Ask any fitness expert or bodybuilding guru about the best way to build serious upper-body strength and they’ll tell you the same thing; the humble pull-up has no equal. The trouble is, many people are unable to do a single unassisted body-weight pull-up. That’s why we put together this complete guide; to help anyone master this powerful muscle-building move. These five tips will help set you on a path towards getting that strong, V-shaped back you’ve always wanted and meeting your health and fitness goals.
Step 1. Get a decent pull-up bar
If you’ve yet to master a single unassisted pull-up, your first priority should be to buy a decent pull-up bar. There are plenty of options available to suit every budget, ranging from simple doorway pull-up bars to stand-alone pull-up stations. Here’s a quick overview of your options.
- Telescopic pull-up bars
Telescopic pull-up bars are bars that fit between any sturdy doorway and expand when you twist them. They can be a cost-effective option if your home has solid walls that are strong enough to support the stress. Most bars come with metal plates that you need to screw into either side of the door frame. However, the latest range of telescopic pull-up bars are able to stay in place without any screws whatsoever. For instance, the sporting goods store Decathlon produces bars that can support up to 220 lbs without any screws. These bars only require screws if you want the bar to be able to handle more than 220 lbs and up to 330 lbs. These “no-screw” pull-up bars are ideal if you are living in a rented place, or don’t want to damage or permanently modify your doorway.
- Leverage pull-up bars
Many people find that doorway bars are too narrow and/or too low for doing proper pull-ups. That’s why leverage bars like the ones popularized by the “P90-X” workout series have gained popularity. These bars protrude from the doorway and afford you a better range of movement compared with telescopic bars. They typically require a screw-in bracket to hold them in place, but they can be unhooked and removed for storage when not in use.
- Wall-mounted pull-up bars
If your home has solid brick walls that you don’t mind drilling into, wall-mounted pull-up bars are ideal. As they jut out of the wall, they offer multiple grip positions and a full range of movement. They can support serious weight (300 lbs+) and don’t take up too much space.
- Free-standing pull-up stations
If you are serious about mastering pull-ups and have enough space, then you can buy a free-standing pull-up station or a vertical knee raise unit with a pull up bar at the top. Free-standing units will give you a much better range of motion than telescopic or leverage pull-up bars, as they let you pull your head clean over the bar without having to worry about hitting your face or head on the door frame or wall.
- Power racks
For the ultimate in durability, you may choose to invest in a power rack with a pull-up bar on top. These bars are capable of supporting well over 300 lbs and have a huge range of hand placement options. The downside of buying a power rack is that they take up significant space and cannot easily be dismantled. On the plus side, a power rack lets you safely handle barbells and get a full body workout with squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, making it a worthwhile investment.
Step 2. Work on your grip
Once you’ve chosen a suitable pull-up bar, the next thing you need to work on is increasing your grip strength. If your grip fails prematurely, it doesn’t matter how strong your shoulders or back muscles are – you won’t be able to do an unassisted pull-up. To improve your grip strength, simply grab the pull-up bar with your arms shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Aim to hang for as long as possible before letting go and taking a two-minute break. Repeat this three times everyday until you are able to hang for at least 60 seconds.
Step 3. Strengthen your lower traps
As soon as you can comfortably hang on the pull-up bar for at least one minute, the next area of weakness you need to address is your lower trapezius, or “traps”. The traps are the large group of muscles on your back, but they actually have three main parts:
- The upper, or “descending”, traps support your arms and kick in when you shrug your shoulders.
- The middle, or “transverse”, traps retract your shoulders and pull them together.
- The lower, or “ascending”, traps rotate your shoulders medially and bring them down.
For most people, their lower traps are a weak area and one of the main reasons why they find pull-ups so difficult. The best way to strengthen your lower traps is with “scapular pull-ups”.
How to do Scapular Pull-Ups
Hang from the bar and keep your arms straight then try to raise your shoulders towards your ears, like a reverse shrug. Hold for two seconds and then slowly relax your shoulders. Repeat this nine more times for one set. Keep practicing until you can do three sets of these pull-ups. This will improve your grip and trap strength simultaneously.
Step 4. Band-assisted pull-ups
As soon as you can comfortably do three sets of ten scapular pull-ups, you’re ready to do your first assisted pull-up. An assisted pull-up simply means that you are using a piece of equipment to make the move easier. Fitness bands are the easiest and most affordable way to do an assisted pull-up. You can loop them over the bar and put your knee or foot in the loop to effectively reduce the amount of weight that you have to lift. Fitness bands come in a range of thickness and you can choose accordingly.
To get started with a fitness band, simply loop the band over the top of the pull-up bar and through itself to keep it in place. Grasp the bar with your hands, and place one of your knees in the loops so that you can lower yourself down onto the band. This should make it easier to pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. As you rise, the assistance provided by the band will decrease. When you lower yourself down, the band will provide more assistance as it stretches.
If you have access to a power rack, you can loop the band around the supports on either side of the frame instead of having the band hang down in front of your face. This lets you place your feet onto the band, which can give you a more natural, balanced type of support. You can easily adjust the difficulty of the pull-ups but raising the support beams to give more assistance, and lowering them to decrease the assistance.
Initially, aim to do at least one pull-up, then take a rest, and repeat until you have completed three sets. You can increase the level of resistance by purchasing a stronger band, or by placing your foot (instead of your knee) on the band. As you gain strength, aim to increase the number of pull-ups you do on each set, or switch to a weaker band that offers less support. Keep practicing until you can do three sets of 5-10 band-assisted pull-ups.
Step 5. Use negative pull-ups to build strength
To transition from assisted pull-ups using the band to doing unassisted pull-ups with your own body-weight, you should begin practicing “negative” pull-ups. This means lowering yourself through the downward, or “negative”, portion of the pull-up movement with no additional support. While you can jump up to the top position, this isn’t advisable if you use a doorway pull-up bar as it is all too easy to dislodge it and fall down.
A safer option is to place a chair in front of the bar, stand on a chair, and grab onto the bar with your palms facing away from you and shoulder-width apart. Slowly lower yourself down in a very controlled manner. When your feet touch the floor, stand back on the chair and repeat. This technique works with almost all exercises and is extremely effective. Even professional weightlifters use this technique to develop their strength. Keep practicing negative pull ups until you can comfortably handle three sets of 5-10 reps.
How to build your endurance
Once you can knock out 5-10 negative pull ups, you should be able to do one or more unassisted body-weight pull ups. The next challenge is to start building your endurance and increasing the number of pull-ups you can do.
To do this, you should aim to complete as many unassisted pull ups as you can before switching to band-assisted or negative pull ups for the remainder of the set. Let’s say you want to complete a set of ten pull-ups. If you can only do three unassisted pull ups, knock those out first and then complete the remaining seven pull ups with a band or as negative reps. Take a one minute rest and then start the second set, before taking a second one-minute rest and then completing the third set.
Aim to complete this three-set routine three times per week on non-consecutive days. This schedule will give your back muscles enough time to recuperate and grow.
Another technique for building endurance is to have a pull up bar at home or in a place where you’ll use it often. If you place it somewhere that you walk by often, you can challenge yourself to do several pull ups at various points throughout the day. You’ll soon be doing 20+ pull-ups per day and making real progress.
If you’ve yet to master a single pull-up, hopeful this five-step plan will help. Buying a pull-up bar is one of the best investments you can make as pull up benefits include a wide, strong back and a tough upper body with a minimum of fuss. With patience and perseverance, you’ll quickly master a set of pull-ups and be well on your way towards meeting your health and fitness goals. Good luck!