Pull ups are my favorite exercise of all time.
They work all of the “pull” muscles in your body – your back, biceps, forearms. They are indicative of your level of fitness – anybody that can do a pull up is in pretty good shape…anybody that can do 10 or more is clearly in great shape.
And damnit, pull ups make you feel like a badass after doing them.
However, pull ups are also hard as hell, especially if you’re just getting started. Unlike other exercises that can be completed with just your body weight (like squats, lunges, and push ups), pull ups and other exercises that strengthen your pull muscles require at least one piece of equipment! On top of all of that, if you can’t do one yet, how the heck are you supposed to work on them to get better?
I’ve recently received dozens of emails from fellow rebels who are working towards their first pull up but aren’t there quite yet. Whether you’re 300 pounds overweight and can’t even look at a pull up bar without freaking out, or you’re half an inch away from finally being able to do your first pull up, this article is for you – sorry it took so long for me to write!
Pull ups are quite the intimidating exercise, but like Optimus Prime has taught us, we can make small changes and improvements over time that will result in the ultimate goal:
One. Freaking. Pull Up.
We’re going to start with these, the most basic of back exercises, in case you’re starting from ABSOLUTELY square one. For these exercises, focus on lifting more and more as you get stronger. Every OTHER day, pick up a dumbbell that you can lift for three sets of 8 repetitions with a 2 minute break between sets. As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time to move up to a heavier dumbbell.
Body weight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull ups – they work the same muscles, just at a different angle. You can also make adjustments. You know how I HATE HATE HATE exercise machines? Here, I wholeheartedly recommend the use of a smith machine…but ONLY for rows! Because you can adjust the height of the bar, you can adjust how difficult the exercise is. If you’re just getting started, put the bar very high, so you only have to lean back slightly. If you’re stronger, you can start with a lower bar.
Here’s a whole post I did on body weight rows (also called inverted rows).
A sample routine that starts with your back exercises
As soon as you’re doing body weight rows where your body is at a 45 degree angle or lower, you can progress to level 3.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO A BAR FOR INVERTED ROWS: Try using your kitchen table, or move up to Level 3 and progress with caution there.
Personally, I don’t like using the assisted pull up machine in a gym as it doesn’t give you the full feeling of a pull up, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Instead, I recommend doing one of these alternatives:
A sample level 3 routine:
Now, let’s say you don’t have a rubber band, you don’t have somebody to hold your feet, and you don’t have a chair – you ONLY have a pull up bar. That’s okay – you can do what we call negatives. When doing a negative, you jump above the bar and try to lower yourself slowly and in control until you’re at the bottom of the movement. This can be very dangerous if you’re very overweight, which is why I’d recommend moving slowly through steps 1-3A first.
However, once you have a decent amount of back strength, doing negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength.
You can either jump above the pull up bar, and then begin to lower yourself back down IN CONTROL, or you can hop up on a chair to get above the bar and then lower yourself back down. Again, the name of the game is “in control.” You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition destroys you…lower yourself in a controlled speed – Counting to three during the movement is a good tempo.
Here’s a sample workout using everything up to this point:
For your negative pull ups, do as many as you can (up to 5 reps) per set – jump and lower yourself in control, then jump right back up and lower yourself. If you can do 5, wait 2 minutes and then start again. If you can’t do 5, do as many as you can in control, wait 2 minutes and then start again.
Once you’re doing 3 sets of 5 repetitions on your negative pull ups, along with your assisted chin ups and body weight rows…you’re ready.
My dear rebel, it’s time.
Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength, and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able to start with more than one pull up. For MANY people, especially if you have spent time in the gym in the past working on your biceps (like most guys do), you might find it easier to start with chin ups (with your palms facing toward you) for your first exercise before trying pull ups (with your palms facing away from you).
I’ve already covered how to do a pull up/chin up in another article, so I won’t get into it too much here…just focus on these things:
At this point, here’s a Level 4 routine set up for a week:
Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull ups or chin ups, you have a few options:
Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted pull ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:
So, here’s an advanced sample routine for back exercises:
My work here is done – it’s now up to you to take care of business. No matter your starting point, whether you’re a guy or girl, you CAN do pull ups. And you WILL do pull ups. You don’t need to follow the progression above exactly – it’s merely one path that you can take in order to reach the promised land…where the pull ups flow like wine and the women instinctively flock like the Salmon of Capastrano.
Follow the path that works for your schedule, your experience, and your level of comfort with this movement – there’s no shame in going slowly and progressing safely. And if you’re gung ho about pull ups, ready for negatives and trying to squirm for that first rep, feel free to go for it. Just be safe.
When you DO finally do a pull up, I want to be the first to know – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about it!
For the Rebellion,