the joy of strength training


October 31st, 2007 at 10:56 pm

How to do pull-ups

There is absolutely no reason why you, dear reader, can’t train to do a pull-up. It’s not easy, but it is achievable.

Men are usually slightly better equipped for pull-ups as they naturally have more muscle mass and upper body strength but most of them find pull-ups one of the toughest exercises as well. Although women might start off relatively weaker than men, there’s no reason why it has to stay that way.

Watch me knocking out multiple pull-ups on rings. All I did was work hard at these over a period of time, using the techniques below.

For the purposes of this post, ‘pull-up’ refers both to the pronated (overhand) and the supinated (underhand) pull, as all the advice works for both types. However, many people differentiate between the two by referring to the underhand pull as a chin-up.

There are a few different approaches to achieving a pull-up which all seem to work. You can use one, some or all of them in combination.

1. Using negative reps

This involves starting at the top position (using a chair or something to get you up there) and slowly lowering yourself to the bottom position. So you are using the eccentric portion of the lift to train your arms and back to bear your weight under control.

2. Doing assisted pull-ups

You can use the pull-up machine at the gym for this, but a good low-tech method is to do an inverted row, which is like a pull-up but with your feet on the ground. I used to do these a lot as part of British Military Fitness classes, where we would do high reps (say, 50 reps in sets of 10), which gives you a good base to work on.

Here’s a clip of someone doing inverted rows. You can elevate your feet on a ball or step to make the exercise harder. It will help build up the muscles in the back that you need for unassisted pull-ups.

You can also get a similar effect from doing lat pulldowns, although I think psychologically it is better to get used to pulling yourself up rather than pulling a bar down towards you. Don’t ask me why, but it feels different.

3. Increase strength prior to attempting pull-up

This is what happened to me, without planning it. I was able to do a pull-up the first time I tried because I was already strong from other types of resistance training such as power lifting.

4. Grease the groove method

This has been promulgataed by strength training guru Pavel Tsatouline and involves doing fewer reps in one set but doing sets more often. The rule of thumb is to do 50% of your max reps every time you go near a pull-up bar. If you have one at home, this can be several times in a day. This method is most useful for people who can already do a few pull-ups but want to increase their reps. I have used this method many times to get past sticking points.

All of the above methods work, but ultimately there’s no easy way. You just have to be patient and work at it steadily. It’s worth it though, because it is a great strength training exercise for arms and back, it is very functional and its one of the most impressive things you can do in the gym!

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