A Ladies’ Guide to Your First Pull-Up

It’s possibly the most difficult bodyweight movement for women to learn. One of the fundamental building blocks of many calisthenic movements. The white rabbit many of us have been chasing through the metaphorical wonderland known as the gym for months, if not years.

So you can clean & jerk a horse, good stuff that’s awesome, but can you pull your own bodyweight? The pull-up is a basic-yet-advanced movement that we will all need when the zombie apocalypse happens. If you haven’t made it to one yet, keep reading.

Why Women Should Aim to Complete a Pull-Up

Why Should You Care About Pull-Ups?

Besides the fact that they are 100% badass, they are actually an amazing exercise for back strength and endurance, can improve your posture, muscular development, and help you move more weight safely. Convinced yet? Here is a quick list of how doing pull-ups can more specifically benefit your lifting.

  • Improves pulling motion in deadlift
  • Helps push the bar off the chest in the bench press
  • Helps secure barbell on the back in back squats
  • Helps stabilize spine and torso during front squats and overhead lifts
  • Improves overhead mobility
  • Improves grip
  • Increased ability to engage and recruit fibers in the back
  • Better core strength and stability

So for those of you who think pull-ups won’t make your deadlift any better, I hate to break the news, but it is worth your time mastering the pull-up. It’s largely a lat exercise, and these massive muscles are great for stabilizing the spine and they contribute to better core stability for squats, deadlifts, and the bench. They are very influential in the pulling motion of your deadlifts and the push motion during the bench press.

[Check out powerlifter Janis Finkelman’s insane 27 pull-up PR here!]

Female Pull-Up Program

How to do a pull-up if you can’t do one? Well, we asked Stefanie Cohen, DPT of Hybrid Performance Method, for some advice because, as an all-time world record holder in the deadlift, we think she is pretty strong. So here are two exercises you can do to up your pull game for 2018.

Dead Hangs

Dead hangs are an amazing exercise and are great for all levels as there are numerous variations. Why do dead-hangs? They have many benefits such as grip strength, shoulder health, and spinal decompression. If you’re looking for a pull-up progression, this is the starting point.

How many of us have gone for a heavy deadlift and our grip is what fails us, not our pure strength? One of the best ways of increasing your grip strength is to do basic dead hangs. The correct form for a dead hang is to hang from the pull-up bar in a hollow position with your shoulders packed and activated. You want to avoid swinging and make sure your entire body is tensed. Squeeze the bar as you’re hanging to activate your muscles so that you learn how to use the muscles on your back.

Try to build to a 30-second hang, rest 60 seconds, and repeat six times. If this is too easy then you can hang for longer or add weight to your dead hangs. If you really want a challenge you can use fat grips to make the bar thicker or hang a towel from the bar and hold each end. (This gets spicy!) Other variations include L-sit hangs and flexed arm hangs.

[Read more: 4 benefits of L-sit pull-ups.]

If this is something you want to incorporate into your training then try for three times a week to start off, and avoid doing it on deadlift day. You can mix it up and one day do 30 seconds on with 60 seconds off for 6 rounds. Another option would be EMOM (every minute on the minute) for 6 to 10 minutes hang for 30 – 40 seconds and rest the remaining time. Finally, and in my opinion, the hardest is max effort hangs with 90-second rest in between for five sets.

If hanging is a bit too rough right now, then you can train your grip by deadlifting and then holding a barbell. There are three ways you can do this: a) maximal effort method which involves maximal loading for 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 3 reps, b) dynamic effort method which involves submaximal loading and explosiveness for 6 to 10 sets of 2 to 4 reps focusing on speed, and finally c) the repeated effort method where you lift a submaximal load to failure for 4 to 6 sets.

Using all three methods will have your crushing walnuts in your hand in no time. I suggest resting two days between each of the methods so you can get the best results.

In case you needed even more reason to start your pull-up journey, dead hangs and pull-ups, in general, are incredible for your core strength. They’re almost full body movements. Your lats, traps and other muscles in your back are activated but so are your abdominals, especially if you throw in some L-sit variations. Your abdominals have to work hard to stabilize your center and your other muscles get their strength and support from a strong center.

