Raise the Bar
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.