Now that I have your attention let me go on record and say, anyone who says or believes that girls “can’t do pull-ups” is WRONG; and here’s proof.
BIM family member, Melissa Hamilton completing 5 pull-ups.
BIM’s very own, Jen Booton busting out 8 ring chin-ups like a boss.
BIM Family member Kelly Mostat couldn’t do 1 unassisted chin-up 1 year ago but can now can do 9.
When it comes to women and pull-ups, here’s the truth: many female’s would like to be able to perform pull-ups—or like the idea of being able to one day execute them—but fail to successfully accomplish this goal… which has only perpetuated the belief that women can’t do them. The number one way to get better at completing pull-ups is to complete them. An obvious statement, I know. But it’s true. So if you want to get better at performing pull-ups, this is where you need to start. But what happens if you have completed a pull-up—or dozens of them—but still struggle to execute them? Well, all is not lost. There are a number of strategies that will help you get better at them.
Like any motor skill, the only way to get proficient at something is to practice it. You need to work on your weaknesses to turn them into strengths. When I started to learn/work on my pull-up strength I bought one of those doorway pull-up bars and did one pull-up every time I walked by; which eventually turned into two as I got stronger. When it comes to strength, the idea is to build up it up gradually so that you develop solid technique. Your body is like a house – you need to lay down the foundations before you can build upon it.
There are many vertical pulling variations of pull-ups, all of which I’m not going to dive into today. But before I do, I think it’s important that I first distinguish the difference between a chin-up and a pull-up; because there definitely is a difference.
Chin-Ups VS. Pull-Ups
A chin-up, often considered as the forerunner to the pull-up, is a slightly easier variation of pull-up due to the fact that your biceps play a big role in the movement. Chin-ups are characterized by having your palms in a supinated position—meaning your palms are facing towards your body. While the pull-up on the the hand uses the opposite grip. So instead of having your palms face towards your body, your hands are in a pronated position with an overhand grip. Pull-ups also require adequate strength and stability in your shoulders, as well as recruitment and strength in your lats.
Now that you know the difference, let’s get into the strategies that will help you become better at executing them.
5 Things That Will Make You A Pull-Up Powerhouse
1. Improve your grip strength
Grip strength and shoulder stability are directly correlated. Code for: If you have poor grip strength chances are good that your shoulder stability will be compromised, and vice versa. If you’d like to read some research on how these two variables affect each other you can do so HERE and HERE.
Bottom line: Improving your grip strength will make holding onto the bar a lot easier and significantly improve the proficiency of your pull.
Try these exercises to improve your grip strength:
Hanging from the bar
Flexed Arm hang
2. Properly engage your lats
Your lats originate at your lower back, (T7-L5, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest) in addition to the 3rd and 4th rib and scapula and insert on your humerus.
If you’re not recruiting your lats during your pulls you are missing out on a lot of potential strength. Faulty activation of your lats during vertical pulling can be a result of poor shoulder mobility, poor scapular thoracic rhythm, weak anterior core, or simply because the motor control of your lat engagement has not been learned or practiced.
Here is a video that demonstrates how to engage your lats properly:
3. Start doing negatives
Climb to the top of the bar and hold your end position for at least one moment, then slowly lower yourself to the bottom. Doing this will help build strength in a FULL range of motion and build the eccentric muscular control that is necessary to complete a pull-up.
The device illustrated in the picture below does not give you the opportunity to build eccentric strength, and for this reason, is not an effective way to build your pull up strength. So if you want to get better at pull-ups, avoid using something like this.
Another method we often use at BIM is band-assisted pulls. The advantage to using a band is that it assists you at the bottom of your pull, which is typically people’s weakest, as well as helps you get closer to the bar as the assistance from the band weakens. You can put one foot in the band or your knee, depending on your level of strength.
Here’s an example of what I mean by this.
4. Strengthen your press
Solid overhead strength is crucial to all pulls. A military press performed with a kettlebell is a particularly good exercise for people looking to increase their overhead strength, especially when done correctly. A proper press should include an active negative. Meaning you should be pulling the bell back down after each press. This mimics the pull-up movement and will increase your back and shoulder strength. Checkout the video below for an example of what I mean by this.
