A common question we are asked is “how do I get better at pull-ups?” Pull-ups are the ultimate body weight exercise to test your upper body strength. It’s a exercise that many people struggle with since it is so heavy and many people can not even do one. But do not worry! After you have read this post you should be able to know how to start with your pull-ups and how to take them to the next level.
How do you get better at pull-ups?
As the name reveals, the pull-up is a big pull movement of your body towards the object you are holding on to. This requires a lot of power from your back and arms. To fully understand how to get better at pull-ups you need to understand which primary muscles that are involved in the exercise.
What muscles are involved in a pull-up?
Since the pull-up is a body weight exercise it requires a lot of stabilization from the muscles around the torso and shoulders. We are not going to focus on every muscle in the pull-up, only the important ones that you need to work on in order to improve you pull-up.
1. Latisimus Dorsi
The big muscle that is attaching to your humerus and then going down to your lower back. This is a big muscle in the pull movements of your body. Every time you try to pull something towards your torso, Latisimus Dorsi is there to assist you. This means that this muscle is crucial in the pull-up since it is a pull movement. It is especially involved if you try to pull something down from above your head. That is why a great way to workout this muscle is with the lat pulldown exercise.
2. Biceps Brachii
The Biceps Brachii or most commonly referred to as just the Biceps is the big flexor in your elbow. This is the muscle guys love to workout, showing off their arms while doing it in front of a mirror. Since Biceps is covering the whole front part of the upper arm it is a crucial muscle to workout if you want those big arms.
But nevertheless it is also a important muscle in the pull-up! Since you are going to flex your elbow joint during the pull-up in order to get closer to the bar, the Biceps will have a major part in this.
It is common to get really sore in your biceps when you start doing a lot of pull-ups because it is hugely involved in the movement. Biceps is a big muscle and capable of producing a lot of force that will help you in your pull-up.
3. The Deltoid (posterior part)
The posterior part of the Deltoid muscle or as most people call it, the Shoulder muscle, is of great importance when doing a pull-up. since it its positioned on the posterior part of the humerus it will force the humerus ,together with Latisimus Dorsi, in extension and therefore your body will move towards the bar when performing a pull-up.
The Deltoid is also important when it comes to stabilize the shoulder joint. That is also an important part during the pull-up since it is a heavy exercise.
Trapezius is the big muscles of your upper back, going from the shoulder down to the lower part of the thoracic spine and all the way up to the skull. This muscle is sometimes referred to as the Diamond muscle because of its shape.
Because of its location the Trapezius lower part is of pull movements and will assist Latisimus Dorsi during the pullup.
Associated exercises to improve your pullups
Now when we know the main muscles involved in the pull-up we know what we need to work on and how to do it. Therefore we start with exercises that are similar to a pull-up but easier to perform.
1. Lat Pulldown
The Lat Pulldown is a great way to workout your Latisimus Dorsi. Since it is one of the main workers in your pull-up it is important that it is strong and can help you in the exercise.
We like the Lat Pulldown because here it is similar to the pull-up with the difference that the bar is coming to you and not the other way around. But in this exercise you can easily adjust the weight since you do not need to carry your body weight. This makes this a perfect exercise to work on if you can’t make one pull-up yet. It’s also a great associated exercise for the ones that can do a pull-up and wants to be able to do more.
2. Inverted row
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The Inverted row is a great associated exercise to the pull-up. You get a great workout in your back and posterior Deltoids and at the same time some Biceps. This one is great for beginners since you take away some of the body weight. Since the feet are still touching the ground it reduces some of the weight.
3. Dead Hang
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Just go to the pull-up bar, grab it and hang there. When you hang try to create tension by retracting your shoulder blades. This should activate your back muscles. Now just hang there for as long as you can. This will work on the stability of your shoulders and your grip strength.
Pull-up variations to improve your pull-up
There is a lot of variations you can do to improve your pull-up without doing a clean one. These are also great if you maybe can do 1-2 but want to do a lot more during your workout.
1. Negative Pull-ups
Stand and grab the bar. Now take help from your legs and jump up so your chin is above the bar. From here slowly lower your body by extending your arms. This should be done slowly and controlled. By doing this you only work on the eccentric phase (negative) of the pull-up. This is the most important phase and will make you stronger and closer to perform a pull-up without jumping.
2. Isometric Pull-ups
Start like the negative Pull-ups. Grab the bar and jump up so that your chin is above the bar. But here is the different part. Now just try to keep your chin above the bar for as many seconds as you can. This will work your muscles isometric.
3. Quarter Pull-ups
Start with grabbing the bar and just hang. Now do only the first quarter of the pull-up. Don’t worry if you are not close to get the chin over the bar you are not supposed to. In this exercise we only work on the start of the pull-up. The start can be very heavy for some people but with this exercise you will practice only that part. So just go one quarter of the full pull-up.
