A Guide To Getting Pull-ups


A benchmark that comes up frequently as a goal here at CFD is getting pull-ups, and there are always questions flying around about how to go about getting them. I’ll give you guys a breakdown on my thoughts of how to progress someone safely and effectively to getting pull-ups.

First of all, I would argue that you have to break it down into two pieces: Absolute pulling strength and body composition. You can get someone to pullups by either 1: increasing the former, 2: improving the latter, or 3: both. I’m going to address body composition first, then we’ll get into improving strength

Body composition

What are the best exercises to losing fat? Any guesses? A lot of people say cardio, more people are starting to learn that weight training improves body composition, some say anaerobic activity does…they’re all right, in a way….and wrong. You want to know why? Because the absolute BEST exercise for losing body fat, HANDS DOWN, is Fork Raises. An appropriate modification is the Spoon Raise.

Seriously though, I mean fixing your food profile! I didn’t say eat less, and I didn’t say eat more—food profiles are individualized and SOME people need to eat MORE food to put their bodies in a state where their bodies can AFFORD to lose FAT. Some people do simply need to eat less food—they overfeed. There is not a single prescription that works for everyone though, and there is a process to figuring out what works for YOU.

To give you an example of how it can make sense to have someone who is not eating ENOUGH food to lose weight, I’m going to give you an example of someone:

Person A, a female, has 30 pounds of excess fat around her midsection. Person A also eats very little food (let’s say 1100 calories/day for an adult female). Fat is a storage form of fuel, and Person A’s body, being malnourished and regularly underfed, is going to want to hang on to those fat stores, because she is regularly underfed and that’s what her body is going to want to do to survive—hold on to that precious storage. Person A will not be able to hold onto tissue that is more metabolically expensive like muscle, because she simply doesn’t eat enough food to ‘pay the rent’ for something that is expensive to stick around. She underfeeds, her body regularly catabolizes muscle for energy because it’s expensive stuff to keep around and is reluctant to burn through those precious fuel (fat) storages because, well, would you if you were starving and weren’t sure when you’d be rescued? Maybe a weird analogy, but hopefully it’s a new way of looking at why starving yourself isn’t as obvious a solution to a problem like stored fat that doesn’t seem to want to go away…you’re training your body to KEEP it, not use it!

I’m getting a little sidetracked here, but my point is to demonstrate that typically a huge limiter to getting pull-ups is fixing body composition, and sometimes, without guidance, people can do more harm than good by ‘dieting.’ There are plenty of examples of people who fit the description of ‘Person A’ (male and female), and who constantly think that the solution is to further starve oneself, when in fact the approach may be much different than that! Further discussion into nutritional specifics should be left to another blog—I’ll get back on topic with pull-ups!

Absolute strength

Yes, absolute strength—the way to get better at pulling is to get better at pulling, not by strapping bands on yourself and learning to violently throw your hips. It is my strong opinion as a strength and conditioning coach having worked with the general population for years that allowing dynamic kipping movements before a client has the pre-requisite strength to do a movement strict is a recipe for disaster. We are simply going to talk upper body pulling strength protocol here—any of these movements are basically fair game to start improving upper body pulling strength. Granted, just like food, exercise selection can be largely individualized. One person may need to develop awareness and strength in the back and lats more whereas one person may need to develop the ability to be stronger when flexing at the elbow (biceps). Pulling involves the entire body!

Ring rows: when done right, ring rows are a fantastic tool to safely work upper body pulling strength. Granted, a ring row happens along the saggital plane whereas a pull-up occurs along the frontal plane, but you’re still pulling—utilizing lats and biceps to pull the body towards an END range of motion (don’t cheat yourself out of those last couple inches!). Keep your cheeks squeezed and maintain a position of global extension in the entire body so as to isolate the upper body pulling muscles; don’t allow yourself to throw the hips or ‘swing’ through the movement, using momentum to initiate or finish the movement. Get tight, and PULL!

Bar and dumbbell rows: So many variations here, but just like the ring row along the saggital plane, you can pronate, supinate, single-arm, double-arm, snatch grip, prone, incline, etc… Again, stay tight, don’t use momentum, and PULL!

Lat pull downs: The great thing about pulleys is that they offer resistance that is even throughout a range of motion (unlike bands). It is for this reason I think they are superior. Seated, kneeling, single- and double-arm.

Curls: bicep curls, hammer curls, preacher curls, pronated/supinated/neutral grip, etc…Curls for the girls! Biggest thing here is making sure that the bicep is doing the work—I see a lot of people who need to develop the biceps and when given curls they pick a weight that’s too heavy and ‘swing’ the weight up. If in doubt, stabilize that elbow on something and make that bicep work!

Scap and pulling accessory pieces: Powell raises, DB external rotations, Trap 3 raises, bent-over reverse flies, band pull-aparts, and scap pullups are all great tools to strengthen the shoulders, stabilizer muscles, teach initiation with the back, etc.

Tempo work: Tempo can be applied to virtually every single movement above, and this is where you can really make some progress. Whether it’s a tempo pull-up (31A3 tempo = assist up, chin over bar hold for 3, eccentric/negative for 3, 1 sec hang, repeat), or any of the other movements done at a tempo, but manipulating time under tension (TUT) you can really start to focus on weak areas of your pull. Is your weakest part the very first pull, but if you have assistance through that can you finish the rep? Can you only get about 3” from the bar and get stuck? Get assistance through the tough spot, then control the eccentric as slowly as you can back through it. Lots of options here, and again, it can be very individualized.

So there you have it—those are my thoughts on how to deal with tackling pull-ups. It’s not very complicated, it’s a matter of both improving your absolute pulling strength as well as improving body composition (if that is hindering you). Fixing your food profile and regularly working on pulling movements are conceptually easy, but the journey to achieve your first pull-up may take years. Stay the course and have a plan—you’ll get there!

RLTW <1>

—Coach Phil

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