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How to do Pull-ups: Part 1
Are pull-ups part of your regular training routine?
If not, you’re doing yourself a major dis-service not doing them. Pull-ups are the ultimate exercise for developing your back, traps and rhomboids. You can do all the shrugs in the world, but if you can’t do a decent pull-up, your upper back will never be as well developed as it can be.
Because you’re moving your own bodyweight and training your body to control and lift itself in a certain plane of motion, it makes them a highly functional move too.
There are a couple of reasons people don’t do pull-ups.
The first one is, they’re damn difficult! They’re one of the few movements that require you to lift your entire bodyweight. With push-ups you’re only lifting about 70% of your bodyweight. This explains why many people can manage push-ups, but far fewer can manage pull-ups.
The second one is, modern gyms give us lots of fancy machines, making it easy for us to ‘cop-out’ and opt for an easier alternative.
But, if you put in the effort and have the dedication to master this old-school move, you’ll notice far greater results than you would by ‘copping-out’ and going for one of the easy machine alternatives.
There are two elements to being good at pull-ups, firstly it’s a skill and requires a high-degree of motor-coordination.
You can have the ability to lift plenty of weight on the lat-pull down or Hammer-Strength machine, but if you don’t have the motor-coordination and skill to control your body and pull it up in a vertical plane, you won’t be able to successfully perform pull-ups.
The other element, is that requires a fairly high degree of strength, relative to your bodyweight. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you have no muscle in your back, shoulders and biceps, you won’t be able to successfully execute the move either.
To develop the skill you need to do lots of pull-ups, but how do you do lots of pull-ups if you can’t yet do any?
It’s kinda like the old ‘Chicken and Egg’ debate.
Luckily there is a solution though.
The first step: Develop your pulling strength.
As mentioned, if you don’t have the strength, no matter how good your motor-coordination, you’ll be unable to do a pull-up, so before we work on the skill, let’s build the strength.
Build up your pulling strength with exercises like Deadlifts, Bent-over rows, Dumbbell rows, Cable-rows and Lat Pull-Downs (click on the link for each of these exercises if you're not sure how to do them.)
Be careful with the deadlifts though, I have done some damage to my back by using incorrect deadlift technique early in my training career. If you’re not sure of the technique, get a certified trainer to show you.
Work these moves through a wide range of rep-schemes, starting at 15 reps to help develop motor-coordination and then go heavier, until you are doing 6 reps on your final sets.
Pick 2 of these exercises and do 4-5 sets of each, for one session a week, and do the other 2 for the a second session in the week.
For example, Session 1:
Deadlifts: 1x 15, 1x12, 1x8, 1x6
Lat Pull-Downs: 1x 15, 1x12, 1x8, 1x6
Bent-Over Rows: 1x 15, 1x12, 1x8, 1x6
Seated Cable-Rows: 1x 15, 1x12, 1x8, 1x6
Once you’re comfortably able to pull approximately 1x your bodyweight on the lat-pull downs and 80% of your bodyweight on the other rows for about 8 reps, you should have the requisite strength to do a couple of pull-ups. However, requisite strength doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to just start cranking out pull-ups like a boss though. As I mentioned above, there is a skill-element to it as well.
The Second Step: Develop your pull-up skill
Once you’ve been at it, developing your pulling strength for a couple of weeks, start spending a bit of time at the end of every workout doing negative pull-ups.
Negative pull-ups are where you get yourself into the top of the pull-up position, with your chin over the bar and then you slowly, and in a controlled manner, lower yourself, taking 5-10 seconds to lower yourself into the bottom, full-hang position. Then use a step, or jump up into the top position again and repeat for 4-6 reps.
Bottom, full-hang position
Each week, increase the amount of time it takes to lower yourself from the top to the bottom position, until you are taking about 15 seconds per rep.
At this point, you can start attempting pull-ups. If you can do a couple, crank them out, but don’t go to failure. Go to about 2 reps shy of failure, rest for 2 minutes between sets and then do another set, again, stopping shy of failure.
If you’re still struggling a bit, get a training partner to give you’re a bit of help by lifting you at the feet a little. Make sure they only give a little assistance and are not helping to pick you up over the bar.
The reason you’re stopping shy of failure is that at this point, it’s not your main back exercise, you’ve just managed to get the exercise down, and you want to keep improving your motor-coordination for the exercise, greasing-the-Groove basically. For more on Greasing-the Groove, check out this article.
Now, for the next couple of weeks, do a few sets of pull-ups, every time you’re in the gym, stopping 2-3 reps shy of failure for each set. Stick to your pulling strength program.
When you’re able to do 6-8 reps of pull-ups per set without getting near failure, then you’ve reached a pretty good level of mastery with pull-ups and you can start increasing the volume of pull-ups and cutting back on the lat-pull downs and other rowing movements as you increase your number of pull-ups…
At this point, all I have to say is, welcome to the club, you’ve now mastered one of the more difficult bodyweight exercises, not everyone is capable of.
If you’re not part of a gym and don’t have the equipment available to do the other rowing moves and deadlifts required to build your pulling strength, in my next article I'll show you how to work up to the pull-up WITHOUT ANY GYM EQUIPMENT.
If you can’t wait until then, get your copy of THE PRISON WORKOUT, where it’s all laid out in perfect detail, as well as how to get lean, ripped, super fit and master a bunch of other bodyweight moves with no equipment.
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Article by: Bryan Hamann.
Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.
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