5 Best Exercises to Get Your First Pull Up
When I ask new members of my gym what their biggest fitness goal is, one of the most common answers that I hear is “to do a real pull up”. This is a particularly popular answer among women. I hear it all the time, “I’ve never been able to do a pull up, even as a kid!” Well I’ve been lucky enough to see a ton of men AND women do their first strict pull up, and each time is just as exciting as the last. That “first pull up” feeling is magical. Let’s get you there.
We do a TON of pull up work at GuitarTown Athletics – here are 5 of our favorite exercises that have helped so many of our members hit their first pull ups. Click on the title for a little video tutorial.
Ring Rows or Supine Rows are great for developing raw pulling power in the biceps and lats. These can be tailored to any fitness level by adjusting the angle at which it is performed, if you move your feet further back and become more upright the pull will be easier, and if you move your feet really far forward and get closer to parallel with the ground the pull will be much harder. We recommend all beginners start with rows so they feel what its like to pull themselves up. While the plane is different (you are pulling from in front of yourself as opposed to above yourself in a real pull up), rows will still work the important pulling muscles. Keep your core tight (don’t let your hips sink back), start from a fully extended arm and pull the rings or bar to your chest. Squeeze the biceps and lats at the top and then return to an extended arm position UNDER CONTROL. Go slow and maintain perfect form.
Next we need to develop strength for you to actually be able to safely hang from a bar. In order to do a pull up (and to do them without injury), you need to be able to activate your lats and scaps to keep your shoulder in the correct position. Scapular pull ups train you to do just that – you will not need to do any pulling with your biceps, but instead you are training your back to activate and stay engaged.
Once you’re very comfortable with ring rows and can safely hang from a bar with active scaps and lats, you should move on to self-assisted pull ups. This is how we start pulling vertically, which will help to develop lat strength. Tuck your feet underneath you and assist the pull up using your legs as little as possible. Return on a slow count. These should be done slowly and not in a “for time” conditioning or CrossFit workout.
The prerequisite for this exercise is that you must be strong enough to hold your chin above the bar and slowly lower yourself down to an extended arm position. If you cannot control your descent, then perform exercises 1, 2, and 3 until you are able to. The jumping pull up with slow negative (called the eccentric portion of the movement) is a very potent movement and should not be done at high reps. Keep sets small (3-5) and rest an adequate amount between sets. One of the biggest mistakes with the negative pull up is that people will lower themselves slowly but then touch their feet on the ground before their arms reach full extension. In order to strengthen the muscles through the entire pull up range of motion, you must slowly lower yourself down all the way until you are at a full dead hang, THEN touch your feet to the ground.
5. Rope Climbs
You might be thinking “If I can’t do a pull up, how on Earth am I supposed to do a rope climb?!” The fact of the matter is that climbing a rope using the j-hook foot technique actually requires less strength than a strict pull up does. Rope climbs are EXTREMELY beneficial in developing upper body and grip strength. With proper technique we see a lot of members learn how to rope climb before they finally get a pull up, so incorporating rope climbs into your routine will help you quickly develop upper body pulling strength.
An old friend and coach once taught me that there are only two ways to get better at pull ups: either get stronger or weigh less. It’s no secret that you are fighting your body weight when trying to do a pull up. If you have been performing all of the above exercises and still aren’t reaching your goal, it might be time to shift focus to losing weight. If you want help with your eating habits or want specific reps and sets of these exercises individualized to YOU, check out THIS PAGE.