I’ve spent most of my life looking up at pull-up bars, wishing I could ascend to their height. Sometimes I would train hard, and I would get one (1) pull-up. But then I’d slack off for a hot minute, and I’d be back down to zero. I’m a cis woman, not particularly gifted with upper-body muscle. But last year I decided I was going to focus on building the strength to do pull-ups, plural, and by god I did.
Here are my qualifications: At the beginning of October 2018, I could do approximately one pull-up, on a good day. By the beginning of November, I had my second. I added a third and a fourth in December, then a fifth and a sixth in January. I missed a lot of workouts in February and March due to illness, travel, and life getting in the way. I kept doing pullups whenever I could, and added a seventh rep during that time. I can currently do eight in a row, and I’m hoping to hit nine and ten soon!
Know the basics
First, hand position matters. If your palms are facing toward you, that’s a chin-up. If they’re facing away from you, that’s a pull-up. They’re very similar moves but chins are easier, so you will get your first (or next) chin-up before the same number of pull-ups.
Sometimes gyms will have pull-up handles on various equipment (look at the top of the cable machine or squat rack), and they’re not always straight bars. There might be handles that are parallel to each other, giving you a grip option that’s halfway in between a pull-up and chin-up. I like the ones with two handles spaced wide apart. Your hands need to be wider for a pull-up than for a chin-up, and when you’re doing pull-ups, wider is actually a bit easier. Play with hand position and figure out what works best for you.
Second, know what counts as a strict pull-up. At the top position, your chin has to be higher than the bar. At the bottom, you have to stretch your arms and back out long, with your shoulder muscles scrunched up by your ears. If you see guys at the gym busting out tons of reps, but they only ever go halfway down, they are not doing proper strict pull-ups and you should not be impressed.
Kipping pull-ups are a whole nother thing. This is a move where you swing your body and use momentum to help yourself up. It’s a skill that I have not learned, and in fact a CrossFit instructor told me that you have to be able to do a bunch of strict pull-ups before it’s worth learning how to kip. I just want to make sure I’ve said, on the record, that kipping is not cheating. It’s a different exercise.
Don’t expect one magic move to get you there
When people talk about how to get their first pull-up, or their first few, the discussion often turns to everyone’s opinion on what is the best or most effective exercise. Some folks swear by negative reps, where you start at the top and lower yourself down. Others prefer band-assisted pull-ups, or an assisted pull-up machine at the gym, or ring rows or inverted rows from a bar. This question is a great way to start a spirited discussion, because everybody has their favourite, and yet plenty of people can say that they tried one of the magic moves and they didn’t make progress.
I suspect the truth is that you have to do many different exercises, not just one. I had huge success with this six-exercise routine from Jennifer Blake and Jen Sinkler, in which assisted pull-ups are the main dish but they’re nothing without the appetizers and dessert.
Here’s what I mean. In that workout, the assisted pull-up is of a type that helps you out at the bottom of the rep and makes you work harder at the top. (Band pull-ups are like this, too.) There’s another exercise in the routine, scap pull-ups, which work the bottom part of the motion on its own. Then, the authors note that you need to spend a lot of time doing Kroc rows (where you bend over and pull a heavy dumbbell up to ribcage level) to “increase your upper body mass.” In other words, it’s not just about practicing one movement, but also building the sheer strength it takes to support yourself.
Commit and keep working
When I embarked on my pull-up journey seven months ago, I remembered the Blake and Sinkler routine. I started off doing everything in the routine, but even when I got lazy and skipped a few things, I made sure to keep the important ones in the rotation: lots of assisted pull-ups, lots and lots of dumbbell rows.
This may be a female-specific problem, but I find that my body doesn’t hang on to upper-body gains as well as it does lower-body ones. If I increase the amount of weight I can squat, I don’t have to worry about losing that accomplishment. But if I get some upper-body gains and then slack off, they’ll disappear. So I committed to working on my pulling exercises two to three times a week, no matter what.
I also happen to have a pull-up bar at home, so I made sure to do pull-ups throughout the day, even if it’s just an occasional single rep as I walk through the doorway. (If you don’t have your first rep yet, you can get into this habit with one of the assisted or negative options.)
Once you get a few, change your strategy
If you can only do one or two or three pull-ups, that means every time you do a set, you’re probably going “to failure,” to the state of being unable to do another rep. That’s one way to work your muscles, but it’s not the only way and arguably not the best.
Say you can do three pull-ups, but a set of three leaves you totally jello-armed and unable to do any more. You probably won’t get in very many sets of three during your workout. In fact, when I was in this situation, I could do one set of three per day, and after that only just singles or maybe doubles.
You may find it more useful to do sets of just one or two at a time. This still may not add up to a lot of reps, so keep on doing those assisted pull-ups and those rows and everything else. Now that I can do eight reps, I do most of my pull-up work in sets of five or so.
I’ve also begun to work on weighted pull-ups. At the gym, look for a belt with a dangly chain on it: you can thread a weight plate onto the chain and let it hang between your legs. Or at home, load books or dumbbells into a backpack. I can do a single pull-up with 8kg of added weight, and one of these days I’m going to be able to do it with my 14kg daughter hugging my legs. Wish me luck.