Pull-ups might be considered the hardest body weight movement exercise that exists. Not only does it challenge your back, arms, and shoulders to raise yourself up to the bar, but the most difficult element is probably how it challenges your core. Once you’re holding onto that bar and your feet leave the floor, gravity begins pulling your entire torso down from your hands. Your torso is now being stretched and lengthening by your own body weight, constricting your abdomen’s free space, leaving your lungs struggling to fill themselves up with air against the weight of your body and gravity pulling everything down and tight.
I’ve thought for a while now that the primary struggle people have with doing pull-ups is not just the lack of strength in being able to pull themselves up to the bar, but from the panic signals being sent from their brain when the lungs suddenly begin to struggle to get oxygen. There are not many exercises that place this demand on your body and mind. Therefore the trainers at Innovative Health and Fitness have come up with a routine to address building up both the physical strength needed to do a pull-up as well as the mental fortitude needed to control yourself in that position.
The best way to get started is by practicing the negative part of the pull-up, a.k.a. the lowering down part, with your feet on the ground. This will get you more familiar and comfortable with your pull-up position while building up strength. Use a smith machine or adjustable squat rack and set the bar at shoulder height. From here get your hands just wider than shoulder width on the bar and set your feet in a squat position under the bar. The pull part of the exercise has you coming out of a squat position bringing the top of your chest to the bar but your legs are doing most of the work. But as you lower yourself down don’t let your legs assist you, instead use your upper body as much as possible to lower you back down into your squat using a slow 5 second count. Practice doing as many reps as you can so you get stronger and feel more comfortable in both the top and bottom positions of your pull-up.
A very straight forward but effective way to build up basic pull-up strength is to do lat pull downs, which basically mimics the movement of a pull-up. Try doing both the traditional wide grip but also the closer, underhand grip, like doing a chin-up, to build up biceps as well.
Once you feel comfortable with the overall form of a pull-up you need to start adding in the element of core strength and stabilization. Inverted rows will address both strength in your back, shoulders, and arms while also challenging the core to keep you engaged and finding a breathing pattern that doesn’t leave your lungs struggling for oxygen. For these you will need to figure out what height to place the bar at depending on your personal strength level. But as you see in the video, your body should be as horizontal as your strength will allow as you row yourself up to the bar. You should be aiming for 10 to 20 reps for these.
Part of getting comfortable with your pull-up position is going to simply be getting used to the feeling of gravity pulling on you from that bar. So practice hanging from the bar. See if you can retract your shoulder blades and engage your grip and shoulders, so rather than “hanging” from you bar you are actually holding yourself in position with control. This is where you can practice breathing in the tight space of your abdomen as well has learning to control the small but deliberate movements of your shoulder blades.
If you notice that grip strength is more than a small issue for you try doing a couple sets of Farmer Carries in between your other exercises. These are pretty straight forward. Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells, and with a straight back and engaged arms and shoulders simply carry them around the gym until your grip begins to give. When it does just put the dumbbells down, give your hands and forearms a quick rest and then do it again. These can be worked into any exercises and be used as an active recovery until your grip strength improves.
Lastly you will need to begin practicing your actual pull-up by using a resistance band for assistance. By this point you should be comfortable with the form of your pull-up, and have attained the grip strength necessary to hold yourself on the bar. Find a band that provides enough support where you can do between 5 and 15 reps. As you can see in the video, use a box or step up in order to safely get your foot into the band before you step off and practice your pull-up. Once you get comfortable with these it’s time to get rid of the band and try a full body weight pull-up, which at this point you will probably be happily surprised that you are much stronger than you expected and are able to perform several pull-ups.