Raise the Bar

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Can’t do a pull-up? Never fear — this pro­gram will have your chin up (pun in­tended) in no time.


are no­to­ri­ously in­tim­i­dat­ing, es­pe­cially to women who tend to have less up­per­body strength than men. And although we think of pull-ups as a strength ex­er­cise for back and bi­ceps, they ac­tu­ally re­cruit many more mus­cles and re­quire a lot of en­durance — and if there’s one thing we girls are great at, it’s en­durance. So you can ab­so­lutely mas­ter this move — and even chal­lenge the guys for reps: Just shift your fo­cus from sim­ply get­ting your chin over the bar to teach­ing your mus­cles the proper me­chan­ics, and you can push past any pullup plateau and hit your goal with ease.


The bad news is that in or­der to mas­ter the pull-up, you have to ac­tu­ally do pull-ups. Ac­cord­ing to the law of speci­ficity, you get bet­ter at what you prac­tice, and while lat pull­downs and rows may seem sim­i­lar enough, the biome­chan­ics of a pull-up in­volve more mus­cu­la­ture and co­or­di­na­tion than a ma­chine or ca­ble ex­er­cise. Re­search val­i­dates this state­ment, in­di­cat­ing that neu­ro­mus­cu­lar adap­ta­tions don’t trans­fer well from a pulldown to a pull-up, es­pe­cially for women. In one study of fe­male swim­mers, the ath­letes’ lat-pulldown prow­ess had very lit­tle cor­re­la­tion with their pull-up abil­i­ties. Fur­ther­more, the women with a higher to­tal-body mass (fat + lean) had re­duced pull-up ca­pac­ity, and even though they could crank out heavy pull­downs, they floun­dered on the bar.

Since the only weight you’re lift­ing here is your­self, how quickly you adapt will some­what de­pend on your own strength-to-weight ra­tio, even if that weight is mainly mus­cle mass. And if you have a smaller frame, you might be a nat­u­ral be­cause your weight is light in re­la­tion to your strength.

In or­der to gauge your start­ing point, do a self­test: Hop on the bar and see just how many strict body­weight pull-ups you can do. If you get none, no wor­ries: Set a goal to hit five by the end of the pro­gram. If you can get a cou­ple, great! Aim to add two, three or even five reps to your to­tal.


This pro­gram im­ple­ments four tech­niques to im­prove your pull-ups, help­ing stave off bore­dom and frus­tra­tion while mov­ing ever closer to your ul­ti­mate goal.

No. 1: Be Neg­a­tive

A neg­a­tive (ec­cen­tric) con­trac­tion is the part of a rep where your mus­cle length­ens; the con­cen­tric (pos­i­tive) con­trac­tion is where your mus­cle short­ens. Your mus­cles are ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing more force dur­ing an ec­cen­tric con­trac­tion than dur­ing a con­cen­tric one, mean­ing you can lower more weight than you can lift. In fact, you can most likely com­plete mul­ti­ple neg­a­tive pull-ups right here and now, even if you can’t get up to the bar by your­self. This biomechanical phe­nom­e­non makes neg­a­tives the per­fect tech­nique for those who can’t do a sin­gle pullup, build­ing strength and con­trol in both the pri­mary and sec­ondary mus­cles.

No. 2: Keep It Strict

Ul­ti­mately, strict, pris­tine pull-ups are your goal. That means no swing­ing, kip­ping or flop­ping about un­der the bar like a hooked carp in or­der to clear your chin. Yes, kip­ping pull-ups are a bit eas­ier from a strength stand­point be­cause they use mo­men­tum to pro­pel you up­ward, but if you don’t have a strong strict pull-up as your base, you are more likely to get hurt. The strength and sta­bil­ity of your shoul­ders and core have to be on point be­fore you start adding mo­men­tum, so for now, stick to strict. Once you’ve mas­tered that, ev­ery­thing else is cake.

No. 3: Ac­ces­sorize — After­ward

Although pull-ups pri­mar­ily de­mand back strength, your pec­torals, ser­ra­tus an­te­rior, le­v­a­tor scapu­lae, ro­ta­tor cuffs, bi­ceps, bra­chio­ra­di­alis and fore­arm flex­ors all par­tic­i­pate in mov­ing you up­ward to the bar. Per­form­ing ac­ces­sory ex­er­cises like a push-up plus, a banded shoul­der ex­ten­sion and grip train­ing can help strengthen these mus­cles, mak­ing pull-ups more pos­si­ble. Do these kinds of moves us­ing a light to mod­er­ate re­sis­tance and per­form two to three sets —

af­ter your pull-up work is com­pleted.

only No. 4: Su­per Bands?

Purists main­tain that us­ing su­per bands dur­ing a pullup is con­traindi­cated be­cause you’re not truly pulling your full body­weight. And it’s true that the bands pro­vide the most as­sis­tance at the bot­tom of a pull-up where you don’t need much help rather than in the mid­dle where your stick­ing point lies. How­ever, bands are good for train­ing en­durance, al­low­ing you to get in more reps than you could with­out one, adding vol­ume to your pro­gram. Vol­ume means strength, and strength means ac­com­plish­ing more pull-ups.

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