Few things in the gym are more empowering and exciting than finally being able to do your first pull-up.
As anyone who's accomplished this knows, you'll feel like an absolute badass in the gym after the first one.
Problem is, the pull-up is a hard lift to “work up to”, because you can’t just "try harder" at it when you’re stuck at zero. So many people train for years, and never achieve a pull-up.
In today's blog, you'll learn the exact process needed to finally get your chin up over the bar.
Anatomy of a pull-up
The first thing you need to understand to achieve your first pull-up, is what muscles you’re working.
To do a pull up you’re going from a dead hang on the bar, to arms flexed and chin over the bar.
So basically, all the muscles of the back and the biceps are involved... but let’s break down the biggest movers:
—> Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) - The function of the lats is to extend, adduct, and internally rotate the arm. It’s origin goes all the way down to the iliac crest (hip bones), and inserts at the back of the top of the humerus (upper arm bone), so this is a really big muscle that covers a lot of the back.
—> Trapezius (Traps) - The traps retract, rotate, elevate, and depress the scapulas (shoulder blades). Although it is all one muscle, you’ll usually hear traps referred to as upper or lower traps. Upper traps are up above your shoulders on each side of your neck, and lower traps are your upper middle back. The pull up will primarily work the lower traps.
—> Biceps - The biceps flex the elbow joint. They also supinate, abduct, and internally rotate the upper arm.
What's holding you back?
The pull-up is a body weight exercise. You can be really strong, but if you have a high body weight it may still be a challenge for you to do a pull-up or other body weight exercises (e.g. push-ups and pistol squats).
First, you need to assess whether your weak link is actual strength, if your body weight is higher than optimal, or both.
A good way to gauge this is your strength on other exercises.
- If you are relatively strong on other lifts like a pull down, deadlift, or row, your weak link may be your body weight.
- If you are a pretty slim person but weak on those movements, you just need to get stronger.
Another weak link in the pull up could be grip strength.
You will need to be able to hold on to the bar tight enough and for long enough to be able to complete the lift.
- If you feel like your back is strong, but your forearms burn and give out first, you need to work on your grip strength.
The last thing that may be holding you back from getting a pull up is mobility.
The lats are internal rotators, so if your lats are tight, and you are hunched forward it may be hard to get your arms straight overhead without pain.
- If this is you, mobility needs to be your focus.
Addressing your weak links
Now that you've identified the weak links in your progress for a pull-up, time to attack it.
Reducing Body Weight:
This one is simple, but not easy to address. If you need to get your body weight down to improve body weight exercises, you need to start eating in a calorie deficit a.k.a. eat less calories than you burn.
The caveat is you don’t want to lose strength or muscle in this process.
To set up your diet in a way that will get you losing body fat without sacrificing strength, apply for coaching with our team, or check out this blog for an in-depth explanation on setting up your diet to sustainably lose fat, not muscle.
So the question posed earlier...
How do you get stronger at a movement you can’t do?
Our favorite way to help someone achieve their first pull-up, is to program regression exercises in a smart manner. If you can’t do a pull up at all, there’s no option to just “work harder” at them to improve. You need to use exercises that work all the same muscles as above, and a similar movement pattern to get you there.
A few of the most effective pull-up regressions we implement with online clients:
Grab the handles and lean back with the rings/TRX supporting your weight. You’ll have to experiment to see how much resistance you need; the further back away from the anchor your feet are, and therefore the more upright you are, the easier the movement will be.
The further your feet are underneath the anchor, and the more horizontal you are, the harder it will be.
Once you get fully horizontal and need to progress further you can elevate your feet onto a box or bench and/or add weight in the form of a weighted vest or plate balanced on your chest.
When you find the right amount of resistance you pull your chest up toward the handles, squeezing hard between your shoulder blades at the top.
This is a great regression from the pull up because you’re still using your back and biceps to pull, but you can move your feet back as far as needed in order to decrease resistance, and complete the lift.
—> Lat Pulldown
Select your weight, grab the handles and sit down in the machine, (usually anchoring your knees under pads). Initiate the movement by pulling shoulder blades down and back, then driving your elbows down toward your waist, squeezing your lats and pulling your chest up at the bottom of the lift.
This is a great regression, because it is the same motion and angle as the pull-up. If you have a lat pulldown machine, you can gradually work on adding more and more load to the lift.
You can also work on a variety of grips, for example you can supinate your hands (palms back toward you), to simulate a chin up, or use a neutral grip (palms in toward each other), to simulate a neutral grip pull-up.
—> Negative Pull-Up
This one of our all-time favorites to program for online clients, because you’re actually doing the pull up, but with help up to the top, and lowering yourself down slowly.
You can get up to the top of the pull-up with the help of a box, a band, or by jumping.
Then, lower yourself down to the bottom as slowly as you can. The goal here is to go slower and slower over time.
From here, a few less specific, but still very solid exercises we program to help online clients get stronger at pull-ups are include...
—> Barbell Rows
These will primarily work your rhomboids, biceps, and grip.
—> Barbell Deadlifts
These are a lat strengthener, but mostly from a function of isometrically contracting throughout the movement. While these don’t directly carry over to the pull-up, they work your lats and grip enough that they can be worth adding in, and they’re such a good overall strengthening exercise that they’re a good movement to have in your program when your goal is strength.
