If knocking out bodyweight pullups has always been a goal of yours, then this guide will get you there.
Pullups aren’t easy, but they are possible. With the right combination of hard work, consistency and a solid plan of attack, I’ll have you progressing towards crushing them.
This article will show you exactly what you need to do to improve your pullup efficiency and how you can get your very first bodyweight pullup.
First Things First
Before I get into the steps needed to achieve your first pullup, I want to quickly go over a few different grip variations.
If someone struggles with pullups, one of the first things I’ll look at is their grip. Believe it or not, your grip makes a huge difference in how easy or hard the exercise will be.
This is your typical pullup grip. When most people refer to pullups, they are talking about both hands being pronated and the palms facing away from their bodies. Since this grip uses less biceps than other grips, it makes them the most challenging variation of pullup. There are also varying hand widths you can use on these which makes the exercise a little tougher or easier. Usually, the wider your hands are the harder the exercise is.
Neutral Grip Chinup
With this variation, your palms are facing one another. Usually done with a shoulder width grip, this involves more biceps to help assist in the movement. Rather than your lats doing the majority of the work, you get some assistance which makes this variation easier than the standard overhand pullup.
A chinup, rather than pullup, means that your palms are turned towards your face. This is the easiest out of the three variations because you get the most involvement from your biceps in addition to your lats and back muscles.
Why Are These So Dang Tough?
#1 Limited Back Strength
The main reason pullups are so hard for many people is simply due to back strength. This is especially true for beginners and newer lifters.
If you’ve never really trained this motion very much, you might not have the back strength necessary to pull yourself up. I’m gonna help you fix that soon.
#2 Improper Set-Up
Many people reach up and grab the bar and start pulling right away.
This is a big mistake and actually makes the exercise much harder.
Instead, you want to lift your sternum up and try to tip your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
This will make for a much smoother motion and also makes it easier because you’ll be using your back instead of your arms.
#3 Pulling with the Arms Too Much
While you obviously should use your arms to assist in pulling yourself up, I often see people only using their arms.
When they initiate with the arms, you might see the shoulders roll forward. This can cause irritation in many people’s shoulders.
To fix this, make sure that you initiate the up movement by driving your shoulder blades down into your back pocket. If you do this properly, you should feel the back of your armpit “turning on.” This just means you’re activating your lats and sequencing the movement properly.
If you feel the arms fatiguing more than the back, then you aren’t quite doing it right.
Your 4 Step Progression
So, by now you know how your grip affects your strength, and also some of the common reasons why pullups are so damn hard.
Let’s dive into the progression that I like to use to help people get their first pullup.
It’s nothing super fancy but lays the foundation of the strength required to perform pullups.
I use a 4 step exercise progression consisting of:
- Machine Assisted Pullups
- Band Assisted Pullups
- Bodyweight Pullups
Rowing variations are very important for building a bigger and stronger back which is essential for pullup power.
Regardless of strength or experience level, anyone can/should be doing lots of rows.
There are many variations but some of my favorites include:
- TRX/inverted rows
- Barbell rows
- Dumbbell rows
- Seated Rows
- Seal Rows
Next on the progression is using the assisted pullup machine. I’m a huge fan of this machine because it simulates an actual pullup quite well.
Whether the machine you use requires you to kneel or stand, you want to make sure your chest is up and your abs and butt are squeezed tight. The reason is that during a bodyweight pullup, you will have to maintain core control to prevent your body from swinging forward and backward. So you want to replicate as best as you can with the assisted machine.
The assisted machine is easier than a band assisted pullup because you will get continuous assistance throughout the entire range of motion.
That’s why I prefer having clients use the machine first, before jumping straight into a band assisted pullup. Once you are crushing reps on the machine with less and less assistance, then you should make the switch to using a band.
Here’s a quick demo demonstrating proper technique when using the machine:
I’ve made the mistake of having clients start with these in their quest to perform unassisted pullups only to leave them frustrated. Sometimes even the thickest of band is still not enough assistance to allow for good, quality reps.
