Here's the bad news - there are no secrets or tricks you can do to make doing pull ups any easier. Easy pull ups are something that only time and effort can give and learning how to do a proper pull up takes plenty of both.
It's probably the most taxing bodyweight exercise you can do - as it involves lifting your entire body weight using only your upper body strength.
For a beginner, pull ups can seem like an impossible task. If you can't complete even a single rep, how are you supposed to improve? In this article, we'll look at the different types of pull up practice available to beginners and how to identify which one is right for you.
Where do I start when I can't do one pull up?
Beginners frequently ask "How do I build strength to do pull ups?" It's a valid question.
Unlike many bodyweight exercises like situps or push-ups, where most people can at least do one or two reps even without training, doing just one pull up is often impossible for beginners.
Learning to do a pull up can seem a little less daunting if you start with alternative training methods to prepare and strengthen the muscle groups that are used for pull ups.
Beginners usually take one of two different approaches when they want to learn to do a pullup. You can use a pull up assist band, which helps by removing some of the load on your muscles until they are better developed, or you can train those muscles using alternative exercises until they are strong enough to allow you to complete a few pull ups.
Choosing how to train to do a pull up is really a matter of individual preference, as both approaches work equally well given time.
How do you train to do a pull up?
As we've noted above, working your way up to pull ups is a great way ensure that you will make noticeable progress towards your goal of completing a pull up workout. The following options can make pull up training move faster and have you showing off your skills in no time!
#1 Train the muscles you need separately
At this stage, you may be wondering, "what muscles do pull ups work?" The four key muscle groups involved are the major back muscles, the upper back muscles, the biceps, and the forearms. There are a range of different exercises you can do to build strength in these muscles, both individually and as a group.
If you have access to a gym equipped with weight machines, one of the most effective workouts, and one which most closely mimics the muscles used in pull ups is the lat pulldown. This machine can assist you in building strength in the areas you'll need to progress to a full set of pull ups.
To perform the lat pulldown correctly, you need a weight machine with an overhead bar. Adjust the settings on the machine to the appropriate weight for your ability, and then adjust the seat and thigh bar so that you are able to sit in a comfortable position with your feet planted on the floor, back straight, and thighs securely braced.
Begin with both arms extended above your head and elbows locked straight. Then pull down on the bar to bring it to just below the level of your chin. Your elbows should remain close to the body, moving back as you complete the pulldown.
Bent over rows
If you're using free weights, then bent over rows are an excellent option for preparing to do pull ups. You can complete this exercise in two different ways: either with a barbell or with dumbbells. It's vital to maintain the correct form to avoid the risk of injury with these exercises.
Find a weight you are completely comfortable with, which will allow you to learn the correct position and form without the risk of injury. Start with both of your feet planted on the floor around shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees to a quarter squat position, and bend forwards at the waist, keeping your back straight. Take hold of the barbell (or the dumbbells) with an overhand grip (palms facing towards the floor) and let the weight hang from your arms, with your elbows locked straight.
Now, tensing your core muscles, engage your upper back muscles to bring your shoulders together and pull the weights up in a rowing motion until it is at chest level. Then lower it back down in a controlled motion, without jerking or dropping the weight, to complete one rep.
Using free weights to target muscle subgroups such as the biceps can help. Bicep curls, hammer curls or dumbbell curls can all be useful in targeting the muscles you need for pullups.
Regularly practicing the flexed-arm hang is also an ideal way to get used to the form and target the larger back muscles used in pull ups. It helps introduce your body to the pull up position without the strain of the actual lifting portion. It's also a great exercise to build endurance and stamina in the key back muscles, which you will need to train for this exercise, as well as the elbow flexors and shoulders.
To do this, take hold of a chin-up bar in an underhand grip (palms facing towards you), use a step if needed to start with your chin over the bar. Tense your arms and back to support your entire body weight in this position, with your legs unsupported. Hang for as long as you are able. The amount of time you are able to hang will improve as your stamina improves.
#2 Use a resistance band for support
If you have a resistance band (or a set of pull up assist bands), you can use these to support part of your body weight during your pull ups. This can enable you to build up the needed strength to reach your goals of completing a set of pull ups.
Place a looped resistance band over the bar and insert your feet into the lower loops, so that the band is stretched out, your feet are not touching the floor, and the top of your head remains below the height of the bar. If you don't have a high enough bar to achieve this, you can instead loop the resistance band around your knees (with your knees bent into a kneeling position), which will give you more space.
With your hands gripping the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) around shoulder-width apart, pull your body up smoothly so that your chin is raised above the bar, without tensing your neck muscles. You'll need to engage your core muscles for stability through the movement. You should find that the added support from the band allows you to complete the exercise, but you should still feel a considerable amount of load on your back and arm muscles. If it's too easy, reduce the resistance of the band you are using, and if you're still unable to raise your chin above the bar, increase the strength of the band.
It may take some experimentation to find the perfect level of resistance you need. You're aiming for the minimum amount of assistance from the band that will allow you to complete a set of pull ups.
As you improve, it should become possible for you to switch to a lower resistance band, and eventually complete a set of pull ups without using a band at all.
Making sure your form is right
Once you've built the necessary muscle strength in your arms and upper back to successfully complete a small set of pull ups (or you have a resistance band to assist you), the most important thing to do is to work on your form.
Performing pull ups with inadequate or incorrect form can risk damage and injury to your back, so before working towards larger sets of multiple reps, you need to make sure you get your positioning and form correct.
Perfect pull ups start with the correct grip. You should start with your arms extended above you, shoulder-width apart, and your palms facing outwards (towards the bar). As you jump from the floor, grip the bar firmly with both hands, maintaining the shoulder-width distance. At this point, you should be hanging from the bar with your arms fully extended, so that your elbows are locked straight. This is the starting position.
From here, in a single controlled movement (no jerking), you should pull your body up until your chin is above the bar. During the ascent phase, your back and core should be tight, and your neck muscles should be stable but not tensed. Then in a second controlled movement, return to your starting position without dropping your bodyweight suddenly, which can damage your joints.
That completes one rep - now, it's just a matter of increasing your number of sets and reps over time. Remember to concentrate on your form, rather than just the number of reps you can do - it's far more critical to do this exercise correctly than to increase the frequency. You don't want to introduce any unnecessary strain on either your ligaments or joints.
If you maintain consistent progress, you'll notice significant results over time. Good luck!