If you want to lift more then having a stronger core is essential, and remember when we say core, we don’t mean six-pack. Your core refers to the individual muscles that surround the spine for stability and protection, which is pretty important when you want to lift hundreds of pounds off the ground.


Negative Pull-Ups

There really is no better way to improve your pull-up strength then to do pull-ups, and one of the best ways to get there is to reverse the movement. Instead of dead hang to pull-up, negative pull-ups are the place to start.

The negative involves only performing the eccentric phase of the standard pull-up. You start in the flex hang and lower into the dead hang position. Working with gravity instead of against it makes this portion of the exercise easier than the pulling phase, but it will still help develop the muscles and skills you need to progress to the full movement.

It might seem like doing a pull-up backward won’t make you better at them, but actually eccentric movements are key to building muscle and strength. When you talk about the eccentric movement you refer to the amount of force produced when a muscle lengthens, which is the opposite of contraction where a muscle shortens. It’s interesting to note that there are fewer motor units involved in eccentric movement, meaning there is actually more mechanical load per motor unit. In other words, there’s more tension than in a concentric movement. The more tension, the more stimulus on the muscle fibers which results in some really impressive muscular adaptations — such as getting enough strength to do your first pull-up.

For this exercise, the aim is to do it as “slow and controlled as possible”. You can use bands to assist you in the very beginning until you can lower yourself in a controlled manner. Start off slow, week one might only be three days where you perform 4 sets of 3 negatives aiming for 6 to 10 seconds on the descent. Build on this each week, adding either another set or more reps. How often you should do this exercise depends on the individual. Start with three times a week, from there you can either hold for longer or add an extra day but be sure you are well rested for these sessions!

A quick look at negatives versus machine assisted pull-ups. I’m not trying to bash the good old assisted pull-up machine, but using negatives or even banded pull-ups is much more effective than using this dinosaur machine in your gym. Negatives elicit more muscle activation than the machine can. It is also very easy to go easy on the machine but with negatives, you really have to try hard.

Women’s Pull-Up Training

Coupled with dead hangs and negatives, there are two accessories that will help to build up the muscles involved in this holy grail of bodyweight exercises: barbell rows and lat pull downs.

Barbell Rows

Barbell rows are an excellent compound exercise for increasing overall strength and muscle mass of the back muscles. Although this exercise is a rowing motion and targets the middle back, it still can have significant muscle building effects on other muscle groups like the  lats, posterior shoulder, rhomboids, scapular stabilizers, spinal erectors, forearms, and biceps. All important muscles for the pull-up.

The bent over row is the most popular rowing variation, which has a lifter assume a bent over position while keeping a barbell close to the body. The barbell row allows for the greatest amounts of loads to be rowed and transfers to heavy pulling movements. You’ll want to complete the barbell row at a volume and intensity that’s designed to build strength, which can be three to five sets of six to eight repetitions. Pick up a barbell that’s set at a weight that will challenge you as you complete the sets.

This movement can be added to your weekly program easily. You can through them in on back day no problem, aim for two or three times a week. If you do a lot of pulling then you won’t need these as frequently.

[Want to substitute for dumbbell rows? Here are some reasons to alternate between the two.]

Lat Pulldowns

The lat pulldown is great as it mimics the muscles and range of motion of a pull-up. However, don’t go copying the gym bros you see using this piece of equipment. You want to start gripping the bar shoulder width apart with your arms fully extended. You must also avoid leaning backward when pulling the bar to the chest.

It is important to hold the bar at the chest for a count of 2 – 3 seconds to make sure you get a good squeeze between your shoulder blades. You also want to aim for about a three-second ascent with no pause at the top. Aim to complete 6-8 reps with as close to 80% body weight. Adjust as needed. The lat pulldown can be coupled with your negative pull-up days. Make sure these are controlled and really think about squeezing your scapulae (shoulder blades) together during the rep!

A quick note on lat pulldowns: while they are good, you still want to build up to a pull-up because it recruits more muscles, builds more body control, is better for core strength, involves more neurological stimulation, and improves coordination and stability better. A combination of exercises is best!

Now take these tips, go forth, and pull!

Featured image via @negharfonooni on Instagram.