If you’ve read my stuff before, you’ll know I think that the bench press gets a little too much credit.
For a healthy bodied individual, the pull up should be viewed as a gold standard for upper body strength.
It involves more of the upper body, targets more important muscles, and is generally harder to excel at.
Most people gravitate towards other movements to take the easy route, but that won’t lead to gains you can be proud of.
When you peel back the layers of many mirror-muscle aficionados, it’s often revealed that proper pull ups or chins don’t even enter their routine, and their performance is abysmal.
If you’re in a similar scenario (or you’re a beginner with earnest intentions of learning to do your own pull ups), then you need to start from ground zero.
Most people who aren’t good at pull ups start themselves off on the wrong foot by hitting the assisted pull up machine right off the bat. Though this may help with learning the mechanics of the lift, there’s very little that translates to learning good form bodyweight pull ups using this method.
That’s why you’ve likely rarely seen anyone who routinely uses the assisted pull up machine actually get strong enough to do them on his own. Sometimes taking the plunge into the lion’s pit with the least assistance is the only way to see gains – the difference is, approaching things smartly will keep your form on point and keep you safe also.
Step 1: Learn to Use your Back
Most overlook the fact that there’s still a proper way to do pull ups in order to keep your back involved for the majority of each rep. If you’re not starting your pull ups off by initiating the movement with a shoulder depression and retraction, you’ve lost the fight before it’s even begun.
Simply put, to engage the back, you need to lower and set your shoulders under load. If you don’t, your biceps will dominate the lift and you’ll get minimal back development from your efforts. Better to take advantage of such large muscles to assist your preliminary efforts in learning this movement.
Doing straight sets of scapular initiations is the best way to light up your lower traps and get the hang of the first ¼ of your pull up rep. Check the video below to get the instructions.
Once you’ve gotten stronger from the bottom phase, it’s time to get stronger at the very top phase.
Step 2: Use Isometric Holds
The great thing about isometrics is that they encourage a muscle to put out a peak contraction, often in a place in the force curve where that muscle would usually rely on momentum and kinetic energy to pass through that point.
Doing isometric holds at the very top of a pull up (or very near the top position) is a smart way to strengthen what’s usually a weak point for lifters’ pulls.
This is something that can be practiced by setting a bench up at your pull up station and assisting yourself to the top position. Then just stay there for sets of 15-30 seconds (remember the flexed arm hang test in high school gym class?).
If that’s too daunting to do with your current entire body weight, scale things back a notch by making the isometric more functional and changing the modality to lower the load. Doing paused rep lat pulldowns are a fair second option to focus on maintaining good form and technique.
Step 3: Use Eccentric Reps
It’s time for a little science lesson.
Imagine you’ve been told to do a set of bench presses ‘to failure’, using 80% of your max. You load the equivalent weight on the bar and, with a spotter, you get to it. 10 or 11 reps in, you reach failure.
How do you know you reached failure? You may answer, “because I could no longer push the weight off my chest, and my spotter had to help it back up to the rack”. And that’s a fair answer. But only half of it.
What you just experienced was “positive” or concentric failure. I can guarantee that if after that 11th rep, your spotter helped the bar back up to the top position and then asked you to hold the weight at the top yourself for another 10 seconds, or have you lower the bar once more to the chest slowly and under control, you’d be able to do that.
That’s because these moves call to action your strongest muscle fibers. Most everyone can lower more than they can lift, and exploiting the fatigue of this capacity can be huge for improving strength in any movement.
With that said, being able to last a 10 second eccentric pull up can do wonders for improving your proficiency on the concentric side of the rep – even if you can’t yet do one. Once again, using a bench setup, assist yourself to the top of the lift, and with set shoulders, allow yourself to lower very slowly.
Don’t give up until you’ve reached a dead hang (the biggest mistake people make is killing the rep while the arms are still bent). Take a second, and then repeat. Focusing on sets of 6-8 good quality negative reps will mark a real boost in your strength.
Putting it All Together
You’ve just gotten a formula for being able to do a pull up. If you follow these steps you will, but it’s important not to jump the gun.
Doing your own pull up is a huge victory in itself, and rather than practice bad habits once you’ve learned that, it’s better to reinforce good form by playing it smart.
So rather than stretching your good single or double in to a sloppy set of 8 or 10 after a short time, focus on clustering your reps.
Making a goal of 30 perfect pull ups, done in sets of 2 at a time, with 30 seconds between each set is a good way to start building your work capacity in this movement, and your form should stay on point using this approach too.