Do It Better: Your Path to Bodyweight Pull-ups

Pull-ups. You plus the bar plus gravity, and nothing else. Are you sweatin’ yet? If you are, you are exactly who I want to talk to today.

Because if this is you, chances are pretty good you’ve bought into the myth that continues to hang on with the tenacity of Super Glue: that pull-ups are not for you. Because you’re a woman, or because you have a sturdier build. Because you never could do them, even when you were younger. For many of us, the thought of pull-ups can dredge up some pretty vulnerable memories, to which I can definitely relate. Because here’s a secret for you: I was that kid who jumped up to the pull-up bar only to flop directly back down during fifth-grade fitness testing.

If that was similar to your experience too, you may have stopped there. And I get it, but I now know there is a better way and the real reason you haven’t conquered pull-ups yet: Lack of knowledge on how to make the movement work for you, lack of practicing said movement, and lack of strength in your upper body. But this the point where the fun starts because here’s the deal: this is a problem with a workable solution!

Let’s ditch the bad memories and learn what pull-ups success is truly built upon:

  1. Mobilizing and activating your upper body
  2. Generating total body tension
  3. Improving your vertical pulling strength
  4. Increasing your upper body mass

Here is how to make pull-ups accessible for you, along with an invitation to forego the belief in the myth for an attitude of inquisitive experimentation. So grab your training journal, a pencil, a timer, and let’s play!

Determine Your Baseline

Experimentation is what the training biz end of your exercise routine is all about. It includes embarking on a plan that includes different exercises and implements and then noting what’s working well—like the ability to add more weight, complete more reps, or do a movement previously inaccessible to you—and what needs attention. From there you make the necessary adjustments so you can continue to make progress. An important part that many people overlook when they attempt to conquer pull-ups is one of the most simple: taking your baseline, or your starting point.

I like this baseline progression for pull-ups:

  • Dead hang
  • Hollow-body hang
  • Flexed-arm hang

Where is you hanging right now? Grab a timer and head to the bar. Can you dangle from a bar with an overhand grip. Great! You can do a dead hang. Can you do the same while keeping your shoulder blades pulled down in your back pockets and your abs engaged? Awesome, you can do a hollow-body hang! How about hanging on with your chin over the bar, your elbows bent, and your abs engaged? Sweet, you’re flexed-arm hangin’. The point is to check what you can do right now so that when you check again, you can see what’s changed.

This is where your timer comes in handy. Time how long you can dead hang, hollow-body hang, or hang with flexed arms. This is nothing more than your starting point, but you need to know it so you can check your progress later.

Then, spend two weeks practicing the following exercise routine and test again to how much the needle has moved.

The Grand Experiment!

The following is a short, effective upper body strength booster to add on to the tail end of your lifting sessions, or tacked on following a run on the treadmill or an after exercise class at your gym.

Program notes: 

  1. Complete the exercises A to D, 2-3 times per week.
  2. A1 and A2, and D1 and D2 are a supersets: perform each movement back to back, resting as long as needed between each exercise.
  3. B and C are straight sets: perform each exercise individually, resting as long as needed between each set.

Mobilize and Activate Your Upper Body

A1. Bodyweight Wall Slide, 2×10

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart about 6-8 inches away from a wall, and your upper back pressed against the wall.
  • Raise your arms to press the backs of your hands and elbows against the wall, forming a W-shape with your arms.
  • Keeping your upper back, backs of hands, and elbows in contact with the wall throughout the movement, slowly slide your arms up the wall until they are straight. Depending on your shoulder mobility, your arms may form a shallow V or you may be able to bring your arms straight overhead and parallel to one another.
  • Reverse the movement to lower your arms to form a W-shape again. Repeat.

A2. Bodyweight Scap Pull-Up, 2xAMAP (As Many As Pretty)

 

Hot tip! If you’re not quite ready to hang from a bar for your scap pull-ups just yet, place a box under the bar and place a foot on it for an assist. You are your own coach during the set—only use your leg on the box as much as needed to complete the desired amount of repetitions.

Generate Total Body Tension

B. Valslide Body Saw, 3xAMAP (As Many As Pretty) 

Psssst: Valslide Body Saws are terrifically challenging! (But I love them because they groove the practice of moving your body while maintaining super tight tension. . .just like you would in a pull-up.) Start with baby saws and increase your range of motion as you get stronger.

Improve Your Vertical Pulling Strength 

C. Bodyweight Box-Assisted Pull-Ups, 4xAMAP (As Many As Pretty) 

  • Place a sturdy box under a pull-up bar. Stand with one foot on the box while the other hangs freely. Grip the bar with palms facing away from you.
  • Pulling your elbows down and back, pull yourself as high as you can while using your leg for assistance as much as is needed throughout the movement.
  • Once your chin clears the bar or—even be er—you are able to
    touch the base of your throat or upper chest to the bar, lower yourself slowly and with control, assisting with your leg as needed.
  • You are your own coach during the set—only use your leg on the box as much as needed to complete the desired amount of repetitions.

Hey! This movement is your money maker for getting you your first, unassisted pull-up. Do not underestimate how challenging it is but also try to add more reps with less support from your leg as often as possible.