4. Assisted Pull-ups
Take a resistance band and loop it around the bar. Now put one or two feet at the bottom of the band to create good tension. Try to perform a pull-up. This will greatly reduce the amount of weight your body need to move during the movement since the resistance band is assisting you. There is a lot of variation of bands on the market. Some reduce more weight then others. Make sure you get the right fit for you!
5. Partner Pull-ups
Grab a friend and let them hold on to your legs during the pull-up. Since they are holding your legs you can push your legs into their arms. This creates more force and the pull-up will be easier to perform. These are similar to the assisted pull-up but can be performed without a resistance band.
6. Weighted Pull-ups
When your pull-ups is getting really good and you can do 10+ you can start adding weight. This is an excellent way to make it tougher. Also a great way to add to your maximum strength in this exercise. Usually gyms have a belt where you can hang extra weight in while you do pull-ups or dips. If not, you can also use a weighted vest.
7. Pull-ups in the lat pulldown machine
Yes, you read it right. This is a more advanced exercise since it requires both strength and a lot more stability. Just put on the maximum amount of weight on the machine. After that let you grab the bar like you are doing a regular lat pulldown. But do not sit down! Instead let your legs hang loose on the side. The video below is be performing it a couple of years ago.
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Training program to get your first pull-up/To get your first pull-up in 30 days!
The program is a four sessions per week program but can be scaled down to three if you don’t have the time. Doing fewer training sessions a week will of course delay the time it will take to get your first pull-up.
Fewer training sessions then two times a week isn’t recommended since you probably wont increase strength fast enough.
Every exercise is set x reps if nothing else is specified and you should just be able to complete the prescribed reps before fatigue stops you from doing another rep. If it says 5 reps and you can do 7-8 reps before failing you need to increase the difficulty!
Assisted pull-ups 4×5
Easiest done with elastic bands around your feet/knees but can also be done in a pull-up machine where you remove a certain amount of weight. You can also use a friend.
Eccentric/negative pull-ups 4×5
Either jump up or use something to climb up so your chin is above the bar. Slowly lower yourself down to the start position of a pull-up. It should take around 4-5 seconds to lower yourself completely. Rest at least 90 seconds between these sets since eccentric work is very draining on your nervous system and you’re working out four times a week!
Dead hang 3×20 seconds
Dead hang is simply holding on to the bar and hanging freely for 20 seconds. Not that you should keep your shoulders and core tight and not relax so your shoulders slump and come close to your ears! Rest as needed and if it’s too easy just raise the amount of time spent hanging!
Isometric pulls from the top 4×5-15 seconds
Either jump up or use something to climb up so your chin is above the bar. Try and hold on in this top position with your chin above the bar for 5-15 seconds. You should never be close to failing in this exercise so if you find yourself slipping down involuntary, scale down the amount of seconds.
Inverted row 3×8
Inverted rows are basically the complete opposite of a push up. You need rings or a barbell attached to a rack in about waist height. Position yourself under the bar lying face up. Grip should be slightly wider than shoulder width and try and row yourself up so the chest touches the bar. Make it more difficult by moving your feet further away or raise them on a box. To make it easier, bend the legs.
Band assisted 1½ pull-ups 4×5
First do a regular band assisted pull-up. On your way down, stop at the halfway point and go up again to the top position, that’s 1½ pull-ups!
The reason you’re doing a pull-up from the halfway position is to build strength for the part of the pull-up that is the hardest. The biggest lever in a pull-up is in the middle of a pull-up!
Assisted pull-ups 3x6
Eccentric/negative pull-ups 3x6
Towel/ring dead hangs 3×20 seconds
Same position as the regular dead hang, but either wrap a towel around the bar and hold in the ends or use rings to hang in. Towel hang complements the regular dead hangs!
Isometric pulls from the middle 4×5-15 seconds
Same isometric pull as in day 2 but you will hold on from the middle position instead of in the top position. It’s the same position as the ½ pull-up in the “band assisted 1½ pull-ups from day 2!
Barbell rows 3×6
Hold a barbel in the top of a deadlift position and lean forward as far as your hamstrings will allow you while keeping your legs almost straight. Let the barbell hang freely, this is the starting position. From this position, row the barbell up to your chest stop for a second before slowly lowering it to the starting position.
Lat Pulldown 4×6
This is probably the “best machine” to practice pull-ups. Make sure that you’re doing them strict and not trying to use the momentum of a sharp pull to carry yourself through the movement. Slow and steady, with a 1 second pause in the bottom before slowly release the bar up.