Most of us will agree that pull ups are one of the best upper body exercises you can do. Most of us will also agree that pull ups are one of the most difficult exercises you can do. Fortunately, like most things in life, you can learn how to get better at pull ups. It takes practice, patience, and commitment, but anyone can improve their pull up skills. I’m here to share a few tips that can help you along the way.
Why Are Pull Ups So Effective?
Pull ups are to the back, what push ups are to the chest. Does that make sense? Let me explain. Push ups and pull ups are basically polar opposites of each other. Push ups mainly hit the chest, shoulders, and triceps. All the main muscles that are used for pushing something away from you. Pull ups target our back (mainly our lats) and biceps, the muscles that pull something toward us.
So you can effectively work every upper body muscle by doing push ups and pull ups. That’s why pull ups are so effective- they work many different muscles at the same time. Also consider the fact that your shoulders (and all the muscles surrounding them) are working to stabilize your arms while you pull. This gets the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles involved as well.
Plus, if you are doing standard pull ups, you are lifting your entire body weight! This may be more resistance than many of us are used to.
So putting it all together, pull ups are great because:
- You are working multiple muscles at the same time
- You are using muscles to stabilize your shoulders (and core) as you pull
- You are lifting your entire body weight
We know pull ups are a great strengthening exercise for our backs and arms, but they are also super effective because they can be done almost anywhere. All you need is a solid pull up bar. Bars come in many shapes and sizes, but a simple door mounted pull up bar will work just fine for most of us.
I used one for a couple of years while I was doing the P90X workouts. I eventually had to stop because of elbow pain, but the door mounted bar held up great.
If you don’t have a pull up bar in your home gym, I highly recommend one. Especially if you are trying to get better at pull ups. It will make practicing a lot easier if you have one in the comfort of your own home. Check out my article on the best home pull up bars for a list of the best bars available right now.
If you workout at a commercial gym, you will have access to a nice pull up bar, no question. But having a nice pull up bar at home can turn any space into a makeshift gym. With a bar, you can do pull ups, push ups, sit-ups, squats… throw in a few burpees and you have a solid workout.
5 Tips To Help You Do More Pull Ups
#1 Isometric Holds
If you are currently unable to do any pull ups, that’s ok. As long as you are motivated and willing to put in some work, we can change that. Once you are able to do a pull up or two, you will have fun watching that number climb and climb. You might really surprise yourself when you knock out 15 or 20 pull ups!
Isometric holds are a great way to start improving your upper body and lat strength. What you are going to do is:
- Grab your pull up bar and jump up so that your chin is over the bar
- Try to hold yourself there as long as you can
- Slowly lower yourself down
- Repeat 3-5x
If you can’t get above the bar from the ground, get on a chair and hold yourself at/above the bar as long as possible, than slowly lower yourself down.
See it done here– note: this guy is obviously really good at pull ups, he doesn’t jump, otherwise the hold is correct.
#2 Horizontal Pull Ups
Horizontal pull ups are another great exercise to do in order to improve your strength in preparation for pull ups. If the isometric holds mentioned above are a little too difficult, try this one. For this exercise, you don’t need a pull up bar, but you do need a horizontal bar of some type. Smith machines or power racks with a barbell work well.
- Position yourself under the bar, back on floor
- Reach up and grab bar with hands slightly farther than shoulder width apart
- Squeeze shoulder blades together as you pull your chest up towards bar
- Hold for a sec or two, than slowly lower yourself back to floor
- Perform 2-3 sets to failure
Note: the higher the bar is off the ground, the harder the exercise will be.
#3 Assisted Pull Ups
Tips #1 and #2 are for folks who struggle with completing 1 pull up. If you are able to do 1 or 2 pull ups independently, you may be ready for assisted pull ups. All you need here is your pull up bar and a chair.
- Position your chair underneath the pull up bar
- Grab your bar and do as many standard pull ups as you can
- As you reach failure, put one leg on the chair and use your leg to help boost you up to knock out a few more pull ups
- Complete 3 sets of 8-10
Note: the farther away the chair is, the less assistance you will give yourself. As you become stronger, gradually move the chair farther away.
#4 Do Pull Ups More Often
This might seem fairly obvious, but if you want to get better at pull ups you have to practice them… a lot. Elite athletes or guys really good at pull ups might do them 5-7 days a week. That’s a lot for a beginner, but try to incorporate them into your workout 3x/week. This doesn’t mean you have to do a complete back workout 3x/wk.
If you are working back 1x/wk, include pull ups in that workout. But 2 other days, just include a set or two of pull ups after your workout, regardless of what body part you were concentrating on.
I would suggest a Monday, Wednesday, Friday split, but space them out any way you like. Just do pull ups more often. This strategy is good for folks that are able to do a couple, but want to really increase that number.
When I started P90X a few years ago, I could knock out 7 or 8. That program uses a lot of pull ups and push ups, so during that time I was doing pull ups 2x/week. At the end, I could do around 25 pull ups on a good day. You can really amaze yourself if you stick with it.
I would also suggest practicing with different hand positions. Depending on your bar, you may have 2 or 3 different grips or 5. Even with a straight bar, you can do wide grip, chin ups (palms toward you), and narrow grip pull ups (palms away from you). Chin ups tend to be a little easier because you are using your biceps so much. Wide grip pull ups are harder. Practice all positions and vary your workouts.
#5 Lose Weight
This may also seem a little obvious, but if you lose a little weight you will have less weight to lift. I mentioned my personal success with pull ups earlier. A big part of this was the fact that I also lost about 10 pounds while I was doing that program. Pull ups will get significantly easier if you lose a few pounds.
This is assuming you are a little overweight to begin with. If you aren’t, I wouldn’t suggest trying to lose weight just to do more pull ups. If you are already at your goal weight, just concentrate on the 4 tips mentioned above and you should really start to see your pull up numbers increasing.
Time To Do More Pull Ups!
If you are struggling with pull ups, you are not alone. They are among the most difficult exercises you can do. I would argue they are the hardest body weight exercise without question. But that’s also why they can be so rewarding.
If you start implementing these strategies into your workouts, I promise you will see a difference. Your back and arms will get stronger. As your strength gradually improves, you will get to the point where you start doing pull ups without assistance. And once you start, the sky is the limit. The more you do, the stronger you will get, and the more you can do…it’s a beautiful cycle!
Someone who dreamed of doing 1 or 2 pull ups might find themselves knocking out 15 or 20. Now that’s bragging rights. Make sure all of your friends and family know how awesome you are!
If you practice doing pull ups, you can improve. It will take work and time, but I’m confident you can do it. Now that you’ve learned how to do more pull ups, it’s just a matter of getting to work.
I hope the above suggestions were helpful. Leave a comment and I’ll get back to ya. I’d love to hear some success stories.