If you have progressed to the band assisted pullup, start with the thickest band you have, and slowly work towards using a thinner band over time. The hardest part about switching bands is knowing exactly how much assistance you’re getting when you switch from a 2″ band to a 1″ to a 1/2″.
I also place these third in the progression because of the assistance curve they provide.
When using a band for assistance you won’t get much help at the top part of the pullup.
AKA the hardest stinkin part of the lift.
So, make sure you’re ready to do them because they might be a lot harder than using the machine. If you get to where you barely have any assistance on the machine, then you’re ready to crush band assisted pullups.
Here’s a quick demo from my girlfriend, Katy, knocking out some reps with only a 1/2″ band:
If you’ve followed my exercise progression, you should now be ready to perform your first pullup or chinup.
I would recommend using a chinup grip (palms towards your face) to get your first one. This will allow you to utilize as many muscles as possible to help you up to the bar.
When you go for it, you have to be confident and just give it your best effort. A lot of people will say, “I can’t do one. I’m not strong enough.”
But most of the time they haven’t even tried!
So, give it a shot and see what happens. Grip the bar as hard as you can, start from a dead hang and pull as hard as you can while keeping your chest up slightly.
Tips to Make ‘Em Easier
Look, going from zero to hero will take some time, and patience. Not to mention a lot of hard work.
Pullups are challenging, to say the least, so you shouldn’t expect it to happen overnight. Sometimes it takes months or longer to get one.
But, don’t let this discourage you. All the work you put in leading up to doing that first one will make you stronger and provide many benefits along the way.
Here are a couple tips to make things a bit easier.
Building a stronger back, especially one that can pull your entire body up, takes time. For those newer to this exercise movement, I recommend utilizing as high as frequency as possible that still allows you to get in good quality work.
Try mixing up your grips and performing 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps anywhere from 3-5 times per week. I oftentimes will program pullups multiple times per week for some of my online coaching clients.
2) Lighten the Load
Generally, the lighter you are, the easier it will be to perform pullups. I’ve noticed when I’ve cut weight that my pullup ability jumps up remarkably.
Getting your nutrition in check is a big step in the right direction if you want to start crushing pullups like it’s your job.
Putting It All Together
Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you out to dry. I wasn’t going to tell you all that stuff without giving you some way to put it into action.
I’m gonna give you a simple progression you can use to crush that first pullup. The rate of your progression is based on YOU and your current ability and strength levels. It’s important not to skip steps or else you’ll end up getting stuck, literally.
Your progression may look like this (remember these are general guidelines and time lengths. They are highly dependant on the individual.)
Month 1 (4 weeks) Rowing and lat pulldown variations. 3-4 times per week. 2-4 sets per workout and anywhere from 6-12 reps. Working on building muscle and strength here.
Month 2 (4 weeks) Continue with rows/pulldowns but add in assisted pullups on the machine. 3-4 times per week. Again, 6-12 reps is great for these. We aren’t trying to “test” your pullup strength quite yet, but rather “build” your strength and muscle.
Month 3 (4 weeks) Depending on how you progressed with the assisted machine, you can either continue using that but with less assistance, or you can move toward performing band-assisted pullups. If you do decide to use the band-assisted variation, make sure you start with the thickest band possible. Then, each week, or every couple weeks, you can try to decrease the band assistance and progress that way.
Remember, working hard and being patient are very important. I can’t say how long it will take to get your first pullup, but you will get it. It’s important to keep in mind that you might be doing band-assisted pullups for a while before you’re ready to attempt an unassisted one.
But that’s OK.
There is no rush.
Continue getting stronger and improving technique, and soon enough you’ll be ready to smoke that first pullup.
Month (?) The day has come when you’re ready to get that 1st pullup. Have fun and get after it. Most importantly, be sure to grab a video so I can see you absolutely crushing your first bodyweight pullup.
If you’d like a personalized approach to training to help you get that first pullup, feel free to shoot me an email at ryanwoodtraining.com and put “PULLUP” in the subject line.
With hard work, consistency, and the right progression, you’ll be amazed at how fast your strength will progress.