I have a bit of an obsession with pull-ups and I’ve just always thought that being able to bang out multiple, full range of motion pull ups is cool. They are simply a great test of upper body strength and body control. 10+ pull-ups for a guy is an impressive number, whereas 3+ for a woman is excellent.
Just to clear up any terminology, a pull-up is performed with a pronated (or palms away) grip whereas chin-ups are done with a supinated (or palms facing you) grip. Chin-ups are slightly easier to perform as the biceps assist in the movement, whereas pull-ups are slightly harder as the biceps are taken out (for the purposes of this article I will use the term pull-up, but this means both movements as they are interchangeable).
When people ask me whether they should do pull-ups or chin-ups the answer is always “do them both as they are equally awesome”.
A proper pull-up is always performed through a full range of motion. That means chin over the bar at the top and arms fully extended at the bottom. Nobody is impressed with half reps so please don’t do them.
A lot of people shy away from pull-ups for the simple reason that they are very hard. Instead they are done through half a range of motion (more like a bicep curl) or the lat-pull down machine gets used and I think this is a big mistake. The lat pulldown has its uses, but the demands on stability and core control are far less when you are seated. As a result developing pull ups will have a far bigger impact on upper body strength than lat pull downs.
But how do you do pull-ups if you cannot even do one? Glad you asked! Getting that illusive pull-up is difficult but far from impossible. There are several ways to approach this and get over the hump to performing 1 repetition.
Ring rows are a great way to develop pull up strength. This is essentially the same movement as a pull up, but because the feet are on the floor there is less resistance. If you don’t have rings, just set up a bar in a squat rack or use the smith machine.
Simply hanging from a pull up bar is a good way to get comfortable in that position and support your bodyweight. Make sure that you are in an active position, the stomach is contracted and squeeze your bum to create a stable body position.
Negatives reps are a great way to build pull-up strength. Start at the top of a pull up (use a box or step to get to that position) and simply lower yourself down to a full hang under control. Don’t go too slowly. The key is to have a controlled descent. Be careful of this type of training as eccentric contractions (anytime you lower a weight) can make you very sore indeed. Initially you want to limit the total number of reps to no more than 10 (2 sets of 5 is a good place to start).
Once you can do this, work on jumping pull-ups. Position a box under a pull-up bar so you can jump to the top position and then lower under control.
Banded pull-ups are really good for getting the feel of a proper pull up with some assistance. The gravitron machine is an option here, although not as good as bands as not as much body control is needed. This is the machine which works together with a counterweight. The heavier the counterweight, the more assistance provided and the easier the movement.
Pull-ups and other bodyweight movements lend themselves well to frequent practice. However, the key is not to go to muscular failure. It is far better to do 10 easy reps every day than grinding out 50 reps once per week.
Here are a couple of easy programs for those with no pull-ups and those with 1-2 pull-ups.
Day 1: 5 sets of hanging from the bar (try for a minimum of 5 seconds). Try to increase by 5 seconds each week.
Day 2: 5 sets of 5 ring rows (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
Day 3: 5 sets of 5 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
1-2 pull ups
Day 1: 10 sets of 1 pull-up. Rest 30 seconds between each rep for a total of 10 in 5 minutes. Try to increase that total number by 1-2 reps each week
Day 2: 3 sets of static holds at the top of a pull-up. Stay in the top position for as long as possible and try to add 5 seconds each week
Day 3: 3 sets of 10 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent rep)