How to Train and Build Strength for a Pull-Up

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Like push-ups, pull-ups are a fitness mainstay. The motion consists of pulling yourself up to a bar, then lowering yourself back down. However, just because it’s straightforward, doesn’t mean that it’s easy. We tapped Kristin McGee, celebrity yoga and pilates teacher, fitness and health expert, and author of Chair Yoga: Sit, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Way to a Happier, Healthier You to help us learn how we can perfect form and build strength for a pull-up.

Why Pull-Ups are a Powerhouse

You may be one of the few people wondering why pull-ups are as lauded as they are. The most obvious draw is that they build and strengthen your upper body—specifically, the muscles in your back, chest, shoulders, and arms. Not only that, but they also target your latissimus dorsi, the broad muscle that spans from the back of your shoulders down your back. Being that it’s a bodyweight exercise, you only need a pull-up bar to perform them. This means that you can customize the movement to your current needs and fitness level.

Likewise, pull-ups can help in building your core strength, which directly affects your posture. It’s regarded as a functional movement, which means that it’s one of the many movements we tend to perform on a daily basis—think standing, walking, twisting, turning, pushing, and (of course) pulling. Consistently doing exercises that improve functional movements contributes to a reduced risk of injury, while also improving the relationship between you and your nervous and muscular systems.

If, somehow, none of that sounds appealing, consider this—we spend a large portion of our lives sitting, be it while we drive, work, or relax. All of that sitting puts quite the load on our backs. By including pull-ups or similar moves into your routine, you’ll be strengthening your core and back, which lessens your chance of back pain and injury. This becomes increasingly important as we get older and want to maintain our strength.

Build Strength for a Pull-up

Despite how straightforward a pull-up looks, the move can be a great challenge. Luckily, there are other workouts that we can do, plus modifications that we can make, to build strength for a pull-up. Below find three moves and three modifications that McGee recommends to anyone attempting to perfect the pull-up.

Moves

Lat pull-downs: When done correctly, lat pull-downs can be extremely effective at strengthening your upper body. Like the name suggests, they target your latissimus dorsi, one of the main muscles used in pull-ups. Many of the same muscles in your shoulders and arms are also targeted here.

To perform, sit facing the pull-down machine. Grab onto the bar with both hands, just outside of shoulder width. Keep your chest tall and elbows pointing down. As you pull the bar down, think about squeezing your lats and pulling from around your armpits. Pull the bar down until it reaches just below your chin, then slowly release.

Bicep curls: This popular move is easily doable with the use of dumbbells or a resistance band. It’s simple, effective, and can help you achieve the arm strength needed to do pull-ups. To do standard bicep curls, stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. With your elbows tucked close to your torso, turn your palms so that they’re facing forward. Now, exhale and contract (or “curl”) your biceps until the dumbbells are at shoulder level. Squeeze the muscle and hold for a moment before inhaling and lowering to the starting position.

Hanging leg raises: While it may not be obvious, your core is a key part of building strength for a push-up. Hanging leg raises target this area, while also giving your arms a major burn. To perform, find a chin-up bar and reach both arms up to grab onto the top. Keep your arm width at a medium (just outside shoulder width) if you’re new to this exercise. If you’re experienced, try a wider width. With your arms still extended, exhale and lift your legs until your torso and legs create a 90-degree angle. Hold for a moment before slowly going back to starting position.

Modifications

Assisted pull-up machine: “You can use the assisted pull-up machine and slowly go lighter and lighter on how much it helps you,” says McGee. An assisted pull-up machine works by using counterbalance weights that make your lifting load lighter. The higher the set weight, the easier the pull-ups will be.

Chair pull-ups: Just like it sounds, these are pull-ups done with a chair beneath you. Set your pull-up bar three to four feet above the ground. From there, place your chair underneath and sit or stand on it. If you’re sitting, grab the bar, keep your hips and back straight, place your feet on the floor, and pull yourself up until your chest meets the bar. Likewise, if you’re standing, McGee recommends that you “place a stool under your feet and come to the upper position of a pull-up, then slowly lower down.” This variation helps you focus on, and improve, your form while also lessening the amount of bodyweight you’re lifting.

Band pull-ups and assisted pull-ups: “You can also loop a band around the bar and your feet to help, or ask a friend to help you by holding your waist as you jump up and helping you lift to the top,” McGee explains. Both of these modifications help you reach the top of the pull-up by giving you a boost. Using a band gives you momentum by taking the bodyweight you place down on it and pushing it back up. Similarly, a friend or trainer holding your waist can help lift you to the top, thus making lowering yourself back down easier.

The Proper Pull-Up

When you think you’re ready, refrain from jumping straight into a full pull-up. First, you need to make sure that you know the proper form and motions. McGee takes us through the motions, explaining, “[Keep your] hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your lats to pull your arms closer to your body as you lift yourself up off the ground.” At this point, think of how you’d use your lats for a lat pull-down. “Keep your abs engaged and the tops of [your] shoulders down and away from the ears. Lift all the way up until your chin is above the bar and [then] slowly lower down. Don’t swing up or jerk up.”

Not swinging or jerking up is crucial, since doing so requires momentum and not your muscles. To the untrained eye, it might look impressive, but you won’t be getting nearly the workout or benefits you could be getting. If this is your first time attempting pull-ups, try to have a friend, trainer, or someone with experience standing by to assist.

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