Training Program
I recommend working on your pull ups on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (or any other 3 day split that fits your schedule). Monday will work the strength training protocol, while Wednesday will use the body row exercise for continual work on developing the upper body pulling muscles. Friday is “test” day.
Monday: Assisted Pull Ups Strength Training. Do five sets of three reps the first week, and then five sets of five reps the next week. Alternate this until you achieve your first pull up. Rest AT LEAST one and a half minutes between each set (between 2 – 4 minutes would be even better). Use the least amount of assistance possible to complete the reps. And if you fall short by one rep during a set, that’s ok. I’d rather see you fall short by a rep, than use assistance that would have allowed additional reps.
So how do you do “assisted” pull ups? Below are a few methods to reduce the resistance to allow for working through the full range of motion of the pull up:
Band assisted: This is probably my personal favorite, but can get tricky as you develop the need to reduce the resistance. To use this method properly, you will need bands of varying strength so you may reduce the assistance as your pulling strength improves. You can see a demonstration of band assisted pull ups in the video below:
Partner assisted: Have a training partner provide assistance by pushing up at your ankles or waist. A good training partner will provide just enough assistance to get you through the movement. If you have a good training partner available, this is probably the best method.
Leg assisted: Here you place your foot (or both feet) on a stable object that allows you to provide assistance through the movement by using the legs to give you a little boost. The trick is to find an object that is tall enough that gets your chin above the bar when your leg is fully extended to prevent “jumping” through the final few inches. The video below shows the leg assisted pull up:
Gravitron machine: Some gyms have a machine with a pull-pin weight stack where you place your knees on a platform and the weight stack counterbalances you so as to assist you through the movement. These machines usually provide an option to work the dip exercise in the same manner.
Wednesday: Higher Rep Body Rows And Assisted Pull Ups. One week, do four sets in the 6 – 12 rep range of the body row. Increase or decrease the resistance as needed by raising or lowering the contact point, raising or dropping your hips (see video below), or elevating your ankles by placing them on a box or bench. For your contact point you can use a bar, a set of rings, or even the edge of a sturdy table.
The following week, do four sets in the 6 – 12 rep range of assisted pull ups. Keep alternating your Wednesday training between body rows and assisted pull ups until you reach your goal.
Friday: Attempt the Pull Up! Start at a dead hang and PULL! Fight for every fraction of an inch! Pull!!! But I only want you to try once. Next, start with your chin above the bar. Use whatever you need to in order to get there (some sort of step or a low bar should do the trick). Lower yourself just far enough that you are confident that you can pull yourself back up to the bar, even if it’s only an inch. Now pull yourself back up to the bar. Rest. Try again, this time try to go a little lower before returning to the bar. Continue this gradual progression until you cannot pull yourself back to the bar. Each week try to work a little further through the range of motion, and eventually you’ll do a full pull up as demonstrated in the video below:
And don’t get discouraged by me admitting that it can take some time to get that first pull up. As I said at the beginning of this article, the effort is well worth it. If you want to see the expression of joy of someone doing their first pull up check out the recent video below by Jessie Spielvogel:
Do you use pull ups in your fitness training? Why or why not? What methods have you used to get your first pull up? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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