Building Your Pull-Up Strength



by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

A pull-up is arguably one of the most difficult movements for the average person to achieve. Many people probably cannot do one at all, and many that can may only be able to do small sets of 1-3. But what kind of things should you be working into your training to achieve that first pull-up or put together bigger sets? Other than actually doing pull-ups to build your pull-up strength, there are a wide variety of closely related movements that are going to help you become more proficient at the movement and hopefully achieve that first one if you are still chasing it!

First and foremost, one of the most common and LEAST helpful methods that I see when attacking the pull-up is doing banded pull-ups. For those that are not familiar with this, it is when you put a looped resistance band around the pull-up bar and put your foot or knee in the band to aid you in doing a pull-up. The reason I am not a fan of this method is because it encourages you to use the least amount of pulling strength in the most difficult part of the movement: the dead hang. When your arms are fully extended and you are beginning the movement, it is arguably the most difficult part of the movement that requires the most strength; while at this same point when using this method, the resistance band is also aiding you the most. A band may be somewhat helpful in building some strength closer to the top of your pull-up, but you NEED to be strong in that bottom position if this is a movement you want to be able to accomplish on your own. It is also very easy to get caught up in being able to do big sets of pull-ups with the band and not ever progress to pull-ups without it.

One exercise that is helpful to building pull-up strength that anybody can do, is the lat pulldown.  While the stability aspect is not as important during the lat pulldown, it mimics the exact movement and works the same muscle group involved in doing a pull-up and you can adjust the amount of weight. You can also do different variations that include: pausing and holding at the bottom of the movement each rep or negatives, where once you hit the bottom of the movement you take your time and return to the top of the movement at a very slow and methodical pace with approximately a 4-6 second count on that half of the movement.

Another weighted movement that can help your pull-up is the bent over row. This can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells, and will greatly help increase upper back strength. For this exercise, you are going to want your knees slightly bent while being bent at the waist with a straight back, almost parallel to the floor. From there, while keeping your torso in place, you are going to pull your elbows straight back so that the bar comes to just below your ribcage. At the top of the movement, squeeze and hold for a moment before slowly lowering the bar back to the start position. While you are pulling in a different plane here, this movement will still help you build strength in an area of need for the pull-up.

Next, we can get into some of the bodyweight progressions that are going to get us closer to mimicking that actual pull-up. This is the last movement that you will be performing without actually being on the pull-up bar: Inverted rows, or ring rows. For this movement, you can use a TRX, gymnastic rings, or even a smith machine adjusted to the correct height. This is going to be similar to doing a pull-up, but the different plane that you perform the movement in allows for you to bear less than your entire body weight. For this, you are going to want to keep your entire body in a straight line from head to toe. Whichever apparatus you choose to use for this movement, you are going to grip it and walk your feet forward while keeping your body in a straight line. The further you walk your feet forward, the more difficult the movement will be. Beginning with the arms fully extended and keeping the shoulders relaxed, you are going to pull your elbows straight back while pulling your torso upward until you either hit the bar or are approximately flush with the handles you are using. Again, with this exercise you are going to take a short pause at the top of the movement before slowly returning to the start position. This will help build that upper back pulling strength.

When considering doing pull-ups, you also need to take into account that pulling strength is not necessarily the only thing that may be holding you back. You may also be struggling to hold onto the bar for an extended period of time. In which case, dead hangs might be beneficial to your journey to do a pull-up. This exercise looks exactly how it sounds; all you do is grab the pull-up bar and hang there. However you do need to make sure that your shoulder blades are down and you are engaging the muscles in your back and not feeling like your shoulders are going to dislocate.

As we are getting closer to the point of actually doing a pull-up, there are also jumping pull-ups and assisted pull-ups that you can use as progressions to the real thing. Assisted pull-ups can either be done with a partner, or on an assisted pull-up machine that many commercial gyms have. The idea of the assisted pull-up is that you are completing a full pull-up, but not with your entire body weight. Either have a friend spot you during the movement and relieve some of your body weight with a light push on your way up, or on the machine you may set the counterweight to whatever amount you feel you need to properly complete the movement. Jumping pull-ups are again, exactly as they sound. From the ground, or a step if the bar is too high, jump up to the pull-up bar to help use some momentum to get you to the top position. Once you are there, try to hold the position for a brief moment before slowly returning to the point where your arms are fully extended. This allows you to train those same nerve impulses that you use during a regular pull-up without taking on the dead weight of your body. This also leads to one of the most beneficial movements to developing your pull-up: the negative. Once you jump to that top position of the pull-up, try to descend in a very slow and controlled fashion. You should be able to count to at least 5 on your way down. This way you are really putting those “pull-up muscles” to work by fighting gravity on your way down.

Lastly, you can also perform partial range of motion pull-ups. This is also a very helpful way to build strength in different positions of your pull-up ascent. While you may not be able to do a full pull-up yet, you can work on quarter pull-ups to build that strength at the bottom or at the top of the movement. You can also do halves, or try to work that mid-range where you are not going to the top or fully extending your arms at the bottom. Playing with different ranges of motion will help you build strength in all different areas of the pull-up.

While I can’t guarantee you will be ripping out sets of 10 pull-ups using these exercise progressions, I can definitely say that these will put you on the right path to mastering those pull-ups!

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