Author’s note: in celebration of the release of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I am obligated to remind all my readers that the books are better. While I’m on the subject of hipster opinions, Fallout 2 is better than any other Fallout game, the third Matrix movie is actually good, and Morrowind is the only good Elder Scrolls game. If you disagree, feel free to send me hatemail so I can burn it in the fires of Mount Doom while cackling gleefully.
The pullup is an exercise that sadly, many beginners are unable to master. For many, it seems entirely out of reach, an endless quest with no rewards. I'm here to shatter that. You CAN make your first pullup, and likely in the next few months.
Here are some reasons why the pullup is a difficult exercise to master.
First: the exercise is performed against a resistance of your bodyweight. That means that the heavier you get, the harder this exercise is to complete, no matter how strong you are. There’s a well known tendency for lighter lifters to be very strong relative to their bodyweight, but less strong overall. Since relative strength is what matters most in bodyweight exercises, this means that beginners and heavier exercisers will struggle more with this exercise.
Second: this exercise is particularly challenging for women to master. While women tend to be lighter than men, they also tend to be a little bit weaker in the upper body relative to the lower body.
This study found that similarly trained women are about half as strong as men in their upper bodies but about two thirds as strong as men in their lower bodies. These findings are roughly in agreement with the data that we have from comparing men’s and women’s powerlifting records.
This suggests that women have a slightly different distribution of muscle fibers than men, and unfortunately this means that you’re going to have a harder time building up the necessary strength. This is part of the reason successful female gymnasts are so young - they start training early when they still have very light bodies so that they can perform bodyweight exercises more easily before they get older and grow more.
Third: while we have very easy ways to progress into many other exercises, the pullup is an exercise that’s difficult to progress into without specialized equipment and the knowledge of how to properly use it.
But fourth, and most important: while it’s harder to master the pullup, it’s still very possible - the big problem is just that many beginners don’t know how.
Mastering the pullup requires careful progression to get it right. You can’t just walk up to the bar, give it a good-old-fashioned try and hope to succeed. You can’t just practice the lift itself if you’re not yet strong enough to do a single pullup.
But all the same, you can do it. Really. The first step to succeeding is believing, and if you don’t believe you can do it, there’s a 100% chance you’re going to fail. Instead, focus on practicing - the more you practice, with a variety of different (appropriate) exercises, the better you’ll get.
So here’s a quick list of methods you can use to get your first pullup going, or to keep your pullups progressing smoothly.
Unrelated Back Exercises/Building Your Base
Back exercises alone won’t have a high degree of carryover, but they can help build some baseline muscle in the upper back. This is necessary for success in the long run.
This includes basically any kind of row exercise - one arm dumbbell rows, cable rows, machine rows, TRX rows, and so on. These exercises have the benefit of being easily scalable for beginners, meaning you can start of with a light enough weight that anyone can use them.
These exercises can help you develop what I call a "base". Your base includes a basic level of built strength and muscle that make it easier for you to succeed. The bigger your base, the better. Building your base can require a few months of solid training if you're not already actively training your back a lot. Typically, you use these exercises in sets of 3x12 as part of your normal training - as a way to develop your back muscle and strength. You should train these exercises at least 2x/week - and potentially more if you recover quickly and aren't feeling too sore. I'll discuss this more in a later section.
The lat pulldown is an exercise in which you pull a bar to you (instead of pulling yourself to a bar). Because this exercise is machine loaded, you’re able to pick a weight that’s appropriate for your skill level.
This is useful in that it’s more similar to a pullup than any kind of row - it's a vertical line of pull. But it’s also not too similar because the loading is so different - in a regular pullup, you can’t brace your knees against a bar to support yourself, and this changes the lift enough that carryover isn’t as much as you would expect.
Think of this lift as the uncanny valley of reaching a pullup - it’s close enough that you’re definitely on track, but it’s just far away enough that it’s a weird hybrid that teaches you bad movement patterns.
But the lat pulldown does function well as a base builder, particularly if the goal is to build into pullups. 3x12 is an easy start, and you should add weight and reps over time as you get stronger. Use these as part of your normal workouts.
The Assisted Pullup Machine
In terms of standard machines, this one is probably the most like a pullup, but it’s still not perfect.
Assisted pullup machines use a counterweight that effectively allows you to perform pullups at a lower bodyweight - the more weight on the counterweight, the lighter you get. As you get stronger, you can slowly reduce the weight until you’re able to get near a full bodyweight pullup.
The problem is that sometimes these machines aren’t available, and even when they are, some machines essentially train bad movement patterns that aren’t as applicable as they should be. Like the lat pulldown, this one falls into the uncanny valley - enough like a pullup to be useful, different enough to be harmful.
Like the lat pulldown, the assisted pullup functions well as a base builder. Use for sets of 3x12 during your normal workouts.
The Band-Assisted Pullup
This one puts us a bit more on track. The band assisted pullup is an actual pullup, but using a band looped around the feet to provide assistance.
