Pull Ups: How to, progression and advancing
The impression the people get when they think of fitness and gyms, they imagine gym rats doing countless bicep exercises and checking themselves out in the reflections of the mirrors.
Nothing could be more accurate.
I have only seen a few people perform pull ups or any compound exercise for that matter.
What I'm seeing are people doing countless repetitions on machines and equipment and those same people have very little to show for it.
As far as I'm concerned…
If you are not doing compound exercises like deadlifts, squats and pull ups (full range of motion) and you have the goals to get solid muscle gains, you're wasting valuable time and money (on the gym membership if you have one).
If you want have a solid body with a foundation of strength and muscle, you'll want to include pull ups in your training program.
Pull ups are hard, there's no doubt about that.
If someone tells you different, they either have the ability to talk but not show, or they seriously have been training their butts off to get better at the pull ups.
Everyone starts from square one, so don't neglect your goals on bettering your pulling exercises.
You won't need a gym since a pull up bar can be found virtually anywhere (think playground, backyard, trees..).
Here are some useful tips to get started
- Avoid machines
Whether you are 300 pounds or just can't do a single pull up, machines will do so little on helping you strengthen up for them.
Machines force you into a fixed position and the strength will not transfer to pull ups.
Pull ups require a strong core and a solid upper body.
This being said, the last thing you want to do is the assisted pull ups.
There are better ways to use your training and time than to use something that puts you in a fixed position.
- Row, and row some more!
Rowing exercises or any back related exercises are normally left for last. Back exercises are a crucial part of your success in doing more pull ups.
Make them a priory and work on your back as much as any other muscle.
Warm up then go right into a back exercise as it should be one of the first things you do in your workout.
- In case you haven't noticed…
The more you weigh, the harder it is to do a pull up
When you exercise, you should be (hopefully) choosing healthier foods that will benefit your training and results.
By controlling your nutrition, you'll able to get your weight under control and it'll be easier to move up over the bar.
Progressing from one level to the next
Once you've accomplished a upgrade (level) in the following list, move onto the next one. You should fully meet the requirements before moving onto the next upgrade.
There's no need to skip a step unless you know you can do it.
So I'll start from the very basic and from there you can check what you're ready to do.
Here are the upgrades you need in order to be able to do pull ups…
Upgrade 1.0: Bent over dumbbell rows
We're starting from square one, if you can't do bent over dumbbell rows with at least 60 pounds (25 KG), then consider working on these.
Focus on getting stronger as you lift more.
You should perform these at least 3 (or 2) times a week. Grab a dumbbell that you can do for 3 to 5 sets of 8 repetitions with 90 second breaks.
Once you're able to do anywhere from 50 to 60 pounds for 3 sets of 8 reps.
Then you're ready for the next upgrade.
If you don't have dumbbells (or barbells), then grab a sturdy bag that can hold anywhere from 20 to 60 pounds of weight.
A sand bag would be ideal but a normal back pack should do fine.
Heavy rocks can work too or large water containers (fill it with sand or water).
Upgrade 2.0: Inverted rows (body weight pull ups)
Body weight rows are similar to pull ups because they target the same muscles but at a different angle.
As you progress, you can make it harder by placing your feet at a higher height (on a balance ball or a chair).
Remember you don't need a gym membership if you don't have one. You can do these at a playground nearby or under your kitchen table. Where there's a will, there's a way.
- Set the bar high enough (or legs) so you can determine how it should be in order to get 8 repetitions for 3 sets.
- If you can complete 3 sets of 8 repetitions, make it harder by raising your feet higher.
- If it's too hard, bend your knees with your feet flat on the ground.
- Pull with your arms but focus on using your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades at the top.
- Mix up the grips. One week you can focus on overhand, and the next you can do under.
Routine would go something like this:
Monday- 3 sets of 10 repetitions of overhand
Wednesday- 3 sets of 10 repetitions underhand
Friday- 3 sets of 10 repetitions overhand
Friday is optional if you are short on time. You can change up the grips the following week. When you're able to do 8 repetitions for 3 sets where your body is almost parallel to the ground (45 degrees) then you're ready for the next upgrade.
Upgrade 3.0 : Assisted Pull ups
Machines will not be useful as it will not give you the real feel (or training) for the preparation of a pull up.
Instead, try the following:
You'll have someone holding your lower body (your feet) to take off some of the weight and make it easier for you.
Try doing as much as you can with your upper body with minimal assistance.
Stand on a chair under a pull up bar, use either one or two feet depending on your strength.
