If the deadlift is the ultimate test of pure strength, then the pull-up is the best move around to test your functional strength. The reason being that to do a pull-up, you need to be strong, stable, and relatively lean (since you’re pulling your own body weight). Also, if you’re ever dangling from the edge of a cliff (we hope not, but, hey, stuff happens), deadlifts aren’t going to do you much good.
The main issue with pull-ups is that they’re hard to do. If you’re too heavy and/or not very strong, the move is a nonstarter. That said, there are variations and alternatives you can use to work up to your first-ever pull-up. We’ll go over those below, in addition to outlining a month-long program to take your pull-up game up a few notches.
- One-Month Pull-Up Training Program
- How to Do the Perfect Pull-Up
- Benefits of the Pull-Up
- What to Do If You Cannot Do Pull-Ups
- Pull-Up Variations
- Pull-Up Alternatives
BarBend’s Pull-Up Program Video
Here’s another great pull-up program option geared towards beginners. It involves minimal equipment and is an approachable starting point for anyone hoping to nail their first pull-up.
The program below is a month-long, three-day-per-week plan to help beginners achieve their first pull-up. While this program is geared towards beginners, it can also be used to help non-beginners breakthrough pull-up plateaus and as an accompaniment to your back training.
Perform each of the three workouts below every week, with at least a day of rest between each, for four weeks. Each workout consists of three to four exercises, totaling about 30 minutes per workout. Progressions can be done using a heavier load. Challenge yourself to add weight each week, yet not so much that you can’t feel the back muscles working.
- Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds between sets. (Add weight if you can, using a belt and weight around hips.)
- Isometric Pull-Up Hold: 4 sets of 10 seconds, resting 60-90 seconds between sets. (Perform a 10-second hold at the top of the pull-up.)
- Inverted Barbell Row: 4 sets of 5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Use a pronated grip, slightly wider than shoulders. Add weight and go heavy.)
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Add weight and go heavy, perform controlled eccentric and get a full lat stretch between reps by elongating the arms at the top.)
- Towel-Grip Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds between sets (Add weight if you can, using a belt and weight around hips.)
- Eccentric Pull-Up: 4 sets of 5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Lower yourself to a count of 3 to five seconds.)
- Band Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Choose a band that will make you struggle for your last rep, yet still maintain good form. Don’t use the momentum from the band to propel yourself back up.)
- Supinated-Grip Dumbbell Bench Supported Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Be sure to have palms facing away from you as you row.)
- Fat-Grip Dead Hang: 4 sets of 30 seconds, resting 45-60 seconds between sets (Add weight if you can, using a belt and weight around hips.)
- Band Assisted 1 ½ Pull-Up: 4 sets of 3-5 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Start at the bottom of the pull-up. Pull your chin over the bar, and perform a slight pause to engage the back muscles. Go down about halfway so that your elbows are in line with your eye. Pull yourself back up. That is a 1 ½ pull-up.)
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets (Add weight and go heavy, perform controlled eccentric and get stretch between reps by elongating the arms at the top.)
- Seal Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets.
Below are five key points every lifter should know — from newbies to gym veterans — when doing pull-ups.
- Find the Right Grip: Grip the bar with both hands slightly wider than shoulder-width with palms facing away from you. You can vary this based on your goal. However, you should master the pull-up with this grip before taking a wider or narrower grip. When you are set up, think about getting as much of your palm on top of the bar as possible. You should apply pressure with your pinky into the pull-up bar, which will help you engage the lats more.
- Start from a Dead Hang: Unless you perform eccentric pull-ups, you should start your pull-ups in the dead hang position — with your arms fully extended and feet off the ground.
- Stabilize Your Core and Set Your Shoulders: Before doing a rep, pull your belly button navel inwards, brace the core, and pull the shoulders down away from your ears. This specific position will ensure that you’re pulling with mainly your lats and not engaging your traps or arms more than you need to.
- Elbows and Pinkies to the Hips: By thinking of applying pressure to the bar through the pinkies, you can increase lat engagement. Make sure your knuckles stay on top of the bar and pretend that you’re driving your elbows to your hips through your pinkies.
- Pause at the Top, Lower Under Control, and Repeat: Once you get to the top of the pull-up, be sure to lean back slightly and hold yourself briefly, flexing the back muscles. Then, lower yourself slowly as you feel the stretch in the lats. Lowering yourself downwards under control is a great way to increase muscle growth and is called the eccentric training phase of the movement.
Below are three main benefits of the pull-up. It’s important to note that pull-ups are one of the most beneficial exercises (when done correctly and not in excess) for upper body strength and back growth and improve your back health for many other lifts and movements.
A Bigger, Stronger Back
The pull-up is an effective exercise to increase back strength and muscle hypertrophy. Pull-ups can also improve the width of a person’s back muscles, as they’re an easy movement to provide progressive overload with (either by increasing weight via a weight belt, increasing repetitions of the movement, or decreasing the amount of band assistance).
Carryover to Other Lifts
The back muscles trained by pull-ups can play a large role in carryover to improvements across other lifts. For example, building stronger lats and traps using pull-ups can have indirect carryover to squats and deadlifts, as these muscles are crucial for their success.
Improved Sense of Accomplishment
Think back to that time you nailed your first pull-up. It was an awesome feeling, right? A pull-up is a fantastic tool for tracking upper body strength and progress and can be a great tool for boosting confidence. Additionally, being able to master a pull-up allows you to unlock a whole new level of fitness and strength outside of the gym!
