“The Pull Up Progression”
One of the questions I often get asked is how to do/modify/accomplish the pull up exercise. When I first started P90X several years ago, pull ups were a struggle for me. I couldn’t do one, well, maybe one really ugly one if I flailed my body around doing a fish-out-of-water dance to get my chin over the bar. Fast-forward to today and my recent best is 22 standard grip pull ups. Below I’ll offer some tips on how to go from “I can’t do pull ups” to doing several reps.
First, let’s look at the ways to modify pull ups in order of difficulty (easiest first)
Resistance band alternative
Chair assisted close
Chair assisted far
Pull up assist band
Jump assist pull up
Kipping pull up
Standard pull up
Resistance band alternative – This involves taking a resistance band and looping it through a doorway attachment or looping it around a pull up bar. You place your body in a lunge position or a kneeling lunge and then pull the bands toward you. An important tip here is to keep your arms, neck, and spine in a fairly straight line as you do the exercise. Think of doing a pull up straight up and down – you want your body in a similar position when using the bands, only at an angle toward your door attached resistance bands.
Another thing to concentrate on when using resistance bands is the eccentric motion of the exercise – in other words the “letting down” part of the movement. You do not want to just let the bands go when doing a resistance band exercise. That would be like lifting weights up and then just dropping them. When we do any exercise, whether it’s a curl, a push up, or a pull up – the muscle actually lengthens on the eccentric (lowering) part of the exercise opposed to the concentric (lifting) part of the exercise. So when using resistance bands to do a pull up-like movement be sure to pull the band toward you and then work to ease the bands back. Try to let the band back at the same speed you pulled it down: 2-count to pull down, half a second hold, and then a 2-count to let it back.
Chair assisted close and far – A chair assisted pull up involves placing a chair or stool directly under your pull up bar or slightly further away from the bar to give yourself a little extra push to get over the bar. The closer the chair is to directly under the bar, the easier the exercise is. A good starting point would be to place a chair with one edge of the seat directly under the bar with the opposite edge of the chair away from the way you are facing. As you get stronger, move the chair further away.
Pull up assist band – You can buy these at Teambeachbody.com or at sporting goods stores. These bands attach to the pull up bar and then you place your foot in loop. This band essentially fights gravity and lessens the resistance of your body weight when doing the exercise. These bands can be adjusted to where you are getting a lot of assistance or barely any, depending on how tight you make it.
Jump assist pull up – This only works if you have a pull up bar where your feet can touch the floor while you are gripping the bar. With this modification you can give yourself a little boost by giving yourself a little push of momentum to get over the bar. Just like it sounds, do a little jump to help yourself up. This is just a slight push. When you get your chin over the bar, the idea is to work to let your body back down just like you would do a regular pull up without assistance.
Kipping pull up – Kipping during an exercise essentially involves using secondary movements and muscles to get the job done. So during a standard pull up the idea is to have good form, go fairly straight up and down, and in a fairly even motion without swinging the body around. Kipping allows for a little swing and extra body motion to get it done. I don’t recommend using kipping motions too often, but every now and then to “get it done” is fine. Let’s say you can do 5 or 6 pull ups with good form. You might get a little kipping action in to get another 1 or 2 reps in. Kipping is also referred to as a “cheat rep” by some people.
The standard pull up – You’ve seen it since gym class. Pull your chin over the bar using your back muscles and biceps, and then return your body down.
Some more tips:
When I got back into exercising, pull ups were tough for me. I would always give it a try each time I popped in a DVD though; maybe only on the first set of the first exercise at first. I would give a pull up a shot and I might do half of one. Then I would use the chair for help. Eventually I got to where I could do a pull up or two. Eventually I got to where I was doing 7 or 8 pull ups, then I would use the chair to get a few more reps in. So here is my best tip for using the pull up progression:
Start your workout one step ahead of your current level AND end your workout with burnout reps one step below your current level.
Here is what I mean by that:
Let’s say right now you can do 10 chair assisted pull ups. Here is how your workout might look:
1st exercise: 1 kipping or jump assisted pull up, 10 chair assisted pull ups (chair far).
2nd exercise: ½ a kipping chin up, 9 chair assisted chin ups (chair far).
3rd exercise: 10 chair far pull ups, 3 chair close pull ups (burning out by getting a few more reps with a little more assistance).
4th exercise: 8 wide grips pull ups, chair far; then 2 wide grip pull ups, chair close.
Even today with being able to do quite a few pull ups my routine might look like this:
1st exercise: 19 regular
2nd exercise: 16 wide grip
3rd exercise: 15 chin ups, 4 chin ups with band assist
4th exercise: 13 regular, 4 with band assist
5th exercise: 8 vaulter pull ups, 6 vaulter pull ups with band assist
And other times I might pace myself a little more and do 13-15 reps of each exercise and then do a burnout move on the last set:
13, 5 assisted with band or chair.
You get the idea. As you progress, try to do a little more each time. Did one pull up last week? Go for 2 at the beginning of your workout this week before you break out the chair. Using the red band this week? Use the green (tougher) band next week.
Keep progressing until you are doing the pull ups.
UPDATED BONUS TIP:
If have a gym membership, or access to gym equipment, another exercise that can help build and develop the muscles used for pull ups is the “lat pull” machine. These are usually a cable machine or a freestanding machine with grips that look similar to a pull up bar. Start below your body weight (whatever you can do 8 to 12 reps at) and then work up to a weight that is close to your body weight.
One last tip: You have to put your mind and heart over the bar before your chin will ever make it over to complete a pull up.