The pull-up is the ultimate compound exercise. Compound exercises use multiple muscle groups to complete an exercise.
During just one pull-up your body uses the following muscle groups:
With all these muscle groups working together it’s no wonder that pull-ups are often described as the ultimate feat of strength. This is especially true for women who generally have far less upper body strength than men. While some people make it look easy, pulling your entire body weight up from a fixed position is NO EASY TASK!
Once you can do one pull-up, it becomes easier to add more reps to your routine. However, a lot of people give up before they reach that first pull-up. So I thought I would put together some information that helped me build up the confidence and muscles needed to do my first “real” pull-up. I hope it helps you out!
First of all, just to clarify…a pull-up is the not the same thing as a chin-up. When you do a pull-up your palms are facing away from you. During a chin-up your palms are facing toward you. It’s typically easier to do a chin-up because your biceps are more involved. While the overall principles for achieving both types of exercises are very similar, this post will focus on the pull-up.
One of the most important things for you to know is that if you want to do a real pull-up you ultimately need to put your hands on a pull-up bar, not bands or some crazy assistance machine at the gym. You may find recommendations to wrap resistance bands over the top of a pull-up bar or some other object to mimic the movement of a pull-up. While this is certainly better than doing nothing, it makes for slow progress. Based on my own personal experience it’s better to start off with your hands on a pull-bar right away and then modify as needed over time.
The reason is because you don’t use all the muscles needed for real pull-ups when using resistance bands. In addition to the large muscle groups, your body requires the use of MANY smaller muscle groups as you pull yourself up. Your body needs to learn what it feels like to hang onto the pull-up bar. Simply put, if you want to do a pull-up you need to train using a pull-up bar. Training yourself how to do a pull-up using resistance bands or any other type of assisted pull-up machine is like trying to learn how to go skiing by riding a bicycle. It just doesn’t make any sense!
Over a year ago during my first encounter with the pull-up bar I couldn’t even hold onto the bar let alone pull myself up! It was pitiful! I even complained to my husband and told him that we needed to get a new pull-up bar because the one we had “didn’t work”! It just felt AWKWARD. In the back of my mind I was thinking some other type of pull-up bar would work better but guess what…nothing was wrong with the pull-up bar. I was just a total WIMP!!
So, in frustration I started doing my pull-up exercises using resistance bands as demonstrated in the P90X videos I was doing at the time. However, after the first week I didn’t feel like I working the right muscle groups. So during the next couple weeks I started experimenting with other methods using both a stool and a chair. It took some time and experimentation, but I finally figured out what worked for me.
Here’s what I came up with:
1. Stand on a Stool
Since I’m short, this helped to give me a little bit of extra leverage. I think one main problem I had originally was that I was starting out too far below the pull-up bar. If you’re taller you might not need the extra boost but this solution really was the main catalyst that helped end my frustrations!
2. Then, add a chair
Now, while standing with both feet on the step-stool, I can hoist myself up a little higher and simply lay one leg across the back of a chair in front of me while I pull myself up. When you do this, you eliminate a lot of body weight. Now you can go through the motions of doing a real pull-up. You may need to experiment with different chairs depending on your height. The height of the chair itself will determine the angle of your leg. I find that a bar-stool is the perfect height for me.
At first it might feel like you’re pushing up with your leg but after a while your body will figure it out. After a while instead of pushing up with your leg, try laying it across the top of the chair and let it go completely limp. Like I said, it might feel awkward at first but you’ll get used to it. You should be able to do quite a few modified pull-ups this way. Feel free to alternate which leg you dangle and which leg you rest on the chair.
3. Modify as Needed
You will notice that as you move the chair farther away the pull-ups become harder. Start off with the chair closer to you and then over time move the chair farther away until you can eliminate the chair (or bar stool) completely. When I do pull-ups now, I do a few without the bar stool and then bring the bar stool back so I can finish out the set with at least 10 or 12 reps.
Other Training Techniques
Here are some other techniques you can use to help you get to your first pull-up.
1. Negative Pull-Ups
Negative pull-ups are when you start off with your head above the pull-up bar and slowly lower yourself down.
2. Isometric Pull-Ups
Isometric pull-ups are when you hold yourself above the pull-up bar for as long as possible.
3. Adjustable Pull-Up Bar
I wish I had known about this pull-up bar when I first started P90X. I think it really would have helped a lot! This bar lets you do a modified pull-up without the use of a stool or chair. As you become more advanced, you simply move the bar up. COOL!!
Try to incorporate some modified pull-ups into your strength training routine at least 2-3 times a week. Do 3 sets of 10-12 modified pull-ups, negative pull-ups, or isometric pull-ups with a break between sets.
While it may not work for everyone, I found success with pull-ups the first time I did P90X. When I first started P90X I couldn’t hold onto the pull-up bar and by Day 90 I was able to do 3 unassisted (real) pull-ups. I was very pleased with the results as my only goal starting out was to do ONE real pull-up!
Whether you follow P90X or any other type of workout program the key to success is patience and consistency. If you continue to work towards your goals and not give up you WILL succeed! 🙂
This post is dedicated to MC and all the SINS peeps over on Facebook. I’m all for promoting the image of STRONG women in the media and everywhere else!