While at the top of the pull up, lower yourself down while using as much as possible from your upper body.
If you can, step off the chair while at the top of lower yourself down in a controlled motion.
If you don't have a chair to support you, or a friend, or bands, then you can use negatives.
With negatives you're main goal is to get to the top of the pull up, whether it's by jumping or by support, and on the way down slowly let yourself down.
The point of this is to let yourself down with full control and minimal speed.
If you're over weight, this can be very dangerous so make sure you keep doing the first few basic upgrades before you jump into this one.
Put your feet or your knees under a band and pull yourself up with the assistance of the band.
- Avoid using momentum. The more controlled you are, the more strength and muscle you'll gain.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades as if you're squeezing a pencil in between them.
- Focus on pulling with your elbows so you can get more of the contraction throughout your back and body.
- Use a few bands that vary in resistance so you can decrease the resistance as you progress.
- You're ready for the next upgrade as soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 repetitions with assistance.
Monday – Body weight rows 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Wednesday – Assisted pull ups (or negatives) 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Friday – Body weight rows 3 sets of 8 repetitions
The following week you can mix between the two or combine them. So it would be 2 sets of body weight rows and 2 sets of pull ups. Or 1 set of one exercise and 2 sets of another. If you are short on time, perform these two times a week. Once you can do 3 sets of 8 repetitions with minimal assistance (or 6 negatives) then you're ready for the next upgrade.
Upgrade 4.0: Chin Ups (or pull up)
You've done (or able) to do all of the upgrades prior to this one, you're ready for the real thing.
Depending on how far you've gone into the exercises that built your strength and muscle for this upgrade, you might be able to do more than one pull up.
It might be easier to start with the underhand grip since the biceps will help more.
How to do a pull up
Grab the bar with your palms facing you and allow yourself to be hanging at the bottom to feel the stretch.
Squeeze your shoulder blades, butt and keep your feet crossed. Pull your chest up
Begin to pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.
Lower back to starting position and repeat
Monday chin ups 2 to 5 sets of as many as you can do
Wednesday Dumbbell (or sandbag/backpack/rock) rows for 3 sets of maximum repetitions
Friday – Pull ups 3 sets of maximum repetitions with 1-2 sets of inverted rows
You do not need to follow the program exactly. IF you feel you can throw in more sets of different back exercises, you can. If you are not ready to do all of the sets, you can lower it to one or two. Every week aim to improve either repetitions (or weight) or less rest time between exercises.
Upgrade to Frek 1.0:
If you're able to do 10 repetitions for 3 sets of pulls ups then you can progress even further with the following options:
- Mix up the hand grip: You can place your hands on the widest grip of the bar so your hand placements are even further than shoulder width.
- Add weights: You can challenge yourself further by adding weights to your pull ups (with weight belts or backpack full of weights) OR have your partner pull your feet down as you pull up.
Since I work out without a partner, my favorite way is using weighted pull ups.
I would have my backpack with weighted items or sometimes I would bring my weight belt with me. The weight belt can be extremely useful especially if you are in the gym.
Add only a small amount to your pull ups and progress from there. Each week you should be able to add on at least 2.5 pounds to your weight belt.
Monday – Wide chin ups – 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Wednesday – Weighted chin ups 3 sets of 6 repetitions
Friday- Body weight rows (inverted rows) with feet as high as possible, 3 sets for 8 repetitions
Weighted chin ups can really tax your body so you can do them every other week for best performance.
Now you know how to upgrade yourself to get pull ups done, you can start doing it as soon as possible.
Remember what I said about those guys in 300, they never used a single machine and mainly focused on compound exercises.
Pull ups being one of them. IF you want a great core (with a six pack) and arms that have bulging biceps with a strong upper body, you'll want to focus on pull ups.
The upgrades above do not need to followed by how it's laid out.
Change what you need as everyone is different.
You may need to lose weight before doing a pull up so you'll need more time and progression than someone who is already a light weight.
If you're a guy or a girl, you need pull ups in your training routine. No gym required, and minimal time is needed, that means no excuses can be made.
Take it one upgrade at a time.
Allow your body to prepare itself before moving up to the next step.
Follow the route that works for you.
And slowly move into each upgrade.
An injury will only slow your progress down.
Do what you need to do, just get a pull up done!
I hope you learn from this and start doing pull ups, as I taught you in this guide of “How to, the progression and how to keep advancing.”
Leave a comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your experience with me!
Have you tried this yet? What's your favorite way to increase your pull up strength and/or endurance?
Get up there!!