Pull-ups are kind of like parallel parking — you’re either good at them or you aren’t. Some of us may have dominated them since grade-school fitness tests, while others have struggled to do even a few reps. And, for the ladies out there, you may still be working on getting your first clean pull-up under your belt (and you’re not alone!). Women have 40 percent less upper body mass than men, making pull-ups harder. Even Marines struggle — 55 percent of females can’t meet the Marine Corps minimum standard of three pull-ups.
No matter which category you fall into, pull-ups are worth working at. They train multiple muscles, including the back, arms and core, and are the ultimate test of relative strength or your strength in relation to your body mass. Improving your pull-up number will boost overall body strength and give you a muscular, more defined back. We asked Ben Bruno, a Los Angeles-based trainer to celebrities and athletes, for a plan that would take anyone from beginner to American Ninja Warrior in no time.
Step 1: Be Eccentric
If performing a single pull-up rep is out of your reach (literally), start by working the eccentric portion of the movement, i.e. lowering your body down from the top position.
- Grasp the bar with hands outside shoulder width and palms facing away from you.
- Use your legs to jump into the top position of the pull-up, so your chin is over the bar. (If that’s too hard, place a step or bench next to the bar so you can walk up to it and get into position).
- From there, slowly lower your body down to a dead hang. Try to make it last five seconds.
“You’re always stronger on the negative [lowering] phase of a rep than the positive one,” says Bruno, so even if pulling yourself up is impossible, controlling your descent from the top is doable.
Perform three sets of three reps, jumping back up and lowering slowly on each. Repeat frequently, up to five days per week, progressing the time you take to lower yourself. “Shoot for holds of 20 to 30 seconds,” says Bruno, “or as long as possible.”
Step 2: Pay the Toll
When you can control the negative phase of a pull-up, you’ll find you have the strength to do a handful of complete reps. At that point, you can employ what Bruno calls the “pay the toll method.” You’ll need regular access to a chin-up bar — consider hooking one over a doorframe in your house or finding a suitable (and sturdy) tree branch or pipe.
Perform five to six sets in a day of as many reps as you can, but save a rep or two on each set. (For instance, if you can do eight reps going all-out, only complete six.) “You’ll keep coming back to the pull-up bar throughout the day,” says Bruno, “like you were paying a toll to go on with the rest of your day.”
Do this four to five days per week. The regular practice will engrave the movement pattern into your muscle memory and you’ll improve rapidly. You can change your grip up, too, alternating between sets of chin-ups (with palms facing you), neutral-grip pull-ups (palms facing each other), and wide and narrow hand placements.
Step 3: Crank Up the Volume
Now you’re ready to integrate pull-ups into your regular workouts. On two different workout days per week, perform sets of pull-ups in between sets of your other exercises. Bench and overhead pressing both pair well with pull-ups, pumping up your entire upper body.
- Perform six to 10 total sets of half as many reps as you think you can do. So if your max number is now at 10, just do sets of five.
- On two other days of the week, you can perform three to five sets to failure or AMRAP (as many reps as possible).
Bruno suggests alternating these two kinds of workouts. For example, you could perform the six to 10 sets in between exercises on Monday, and then do the sets to failure on Wednesday; then six to 10 sets again on Friday, and go to failure again Saturday or Sunday.
At this stage, all you need to improve is continual practice and overall strengthening. Keep your body fat low by eating as clean as you can, and there’s no limit to the reps you can build up to.