5. Work on strengthening your back and arms
Early in my strength training I was on a mission to complete a chin-up. At the time, my goal was to be able to do 5 unassisted chin-ups with relative ease. My progress was going well, however I began suffering from wicked elbow pain at rest. This lead me to seek out the help of my physio. A big shout out to LINDA CAVERT here! Linda explained that my weak grip strength—coupled with weak biceps and bracioradilis muscles—were causing me to excessively strain each rep I was completing. The fix? She suggest incorporating bicep curls—specifically hammer curls—into my training. I was dumbfounded that my physiotherapist was prescribing me bicep curls, but was equally excited. I mean, who doesn’t love doing curls?? Sure enough Linda’s recommendation fixed my elbow pain, and ultimately, strengthened my chin-up.
Long story short: You do need to build up your accessory muscle strength by performing exercises like this if you are to get better at your pulls:
Rows (all variations!)
Lat pull downs
Anterior core work such as planks and ab roll outs
Lower trap exercises
Tips & Technique
Here are some tips and techniques that will help you become a better puller:
Grip the bar firmly
Create tension in your entire body, especially your core
Pull with your lats and bring your chest to the bar
Slowly lower yourself down (especially on your last rep, make every part of your rep count!)
Train your full range of motion
Breath! Exhale on the up, preferably using a power breath.
Stop before failure, as previously mentioned this will take away from building good technique and can potentially strain things that don’t need to be strained
If you can already complete pull-ups and chin-ups but want to improve your PB or overall efficiency, then I strongly suggest following Pavel Tsatsouline‘s Russian pull-up program. Pavel’s program is great, and adaptable to any fitness level. I have followed his program in the past and as a results was able to increase my PB. A big reason why I advocate his methods.
Note: This method can be adopted for chin-ups or pull-ups.
Russian Pull-Up Program
The 5RM Russian Pull-Up
No. of Reps
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
5, 4, 3, 2, 2
5, 4, 3, 3, 2
5, 4, 4, 3, 2
5, 5, 4, 3, 2
6, 5, 4, 3, 2
6, 5, 4, 3, 3
6, 5, 4, 4, 3
6, 5, 5, 4, 3
6, 6, 5, 4, 3
7, 6, 5, 4, 3
7, 6, 5, 4, 4
7, 6, 5, 5, 4
7, 6, 6, 5, 4
7, 7, 6, 5, 4
8, 7, 6, 5, 4
8, 7, 6, 5, 5
8, 7, 6, 6, 5
8, 7, 7, 6, 5
8, 8, 7, 6, 5
9, 8, 7, 6, 5
9, 8, 7, 6, 5
9, 8, 7, 7, 6
9, 8, 8, 7, 6
9, 9, 8, 7, 6
When following this program start with an all-out set, then cut a rep in each consecutive set for a total of five sets. The next day add a rep to the last set. Then a rep to the set before that, etc. The system is intended to be used for four weeks. At the end of the month take two or three days off, then test yourself. If you can already do between 6 and 12 reps, start the program with the first day your PR shows up.
For instance, if your max is 6 pull-ups, start with day 7. If your max is 8, start with day 19. If you run into a snag with this routine, back off a week and build up again. If you hit the wall again, switch to another routine.
Here’s how the program applies to those who currently max at three pull ups.
The example below is also excellent for anyone who’s goal is pure strength rather than reps. If you want to bring the reps down to three, hang a kettlebell or a barbell plate from your waist.
The 3RM Russian Pullup Program
No. of Reps
3, 2, 1, 1
3, 2, 1, 1
3, 2, 2, 1
3, 3, 2, 1
4, 3, 2, 1
4, 3, 2, 1, 1
4, 3, 2, 2, 1
4, 3, 3, 2, 1
4, 4, 3, 2, 1
5, 4, 3, 2, 1
After you have completed this you will be ready to move up to the 5RM program.
If you have any questions about anything that I have outlined within this post, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a comment on this post.