One of the benefits of the band-assisted pullup is that it’s great for people who are weakest at the bottom of the lift. Since the band resistance is greatest at the bottom of the lift when fully stretched, and lowest at the top when loose, this provides the most assistance where you're weakest. If you struggle the most at the bottom, you may want to use these more frequently.
The problem is that this, too, can cause bad movement patterns over time. It’s very easy to lose control of the band and find it pulling you every which way as you try to get up, particularly if you have to use a heavier band to complete your reps. This can throw you off and train bad movement patterns. Then, you take the band away, and you’re so reliant on it that you struggle to get up at all!
These are the first exercise in this guide that I'll classify as a method of "pullup practice" instead of base building. We'll examine what this means soon.
The Jumping Pullup/Negatives
This one starts getting into the “actually good” territory. With this one, you’re training actual pullups, but you put a box underneath or just in front of the bar. Then, you do a combo pull with a bit of a hop from the feet to help you get moving, and focus on getting all the way up and slowing your descent on the way down. You can use less or more of a jump as needed.
Another option for making this harder is to add weight. You can do this via a dip belt with some weight plates or a weighted vest. This option isn’t doable for everyone, but it helps you overload the lift even further so that you can progress.
This method is okay, but it still means that you’re only really training half the movement - the “negative” or lowering part. This can help with the positive/raising part, but it’s still not great. You want to be able to train both halves of the movement in ways that are similar to the actual movement itself, but a bit easier.
This exercise is also one that I'll classify as pullup practice.
The TRX Pullup (and related progressions)
The TRX pullup (or ring pullup, if you have a pair of gymnastics rings instead of a TRX) is the exercise which tends to be most useful for helping beginners cross over the barrier. Essentially this allows you to get a real pullup in, in a similar fashion to an unaided one, but allows you to cut out the weight of your legs, making it easier to do.
At the same time, you need to pay strict attention to form. If you don’t, carryover could be less than you hope, particularly if your “pullups” turn into something more like TRX rows or if you use your legs too much. We all want great legs, but using them more than necessary here is a waste of time. Poor form on these will minimize carryover and decrease the quality of the exercise.
I also highly recommend this article by Tony Gentilcore, which goes over a few of the more complicated variations you can use to add appropriate difficulty on the TRX pullup.
Like band assisted pullups and jumping pullups, these can be classified as pullup practice.
The Bodyweight Pullup
If you’re at this point, congratulations! You’re officially a certified badass. But at this point, obviously you want to keep a good thing going.
I typically recommend something like 3-5 sets of as many reps as you can perform in a single workout. Each time you perform the workout, aim to complete more total reps than the previous workout. Don’t be discouraged if you sometimes struggle to add reps - progress is never linear. When you can typically do sets of at least 10-15 reps consistently, it may get harder and harder to see future improvements. At this point, weighted pullups will help you add variety and further strength.
The Weighted Pullup
This is the most elite level, for the most badass of the badass. If you’re at this point, you should be hearing the dragon fighting music from Skyrim every time you step up to the bar. You’re an absolute beast in the gym.
If you can consistently perform sets of about 10-15 reps unweighted, it’s time to add some weight. This is best done through the use of a weighted vest or a dip belt plus some weight plates - most gyms won’t have one, but you can pick one up pretty cheaply for yourself and bring it into the gym.
You can add weight slowly as you’re able to perform more and more reps, but I generally recommend practicing at a variety of different weights so you’re not just hitting the same weights all the time. Practice unweighted one day of the week, add ten pounds another, twenty five another, and so on. As before, get as many reps as you can in 3-5 sets, and focus on hitting more total reps each time you practice at that same weight.
Pullups vs Chinups vs Parallel Grip vs Wide Grip
A chinup is a version of the pullup with the grip position reverse and the hands closer together. It’s generally believed that chinups are a bit more biceps-focused, as opposed to back-focused. Honestly, I couldn’t give you exact numbers, but I’d tend to agree with this assessment.
Another complication is the parallel (neutral) grip - this is where you have a pair of parallel bars to grip and pull from. You’ll see these on assisted pullup machines and attached to some racks. In general, we can assume that these are roughly similar to chinups in that they put you in a bit more favorable position to use your biceps.
Most people are going to be naturally stronger in the parallel grip and the chinup, compared to the pullup. You should be able to perform more reps than the standard pullup.
So which is best to train with? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t really matter.
All three will target roughly the same musculature, just in slightly different ways. You may be best in one or another, but it’s smart to mix it up and try a few different ones over time. This way you help cover up any of the weak points created by the individual strengths and weaknesses of a single lift.
For beginners, stick with whichever grip position is easiest for you, since this means you hit your first pullup as soon as possible. Once you’re comfortably able to perform a decent number of bodyweight pullups (say, 10 in a set), I recommend getting in more variety by switching between all three. This helps prevent stagnation and keeps you improving.