—> Bicep Curl
These will strengthen your biceps, which are a prime mover in the pull-up and chin-up.
—> High Machine (Or Cable) Row
These will strengthen your biceps, which are a prime mover in the pull-up and chin-up.
Next up on the list of weak links to address is grip. This could also fall into the strength category, because it’s just the strength of your hands and forearms.
The good news is, all of the above exercises will also be working your grip strength, because you have to hold on to the bar. There are a lot of options to work on grip strength, but a few of our favorites to program for online clients working towards their first pull-up:
—> Dead Hang
Here, you hold on to the pull-up bar as long as you can with your arms extended as if you’re getting ready to initiate the pull up movement. You can hold for time, and/or you could add weight around your waist with a dip belt to progress resistance.
—> Farmer's Carry
Here, you'll deadlift two heavy dumbbells or farmer’s carry bars and walk. You can progress this by either:
- Performing them for distance, and see how long you can hold on.
- Have a set distance and see how much weight you can carry.
The final thing that could be holding you back from your first pull-up?
Many of us are in front of our phones or computers most of the day, and end up with hunched forward shoulders, and forward head posture, which is often referred to as upper cross syndrome:
Along with the hunched posture, upper cross syndrome comes with tight pecs, shoulders, and traps and a weak upper back. This combination of weakness and tightness needs a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises.
To address the tight pecs, we like to program a doorway pec stretch:
To perform this, you’ll stand in a doorway with your forearm and upper arm at 90 degrees, and lean your upper body forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders.
Hold this for 2 minutes. At the end of 2 minutes you’ll push your arms into the doorway as if you’re trying to do a pec deck exercise. Hold that for 10 seconds then relax.
Pull your arms back away from the wall until you feel your upper back and rear delts cramp. Hold for 10 seconds, then do the pec stretch again for 20 more seconds.
To stretch out tight lats, I like to program a banded lat stretch:
This stretch is smart, because you can relax into it and let the band pull your muscles while you move your lower body to get the best angle. Hold this stretch for 3 sets of 20-30 seconds on each side.
Finally, to counteract the tight pecs and lats it’s smart to strengthen the upper back.
Our top three favorite exercises for this:
—> Band Pull-Aparts
—> Cable Facepull
—> Handcuff With Rotation
Putting it all together
To wrap this up, let’s look at an example of how we'd put this all together into a training program for an online client.
Let’s say you’ve come to us for online coaching, and you want to improve your body weight movements, get stronger, and improve your strength to weight ratio.
Your main goal is to do your first pull up, and you’re fairly new to training. We schedule a call to talk over your situation, and decide a 3 day per week, full body program would be best for your schedule. Your program could look something like this:
5 minute cardio warmup.
Banded lat stretch. 3x30 seconds/side.
Handcuff with rotation. 3x5.
Primer - 3 rounds. No rest.
- 10 Face Pulls
- 10 Scap Pullups
- 10 Dead Bugs
a1.) Ring/TRX Rows. 3x8. 1 RIR.
b1.) Pushups, elevated on a box. 3x8. 1 RIR.
c1.) Single Leg Squat To Box. 3x8 each. 1 RIR.
c2.) Lat Pulldown. 3x10. 1 RIR.
d1.) Single Leg Dumbbell Deadlift. 3x10/leg. 1 RIR.
d2.) Single Arm Overhead Press. 3x10 each. 1 RIR.
Finisher: 4 Rounds, As Fast As Possible.
- 50 Step Farmer’s Carry
- 20 Bodyweight Squats
- 10 Pushup Planks
5 Minute cardio warmup.
Hip Flexor Stretch. 3x30 seconds/side.
Doorway Pec Stretch. 2 minute hold, plus tension for 10 seconds each way.
Primer - 3 Rounds, no rest.
- 10 Band Pull Aparts
- 20 second side plank each side
- 5 Broad Jumps
a1.) Barbell Deadlift, 3x6. 1 RIR.
b1.) Dumbbell Step Back Lunges. 3x10 each side. 1 RIR.
c1.) Lat Pulldown. 3x10. 1 RIR.
c2.) Dumbbell Chest Press. 3x10. 1 RIR.
d1.) Chest Supported Dumbbell Row. 3x10. 1 RIR.
d2.) Dumbbell Lateral Raise. 3x12. 1 RIR.
Finisher: 8 Minutes. As many rounds as possible.
- Max dead hang time
-20 Crunches Friday
5 minute cardio warm up.
Banded Lat Stretch 3x30 seconds/side.
Primer - 3 Rounds, no rest.
- 10 Superman Lat Row
- 10 TRX/Ring Facepulls
- 5 Ball Slams
a1.) Negative Pull Ups. 4x5. 1 RIR.
b1.) Incline Dumbbell Bench. 3x10. 1 RIR.
b2.) Dumbbell Split Squat. 3x8 each. 1 RIR.
c1.) Barbell Row. 3x10. 1 RIR.
c2.) Dumbbell RDL. 3x10. 1 RIR.
d1.) Seated DB Overhead Press. 3x10. 1 RIR.
d2.) 4b. High Cable Row. 3x10. 1 RIR.
Finisher: 3 Rounds.
- 20 Alternating Dumbbell Death March
- 20 Alternating Dumbbell Bicep Curls
- 10 Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks
And that’s how to finally achieve your first pull up.
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