Increase Your Upper Body Mass

D1. Dumbbell Kroc Row, 3-5×10-12

 

 

  • Holding a heavy dumbbell at your side, hinge forward from the hips approximately 45 degrees while staying wide across the chest.
  • Row the dumbbell explosively up toward your ribcage, keeping your elbow no more than 30 degrees out from your body.
  • Keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears, you will slightly rotate at the chest at the top of the range of motion.
  • Lower the dumbbell to the start position with control and repeat.

D2. Resistance Band Straight-Arm Pulldown 3-5×15-20

  • To set up, loop a large resistance band around a pull-up bar so it can hang freely overhead.
  • While standing, grab the resistance band with both hands, arms straight out in front of you. There should be no slack in the resistance band while in the starting position.
  • Keeping your hips directly under your ribcage and your core lightly braced, pull the band down to the front of your thighs.
  • Bring your arms back up to the starting position slowly and again, keep your hips directly under your ribcage throughout the movement.
  • To make the movement more difficult, “choke up” on the resistance band for more resistance as you pull the band downward.

Practice this upper body strength routine 2-3 times a week for two weeks retest your baseline to see what’s changed with one addition: try a pull-up. Maybe you only get half-way, and that’s fine! Half-way is half-way! Make a note of it in your journal. Then, repeat the routine, adding more weight or more sets and reps as often as possible and retest again! With consistent practice improvements are inevitable. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

 

If you have an interest in getting stronger and more skilled in new ways, it makes sense that you would seek support to serve that goal.

If you’d like that support to be me, applications for Unapologetically Strong Coaching are being accepted NOW! Unapologetically Strong Coaching is where we will work together to help you become a strong, powerful, and efficient lifter. You’ll also get connected with a community of people who are looking for the same thing you are: to increase their strength, to bust through training plateaus, and to feel more confident and empowered in their lifts.

Most importantly, Unapologetically Strong Coaching is your spot to discover and declare what being strong means and looks like to you. Questions? Fill out THIS application to get the conversation started. Talk soon! 

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Author:Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake’s leggings might be pink but her weights aren’t. A personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis she is a powerlifting and strongman enthusiast with a passion for human movement, here to spread the good word that strong is fun. Facebook: Strong Is Fun, Twitter, Instagram
Comments: 10

10 Responses to “Do It Better: Your Path to Bodyweight Pull-ups”

  1. March 31, 2017 at 9:09 pm #

    Awesome program – I’m going to start immediately! Thank you for posting this!

    • Jennifer Blake
      April 2, 2017 at 8:02 pm #

      Thanks, Ashley! Keep me posted on your progress (and holler at me if any questions come up as you go)!

  2. Katherine M Ormiston
    April 2, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

    Saw this on Lifehacker and was inspired. What do you think of the assisted pull up and dip machines?

    • Jennifer Blake
      April 2, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks, Katherine! Honestly, I think the best plan is to work with the equipment you have! Assisted pull-up machines have their role, but more as a side rather than the main dish. They assist you the most in the bottom portion of the movement but not as much at the top, and since most people need the most help in finishing the movement, I prefer box-assisted pull-ups over the machine-assisted version. But again, it comes down to access: if you don’t have a box to place under the bar, but you do have access to an assisted pull-up machine, I would slot that into where resistance band straight-arm pulldowns are in this routine (same number of sets and reps).

      I hope that helps!

  3. April 3, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    I like the scap pull. I’ve done it with a barbell before in a bent over position (Jefferson Curl) and found it really beneficial. I’ll try it from a bar.

    • Jennifer Blake
      April 18, 2017 at 8:00 pm #

      Awesome, Ethan! I hope you like it. (BIG fan of the Jefferson Curl over here too!)

  4. Tom
    April 15, 2017 at 7:15 am #

    Hi Jennifer,

    Any ideas on increasing shoulder mobility? When I tried your first exercise (A1 – back and shoulders to the wall) I realized I can’t get the backs of my hands anywhere near the wall. Same problem when I try to create a V shape with my arms.

    • Jennifer Blake
      April 18, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

      Hi, Tom! Thoracic Bridge with Reach is a top favorite for upper body mobility (as well as hip flexor mobility and glute activation, really, it does it all) and as long as you can bear weight on one arm, it’s an exercise anyone can do: https://youtu.be/qrKuRaj8xbM For this routine I recommend you do 2×5 on each side, in place of the Wall Slide.

      I hope this helps! Let me know!

  5. Beth Rose
    April 17, 2017 at 7:09 pm #

    These exercises are really helpful but I’m having trouble regulating how much weight I put on my foot on the box assist pull ups and I don’t really see what the value of the wall slides is

    • Jennifer Blake
      April 18, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

      Hi, Beth! The nice thing about box assisted pull-ups (the best thing, really) is that you can use less assistance in the beginning of your set and more as you move further into your set. It helps to initiate every pull with your arms and then let your leg jump in to help. In this routine, you can call your set done when you know your leg is doing all of the work for you. It make take a couple sessions to get a feel for it but you will get better at coaching yourself through the exercise with more practice.

      And I like to use the Wall Slide exercise as one way to open up the muscles of the chest and shoulders as a way to prepare your body for overhead exercises (I use this same drill for overhead pressing). If you spend a lot of your day at a computer, those muscles can get short and tight and jumping into overhead exercises without some prep could potentially lead to discomfort or pain. But this exercise is just one of many so if you have an upper body mobility drill that you prefer, feel free to swap that one in instead.

      I hope this helps!

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