Do you avoid the pull-up bar like it’s the plague? ?
Can’t seem to get your chin above the bar no matter how hard you try? You’re not alone – as one of the most challenging bodyweight exercise there is, the pull-up remains daunting for many gym-goers.
When you’re a beginner to the motion, it can seem like there’s no middle-ground between dangling like dead bait at the end of a fishing rod and then suddenly being able to bust out ten perfect reps. Thankfully, there is: there are a series of – proven – moves that will help you build up the necessary strength to execute a full pull-up. By the end of this article, you'll regain your confidence to step up to the bar once again.
Why is the pull-up important?
But – wait, why do you even need to perform the pull-up? Well, the truth is that pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do. As a compound exercise, the pull-up works every muscle in your upper body; the muscles in your back, arms, and even abs all get activated. So, if you’re looking for that enviable V-shaped torso with ripped abs, the pull-up is a non-negotiable addition to your fitness routine.
It's not just about aesthetics, too. In general, pull-ups are an excellent indicator of overall strength. Since you're pulling the entire weight of your body from a dead hang, if you can successfully perform a pull-up, you have a higher strength-to-bodyweight ratio. What you have, then, is a strong and stable upper body that's more functionally fit than those who're unable to do a pull-up.
How can I get to one perfect pull-up?
To get to one perfect pull-up, you need to work on your ‘pull’ muscles – primarily, your back and biceps. Here’s how you can progressively build up strength and muscle mass in those regions:
#1 – Bent-over dumbbell rows
The bent-over dumbbell row is one of the best exercises to build back muscle and strength, which will eventually enable you to complete a pull-up. To start, you should grab a weight that you can do three sets of five reps with. Here's how you can perform the exercise:
1. Begin by holding a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip.
2. Hinge forward (with your hips) until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor and then begin the movement by driving the elbows behind the body while retracting the shoulder blades.
3. Pull the dumbbells towards your body until the elbows are at the midline and then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Do not use momentum.
4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Be sure to progressively overload week on week. Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm) with 10 KG dumbbells, you can move on to the next stage.
#2 – Inverted bodyweight rows
The inverted bodyweight row acts as the perfect precursor to the pull-up because it works the same muscles the pull-up does, only with a different angle (horizontal, rather than vertical). It also teaches you how to retract your scapula to stabilize the shoulder so you can recruit the big muscles of your back. Here's how you can perform the inverted bodyweight rows:
1. Position a bar on a rack to about waist height. Or, if you wish, you can also use a Smith Machine.
2. Take a wider than shoulder-width overhand grip on the bar and position yourself hanging under the bar. Your body should be straight with your heels on the ground, with your arms fully extended.
3. Begin by flexing the elbow, pulling your chest towards the bar. Remember to retract your shoulder blades as you perform the movement.
4. Pause, and return to your initial hanging position.
5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
As soon as you’re able to complete 3 sets of 12 reps comfortably, you can progress to the next level.
#3 – Banded assisted pull-ups
Now, if you take the time to read other articles on how you can get to your first pull-up, you'll realise that many of them will recommend for you to use the machine-assisted pull-up. But you shouldn't – the design of the machine makes it impossible for your body to get used to the natural motion of an unassisted pull-up.
What you should, therefore, do is the assisted pull-up with a resistance band. Start with the band that provides you with the most resistance, then slowly work your way down. Here’s how you can perform them:
1. Choke the band around the centre of a bar.
2. Place one bent knee into the loop of the resistance band and take a medium to wide overhand grip on the bar; this will be your starting position.
3. Pull yourself upward by contracting the lats as you flex the elbow. Pull to the front and attempt to get your chin over the bar. Avoid swinging or jerking movements at all costs!
4. After a brief pause at the top, return to the starting position.
5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Once you’re comfortable with this form of pull-ups and can do about 10 repetitions with the band that offers you the least resistance, you’re ready to perform your very first unassisted pull-up! How very exciting.
Incorporating the above exercises may sound like a lot of work, but rest assured that very few people can hang from a bar and instantly do 20 pull-ups without serious practice. Everybody starts from one, so be patient and trust the journey. You’ll get there soon!
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