The pull-up is the original badass move. Sure, there are plenty of ways to show off just how strong you are, but the pull-up is unmatched. It demands back, shoulder, arm strength, not to mention a strong core, too. But if you finally want to learn how to nail one (or 10), you might be intimidated by the challenge. And we’re not going to lie to you: It takes work.
“You’re moving your whole bodyweight on your hands, which is something you typically don’t do. It’s like learning to walk,” says Mark Ribeiro, a certified personal trainer at the Fhitting Room in New York City. (You might know him from his turn on American Ninja Warrior.)
Rather than training pull-ups solo, we tapped Ribeiro to show us how to successfully advance to the real deal by working all the necessary upper-body muscles. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t do one clean (meaning your don’t use your knees to swing up) unassisted pull-up right away, Ribeiro says. It can take a few months, especially for someone who doesn’t do bodyweight exercises.
But the payoff is bragging rights. To help you get there, here are 10 best exercises from Ribeiro that’ll boost your workouts from the ground up.
Upper Body Strength Training Plan for Perfect Pull-ups
You can perform all 10 of the following exercises in a single strength training session. Or, mix and match the moves, like the hollow and hanging hold on one day, and the bent-over row and hinged row the next day. Ribeiro recommends men and women devote at least two days a week, eventually progressing to three days. For each exercise, perform two to three sets AMRAP style, until your form starts to break.
1. Hollow Hold
This is where you practice the proper pull-up position, so you engage both your core and back and don’t make the mistake of pushing your hips forward when hanging.
How to: Lie your back on the floor with your arms extended by your ears (a). Lift your legs off the ground and your arms overhead simultaneously to hold a hollow position (b).
2. Hanging Hold
This pose helps you practice the bottom of the movement, as well as build grip strength. This eccentric phase of the pull-up is all about lowering down with control.
How to: Dead hang (relax shoulders and lats) from a bar (a). Pull your shoulders down and squeeze your lats into a reverse shrug (b).
3. Bent-Over Row
How to: Lunge your left foot forward, and your right foot behind you (a). Hold a dumbbell in your right hand with your left elbow resting on your knee (b). Pull the weight up to your chest, bending your elbow to 90 degrees (b). Maintain a tight core throughout the movement to stay stable (c).
4. Hinged Row
Similar to a bent-over row, this move requires you to use two hands simultaneously, which is more accurate to a pull-up.
How to: Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend over slightly with your knees slightly bent and your back straight (a). Pull dumbbells into your chest and slowly release them back down (b).
5. Deep Low Row
With this move, your bodyweight provides the resistance. You’ll learn how to engage your back while pulling. This will also improve grip strength to hold onto the bar throughout the exercise. Ribeiro uses TRX straps here, but if you can’t get a hold of a pair for your strength workouts, use a bar on a squat rack.
How to: Hold two TRX handles with your palms facing in (or holding a bar with both hands). Lean back and walk feet forward so that your body is at a 45-degree angle with the floor (a). Engage your core to stabilize your spine, and pull your chest into your hands (b).
6. Bridged Row
Engaging your biceps and lats, this is the next step up to getting accustomed to using your full bodyweight. Again, if needed, use a squat rack bar. Be sure to keep your back straight as you pull your body towards your hands for best results.
How to: Position a block or step in front of the TRX straps. Sit down under the handles and grab them. Walk your feet onto the block — you should be hovering horizontally over the floor (a). With arms in front of your chest, pull your body up to your hands (b).
7. Lat Pull Down
Similar to the motion of a pull-up, this move engages your back. Keep your core tight as you pull the bands down to ensure you aren’t arching your back.
How to: Loop a resistance band around a bar overhead. Grip each side with one hand and sit on the floor. (a). Pull your hands down toward your chest and release the band slowly to extend your hands up overhead (b). Do a high number of reps (more than 15) to work your full range of motion (c).
8. Assisted Pull-Up
You’re almost there! Loop a band around an overhead bar like in the lat pull down or use a pull-up machine.
How to: Holding onto the bar in that hollow position you practiced earlier, pull yourself up to bring your chin to the bar (a). Keep your legs together and engage your core to prevent arching your back (b). Think quality over quantity here — performing sets of 10 reps.
This move focuses on the bottom portion of a pull-up and engages your back using your full bodyweight. If you can’t hold it at the top yet, that’s OK! (Upper-body strength can take some time to build.) It simply means you need more practice with the other exercises in this routine.
How to: Use a box to help you get up to an overhead bar. Start at the top with your chin to the bar (a). Hold for second and then lower down with control (b). Yes, these are meant to be tough — so aim for sets of three to five reps.
10. Push Press Negative
This move will help strengthen your back without having to do a pull motion.
How to: Grab a dumbbell in each hand and bring them up to your shoulders (a). Bend your knees and lift the weights over your head (b). Slowly lower yourself towards the ground (c). Perform sets of three to five reps. Again, remember quality over quantity is best here (as with all your workout routines!).
Originally published August 2017. Updated February 2018 and September 2021.
Cover image via Shutterstock