The presidential fitness challenge in middle school was a nightmare for me. I had grown to my final height early (so had more body weight) and into a decidedly female form (big butt). There was nothing I was doing to strengthen my upper body. Needless to say I did not get one pull up, and witnessed several prepubescent skinny boys knock out 15 or 20.
Moving ahead, I played sports, but I never really was introduced to strength training until college. And even then it was pretty minimal. (I really wish I had been on the football team in high school…I think those were the only kids that got any strength coaching.) I kind of-sort of was introduced more properly when I played competitive club rugby. And I did things, and I kind of liked it. But I was always convinced that even when I was lean, I was just too bottom heavy and not strong enough for pull ups. Those were for crazy fit people.
It took finally bandwagoning with the rugby folks and joining a Crossfit gym in 2012 (I know, I have thoughts on that whole thing) to get real coaching on the mechanics and How to Do the Things. And now I love everything about increasing my strength. And that yes, you can do just about anything, you just need time, practice, and a few pointers.
Question 1: Where are you on your pull up quest?
Let’s assume you are reading this because you don’t have one pull up. Or you are close, or maybe have one some days. How close are you? Ask yourself that first, and you may find you can skip ahead.
Question 2: What is your goal?
Once you get that single pull up, are you going to hang it up? Do you then want 10? Do you want to move on to higher level gymnastics movements? Do you rock climb or want to start? Obstacle course races? What is the point of getting pull ups for you?
Note that there is nothing wrong with just wanting pull ups. You need to make a lot of gains to get them, so they can be a great marker of overall fitness development. Maybe then ask yourself, why do you want to be fit? (Seems like a weird question, but you must be able to answer this if you want to make progress.)
Question 3: Can you commit to two 20 minute skill sessions per week?
This is where people might start to say…ehhh thanks chief, I’m all set. But really, you gotta do the work. You could probably get away with 10 minutes 4x / week. But it’s better to be focused, as to build strength you need to: a) sufficiently fatigue your muscles during each session and b) be recovered for the next session.
- Get a pull up bar, one that’s supported by a door frame. This is the one I have, though it appears there is a new version of it. You want the main bar to be horizontal, and the bar sits in front of the frame. You don’t need to screw it in, they are designed so your bodyweight torques it into stability. Just note you can’t swing on it.
- If you are fancy and can install a stud supported bar like this, I love you and want to come to your house.
- Now let’s talk about grip width. Stick your hands up as far as you can, with straight arms! Not with you arms touching your ears, just how they are most comfortable. That’s the width! A common mistake is to go too wide when the bar comes into play. You’re just making things hard on yourself if you do that. Use your body’s natural movements as a cue.
- Can you hang on the bar? Try hanging on the bar with an overhand grip for 10 seconds. Try for 30 seconds. A minute? One thing to think about here is “active shoulders/lats.” You don’t want to be in a true “dead hang.” A way to feel this is to dead hang first. Notice your head tilts forward. Activate your lats, and your head should stick up parallel to your arms, and will be a little behind your arms now. That is engaged!
- Okay, now do some negatives. If your door frame supports it (but be careful), you can jump so your chin is over the bar. Then slowly (count of 10) lower to the bottom of the pull up position. You can also use a chair (to the side of the door) to get yourself into the top position.
- If you have access to a TRX setup, you can do ring rows. Here is a suggestion for how to do so with a towel. Otherwise, do bent over dumbbell rows. Make them as heavy as possible. You should feel fatigued, almost like you can’t do the last rep. If you just have one dumbbell that’s fine. Just do one side at a time.
- Work on your grip strength (the hangs and negatives will do, but you could also do some heavy deadlifts) and core strength. If nothing else, do planks. Work on engaging your lats with bench presses.
- Use assistance! Exercise bands can work to practice the motion, but unfortunately they give you the most assistance at the bottom, which is where you actually need to develop strength. Put a chair behind your back, far enough so that you can balance your toes on it while doing a pull up. Use shorter chairs as you progress. Eventually, initiate from a standing position on the ground. Most doorframes are low enough to make this work, but you can put a book underneath your feet if needed. Then you can progress to starting from the hang.
- Chin-ups (underhand grip) and mixed grip are a great development tool for bona fide pull ups (overhand grip). Lots of folks find chin-ups easier.
- When you’re ready to try from a hang (and in general) remember to keep a tight core. Your body is one thing, not a bunch of floppy parts. Look forward. Try to be as deliberate and controlled as possible getting your chin over the bar, and just as deliberate and controlled on the way down. You make no strength gains by flopping down, or hoisting yourself up with a jerky motion.
Allow at least one day of rest between days, ideally 2-3. It’s okay to do these before or after another workout, though before is better. This program is scalable, meaning you can do the same program just with more challenging movements forever and you shouldn’t ever plateau. Remember that you want to be on the edge of your comfort zone. If these aren’t hard during the session, you need to increase the level.
3 sets of 10 pull up reps, whatever variation you can do for 5 reps. (Chair assist should be lowest level, you could even move the chair below the bar and have more leg assistance…starting with flat feet.) Break up as needed and REST sufficiently between sets. This part should take you at least 15 minutes. Did I say strength training was always exciting? If you want to push to a harder movement, you can reduce reps down to 5, then build up reps the next week. Remember, this is where the prize is! Some day you’ll just crank out three sets of 10 bona fide pull ups.
3 sets of 10 rows. (ring rows, bent over DB rows, barbell rows) You shouldn’t need to rest more than a minute for these, but make sure you’re doing a level that’s challenging!
3 sets of 10 press or 3 sets of static “press” If pressing do DB bench presses — do them from the floor if you don’t have a bench. If you prefer the static option, do 30 second straight arm plank hold for each set. (Or 60 s? Whatever is challenging to finish!)
Every minute for 20 minutes:
Odd minutes: 10 second static holds. (Ten total sets in 20 minutes.) Half at bottom, half at top. If too challenging do more sets on bottom. If not challenging enough, through in mid hang holds (arms bent). If still not challenging hold a dumbbell between your knees or increase time.
Even minutes: 10 second negatives from the top. Decrease/increase time as needed and you can always hold a dumbbell between your knees to make it spicier.
Advanced Variations and Maintenance
So you’ve gotten some pull ups now. That’s fantastic! If you can keep doing that program forever, you’ll probably keep cranking them out forever. But sometimes we get them, then lose them, or just need help getting to the next level. Here are some tips.
Consistency is key. I think it’s better to switch from the kind of program I outlined above to more of an “everyday do some pull ups” model, with maybe one session of more advanced work per week. Here are some options for advanced work and other thoughts.
Weighted negatives and weighted pull ups are always a good option. Doesn’t have to be much added weight to make it hard.
You can change up your grip for some training sessions. Narrow grip or wide grip, towel grip, those are some options to make you even stronger.
Challenge yourself to hang on the bar as long as you can from different positions (high, mid, low)
An uncomfortable fact sometimes is that we lose pull ups because we’ve gained a little weight — even a couple of pounds can make a big difference. Or even day to day weight fluctuations, can affect things. This is not body shaming, but it is something to keep in mind, as our weight is literally what we are pulling up. You can always get stronger and not lose the weight, especially if you had pull ups already. Seek nutritional guidance if you might want to lose the weight.
Again, the biggest thing is consistency once you have them. Some of us do other activities (rock climbing, crossfit etc) that naturally give us the pull up stimulus. Some of us can’t do those things anymore in quarantine, and some of us just don’t do them. A trick I learned is to charge yourself 5 pull ups when you go use the bathroom. Or something like that. Not just “do 10 pullups every day” but tie those to an essential habit.