Remember the flexed arm hang in gym class? Some girls could hang there for seconds, even minutes, but most of us would jump up, grit our teeth, and drop faster than Taylor Swift’s new single.
Upper body strength is a weakness for so many women. Perhaps it is because we are simply built that way, but I also believe that we do not get the opportunity to practice skills like pull-ups in our childhood and youth as much as men and boys do. Whatever causes our inability to open pickle jars on our own, it can be overcome. In fact, the strength goal that I hear most females set for themselves is to get their first pull-up. Can it be done as an adult? This far removed from gym class? You bet. And you don’t even have to be SuperWoman to do it! I got my first pull-up at the ripe, old age of 27 after months of practice and development. It was not pretty; there was a lot of kicking, wiggling, and whining, but somehow my chin got up over that bar. It is still one of the most exciting accomplishments I have had in the gym, and now I can bang out 10 in a set. No matter how many other goals I reach in the gym, this is still my favorite; perhaps because of the work I put in, but probably because I never thought I would be able to do it. And now I can.
So what is the secret to getting a pull-up?
Progressing from easier to more demanding exercises build the muscles in the back, lats, and arms to prepare you for that first pull-up. The first exercise I recommend is the supine body row. Once you can do that, then move onto negatives, jumping up and resisting the descent as much as possible. Next, move onto the iso hang, holding it for as long as you can before you come down. Then, add some pull-ups with a slight push off the ground; we call these jumping pull-ups, but you should jump as little as possible. Once you are barely pushing off, start trying for a true pull-up. The first few won’t be pretty or easy, but push through and fight for it, and one day your chin will reach over that bar.
Here is a demo video with some of the progressions to help you get there!
(If you have any questions about the movements, please don’t be afraid to ask!)
What about hand placement? In or out? Narrow or wide? My advice is to start with something that is comfortable for you. Then practice with the hands facing in and facing out, which will help build your arms on one side and your back on the other. Use both a narrow grip and wide grip for this same reason. Variation is good for hitting all of the muscles necessary to getting that coveted pull-up!
Along with the pull-up progressions, there are a number of other things you can do to work towards reaching your goal. To improve pulling power, add deadlifts, lat pull-downs, and T bar rows into your routine. This will help build those muscles and increase general pulling strength, which are both helpful for learning to do pull-ups. Plus, deadlifts are SO. MUCH. FUN.
Another way to get closer to getting your chin over the bar is to burn fat. The less you weigh, the easier it will be to pull your body upward against gravity. It’s simple science, right? Follow a healthy, balanced eating plan and incorporate some HIIT cardio into your regimen and you will burn fat without losing any of the muscle that you have worked so hard for.
It may seem like a lot, but implementing these exercises, lifts, and strategies into your routine incrementally will get you to your goal of being able to do a pull-up. Start simple, then add more in as you get stronger and more fit. With some patience, consistence, and resilience, your chin will reach over that bar one day. And when it does? I promise, you will be proud.
Pull-ups are only one goal that my clients are aiming for. What other goals are you working toward in the gym?