What about wide grip pullups? We sometimes see these recommended because they supposedly increase muscular activation. Yes, they do make the exercise harder, but they do so simply by putting your muscles at slightly disadvantaged positions. In this case, harder isn’t better - it’s just harder. There's no point in using exercises that are hard just because they're hard - you want to use exercises that are hard and also help you achieve your goals.
So I don’t generally recommend wide grip pullups. They make it harder to get in a good volume of training, hampering your progress.
A Note On Kipping
Kipping sucks and CrossFitters should all go die in a fire. Just kidding!
Here’s the real deal. Kipping pullups are a special variant that allow you to complete more reps by using some hip drive/gyrating motions/wizard magic to help you get up to the bar. When it burst on the scene, a lot of us (myself included) considered it downright silly.
To be fair, it’s certainly a possibility that kipping (for the unprepared) could lead to a greater risk for injury. You’re putting your body through rapid changes of position under weighted stress. You’re probably fine if you’re practiced and have a good base of mobility and athleticism, but not if you’re just the average Joe or Jane stepping in off the street. These kinds of rapid movements, for the unprepared, are a sure recipe for messy shoulders.
What this means is that for beginners, learning to master a proper pullup should be your first priority. Once you’re strong and developed enough for this, you can start aiming to progress into using kipping pullups if you have an interest in competing in CrossFit.
But if you don’t have any interest in competing in CrossFit, it’s totally unnecessary. The excess hip drive means the back is doing less work, which means you’re not building as much muscle or strength as you want. If the goal is just to get good at standard pullups, starting off with kipping is like putting the cart before the horse - you don't ingrain the good movement patterns you want for long term success.
I’ve honestly softened a lot on kipping over the years. I think it presents some added risk of injury if you’re not prepared for it - but this is no different than any other exercise performed poorly, and it would be hypocritical to claim that other exercises are necessarily "safer". If you’re competing in CrossFit or use CrossFit as a method of training, it’s a necessity. If not, it’s unnecessary (unless you just wanted to get really good at humping the pullup bar).
Mastering Your First Pullup
Practice, practice, practice. As with trying to master any new lift or movement, practice is the biggest indicator that you’re going to improve. The more practice the better.
If you’re trying to master pullups for the first time, you'll also need to focus on building an athletic base through the use of back exercises, lat pulldowns, and assisted pullups. I personally use one horizontal and one vertical pull per week - so one pullup or pulldown variant at 3x12, and one row variant at 3x12. These should be performed on different days.
Then, as much as possible throughout the week, you should be doing pullup practice through one or more of the pullup practice exercises outlined above. I recommend using a variety of the methods explored above so that you don’t get too set into one particular pattern. Use a jumping pullup with a negative one day, a TRX pullup on another, and a band pullup on a third. This can help you keep progressing without being bored of training the exact same movement over and over. Plus, the variety can help you overcome the individual weaknesses of any of these exercises alone.
Focus on performing reps with strict form. Hang with your arms fully extended at the bottom, go all the way to the top, and focus on slower, more controlled reps. Bad form includes incomplete reps or cheating using swinging of the hips and legs. Since you're early on in the process, you need to establish good movement patterns from day 1. This will save you a lot of work later on.
When doing pullup practice, the more the better. Practice a few reps before or after each workout, or throughout the day as possible. If you have a couple simple pieces of equipment at home, you can do so pretty frequently, 2-3x/day, without even having to go into the gym.
The easiest way to practice pullups throughout the day is to get ahold of a pullup bar plus a set of bands you can use at home. The more practice you can get in, the better - even if it’s just a couple practice reps here and there.
Likewise, a home TRX or pair of gymnastics rings is a great tool for helping you practice without needing to go into a gym. Anchor them to something in your home and you can easily practice a variety of exercises not limited to pullup practice - even full workouts can be completed without needing to go to the gym.
Another concern is grip strength. For many, holding onto the bar for very long will have your hands screaming (and you cursing me for ever putting you on this holy quest). If your grip strength isn’t yet very developed, you’ll need to practice holding on the bar.
The best way to do this is (surprise) by practicing holding onto the bar. Adding some chalk or lifting straps can help make it easier. Simply step up, hold onto the bar in a fully extended position, and hold for as long as you can before having to let go. You can also do this one handed to increase the difficulty.
Holds can also be performed at the top of the lift. Jump up, hold the top position for as long as possible, and then lower down as in the jumping pullup above. This method helps you build some strength and stability at the top of the motion, where you may be weak, in addition to helping build grip strength.
The first step to achieving your first pullup is believing you can do it. From there, practice makes perfect. If you already have a base, it shouldn't take much more than a few months to master your first pullup. If you still need to build that base it will take longer as you develop the requisite muscle and strength.
Practice makes perfect. Set aside your misgivings, focus on regular practice, and you’ll improve. Soon you too can make your way to pullup valhalla, where the vikings practice pullups all day and are blessed with the gift of never being sore or worrying about their back development. Godspeed you! pullup master.
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