Pull-ups are hard, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed if you can’t do one yet. First, strengthen your back with other, more accessible back exercises. Below, we go over a handful of variations and alternatives that will help you work up to your first pull-up.
A band-assisted pull-up is a great option if you cannot perform a strict pull-up. However, they’re usually performed incorrectly. Common faults, such as body swinging (lack of body tension), sloppy repetitions, and lack of muscular control with the lats at the top and throughout the movement, can all lead to stalled results. Additionally, too many beginner lifters use too much band assistance and never force themselves to struggle to pull themselves up for sets of two to three reps (which actually will build the strength necessary to pull your body weight up, rather than higher reps of 10 or more).
Eccentric reps — when you jump up and then lower yourself down slowly — are also a great option to build pull-up-specific strength. You can do a few sets of three to five reps after every back workout. Another great option is simply getting your chin over the bar and holding yourself there for as long as possible. Time yourself, and then aim to beat your time during your next workout. Try this pull-up hold three to four times per week.
Keep grinding away with other back-building movements, and then try to do a pull-up every so often. Eventually, you’ll get a rep.
In the below program, we incorporate a wide array of pull-up variations and alternatives to help you build a stronger foundation for back strength and muscle mass and ultimately help you master your pull-up technique. Below, we will discuss a few of those pull-up accessory exercises.
Many lifters will be able to nail a chin-up before they can do a pull-up, primarily due to the arms being involved to a higher degree (biceps and anterior shoulder). While the chin-up can be a great movement for building serious upper body pulling strength, it is important to do it correctly, not overuse it, and not neglect pull-ups.
Isometric Pull-Up Holds
Isometrics pull-up holds, such as the towel-grip pull-up and hold, can be a great way to increase muscular strength necessary for a pull-up as they can help increase force output and tension development at specific areas of weakness (such as at the top, middle, or bottom of the movement). Many beginners will benefit (advanced lifters will benefit as well) from doing these, which are included in the three-day pull-up program for beginners above.
Training the pull-up’s eccentric phase is a great way to increase muscle growth and strength for beginners who struggle to master the pull-up. To do this, have the lifter start at the top of the movement (maybe combine this with an isometric hold at the top), and then have them lower under control for five to 10 seconds. Once they are at the full lockout position, have them jump back up and repeat.
Tempo Banded Pull-Ups
As discussed above, banded pull-ups are a good pull-up option for beginners as they decrease the amount of force and strength needed at the weakest phase of the pull-up (from the full arms extended position). That said, adding in tempos (similar to tempo pull-ups) can truly maximize muscle growth and strength to help beginners establish greater muscle coordination, activation, and growth.
The jumping pull-up is a good way to scale high rep pull-ups in WODs or when trying to develop muscle endurance in the back and grip. By jumping, you allow the lifter to approach the sticking point with movement, in which they can more easily break through and complete the pull-up. They can also adjust how high they jump to make the movement more challenging to bridge the gap between jumping pull-ups and strict pull-ups.
The kipping pull-up is a pull-up variation that can increase muscle endurance and is specific to many functional fitness workouts. To master the kipping pull-up and/or the strict pull-up, lifters should make sure to devote time to each variation as there are distinct benefits and risks associated with each. Be sure to read up on our guide, Kipping Pull-Ups vs. Strict Pull-Ups, to learn more.
The barbell row is a classic back strengthening exercise used by nearly every bodybuilder, strength athlete, and recreational lifter. While not done at the same angle as the pull-up, the bent over row is a great back exercise to add into your training as it allows you to move heavier loads that are more relative to your own body weight.
Machine training, such as the lat pulldown, allows you to isolate the specific muscle groups needed to perform a pull-up. While many band pull-up variations and isometrics are key, machine-based training will allow a beginner lifter to add more loading to stress the muscle fibers enough to greater muscular damage without being limited by grip strength, body control, and/or general total body fatigue.
Suspension rows can be done on the rings or a TRX suspension trainer and are a great way to increase upper back strength, body awareness, and grip strength — all of which necessary for the pull-up. Using the suspension row, you can also quickly adjust the difficulty of the movement for all levels in between sets or even during a set, making it great for all levels of training.
The seal row is a barbell row alternative that is great for beginners and advanced lifters alike who are on the quest for a bigger, stronger back. The seal row is a row variation that does not require the lifter to support their body in the bent over position.
This can help beginners who may not have good posture control and cannot train the back hard enough due to poor body positions. This is also a great way to add extra back training with lifters who may have lower back issues or fatigue (especially post squats or deadlifts).
Lastly, the seal row limits the amount of momentum that can be used to move the load, all equating to increase back strength and isolation.
The dumbbell row is a unilateral back exercise that all levels can perform. This is a great exercise to increase grip strength and endurance while simultaneously improving back strength and body positioning (flat and/or arched back). Additionally, the dumbbell row can be done for strength, muscle hypertrophy, or muscle endurance, making it a very diverse exercise for any fitness level.
More Pull-Up Training Tips
If you’re interested in taking your pull-up game even further, here are some more articles from BarBend that you should read.
- Chest to Bar Pull-Up — Muscles Worked, Exercise Demo, and Benefits
- The 10 Best Pull-Up Variations for Superhuman Strength
- Why Weightlifters Should Do More Pull-Ups
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