More often than not, I get asked by female friends how they can improve their pull ups. Their zest to conquer this movement could be for a myriad of reasons:
1) To accomplish a new goal.
2) To feel empowered.
3) To improve posture and strength.
4) To be Khaleesi from Game of Thrones.
To that end, I remember when I achieved my first real pull up from a dead hang position to chin over the bar. No kipping, swinging, or half hang bullshit involved. Did I feel like a badass bitch that could take over the world? You bet.
This accomplishment sparked a plethora of emotions: confidence in my mental and physical strength, empowerment in who I was as a woman, and revelation and awe of what my body was capable of doing.
Admittedly, pull ups have always been my most challenging lift, and deservedly so – they’re a feat of strength that require you to vertically pull your body weight over a bar against gravity. Ain’t science a bitch?
Alas, it isn’t at the same time. Science works in wondrous ways that allows us to forge diamonds, so why not use it to our advantage to forge our bodies in the name of strength?
Time and time again, I’ve urged my female clients, from high school soccer girls to 50 year old moms, to prevail over the pull up and never give up.
With a little courage, positive self talk, and science, you’re all set.
Please don’t doubt science. It will improve your pull ups, and I will do my best to dumb down this article so you can quickly be on your way to becoming a pull up Jedi master. And learn some sweet anatomy and biomechanics terms along the way. ;-O
Without further ado, here are 5 simple ways to improve your pull ups:
Most would argue that a “real” pull up is used with an overhand, pronated grip.
And I say those people are morons.
Look. Before you send me hate mail or ship a package of shit to my front doorstep, the different grips represent the anatomical placement of the joint. Sure, underhand and neutral grips will be EASIER than an overhand grip, but it shouldn’t downgrade the accomplishment of pulling your weight against gravity over a bar. End of story.
With that said, choose a grip that works for you based on your biomechanics. Why? Because we’re all unique fucking snowflakes.
I, for one, have no shame in going with a neutral grip as it places less stress on my shoulders and allows me to comfortably achieve full range of motion. Internally rotated shoulders have always been an issue of mine and overhand grip may exacerbate the shitty state of my humeral head more.
So now, once you’ve chosen your grip, start to work on grip strength.
A few things you can try:
Barbell Suitcase Carries
Towel Grip Pull Ups
Band Hanging Leg Raises
Manning up and carrying all 10 grocery bags to your car in one trip works too.
Oh and one more thing: stop being a pussy and using lifting gloves.
2) Strengthen your core
Learning to keep your body in a hollow position is critical for improving your pull up.
Now this isn’t to say do P90x Ab Ripper and a million Russian twists every day. There are a select few core exercises that will allow you to build strength and hone tension in the hollow, pull up position. Functionality > Aesthetics in this case.
Here are a few to try:
Key cues to remember:
– Keep your chin tucked in (stare at your belly button).
– Press your lower back into the ground like you’re crushing an orange with your lumbar spine.
– Lift shoulders about 1-2 inches off the ground (this is enough to feel anterior core tension).
– Keep legs straight.
3) Perform accessory lifts.
If you’re starting from scratch, it’s a good idea to get strong with accessory lifts that will build your pulling muscles before attacking the bar.
Even if you’ve been training pull ups for a while, varying your programming with accessory pulling movements will allow you to overcome plateaus and avoid overtraining.
A few accessory lifts to try:
I enjoy the split stance row because it’s an easy movement to hone lat engagement and achieve full range of motion. Better yet, it involves a lat-glute connection, which ties the body together through reflexive strength.
I’ve always been a fan of face pull variations because you’re able to do a lot of volume, while still getting safe range of motion through the back muscles.
Finally, this TRX pull variation is great to focus on the concentric portion of pulling yourself up vertically. It’s critical to lean back slightly so that you can engage the lats and avoid shoulder internal rotation.
4) Carefully design your program.
When writing your pull up program, please don’t “wing it.” And please don’t train just once a week.
At a minimum, train pull ups 2-3x a week. If you’re a beginner, a cycle should last about 6-8 weeks for muscles to adapt and strengthen. Here is a sample program:
Day 1: Moderate
Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, this is the day when it’s not too challenging, not too easy, but juuuuuuuust enough load to get a good work out. That said, go 75-80% of your max or 6-7 on the RPE scale. Here is a simple info-graphic to guide you:
Sets and rep ranges to jive with: 4×5, 4×6, 5×5, 3×6, 3×7, pyramids (6, 6, 5)
Day 2: Light
Don’t be a super hero on this day. Stick with 60-70% of your max or 3-4 on the RPE scale. Focus on form, full range of motion, and deep belly breathing.
Set and rep ranges to jive with: 3×10, 3×8, 4 x 6, pyramids (10, 10, 8)
Day 3: Heavy
Now you’ve made it to the balls-to-the-wall day (90-95% 1RM) or 8.5-10 on the RPE scale. Please note, accessory lifts aren’t necessary on a day like this. Instead, you could do a happy dance between sets or meditate for all I care. Just don’t kill yourself and get your rest time.
Set and rep ranges to jive with: 3×3, 4×3, 4×2, 5-10 x 1 (singles are an excellent way to feel confident in the strength of your pull up) and pyramids (3,2,2,1).
Progressions to try: switch grip pull ups, towel pull ups, iso-holds, eccentrics (jump up to the bar and lower for 5 seconds), or weight belt:
And this is all just glossing over the tip of the iceberg.
Please remember that there are a billion ways to write a pull up program. More often than not, it’s trial and error and checking in with how you’re doing. Are you progressing? Are you fatiguing? Are you in need of more de-loading?
Shit, now that I mention it, de-loading is critical with a pull up program. Sprinkle in a de-load week every 4-6 weeks to ensure you’re not overtraining and are better able to overcome plateaus.
One more thing: this was a long blog post. But compared to other pull up programs out on the market, I consider this itty bitty.
Strength coach Meghan Callaway is an excellent resource, and will be releasing a badass program soon.
Also, personal trainer Artemis Scantalides is the queen of pull ups with her Attack the Bar program. Go check it out. It’s nothing short of amazing.
At the very least, I hope this post pushes you to get started and try something new. Enjoy.