Pull-ups seem like such a basic movement, yet for some, lifting the chin above a bar even once seems impossible. What gives?
You might assume strong arms are all it takes to complete a successful pull-up, but the movement is much more complicated. When you’re hoisting your whole body up, you’ll also need a strong back, butt, core, and more. Without a strong core, for instance, bad form will make it even harder to work against gravity. “You’re creating even more resistance than you would be if you were in a good vertical position where your legs, hips, and feet were all in alignment,” says Jacqueline Kelly, certified strength and conditioning specialist and sports psychology consultant.
Working on your butt muscles will also keep you from flailing, says Dani Singer, certified personal trainer and fitness director of Fit2Go Personal Training. “That’s what keeps your pelvis stable,” he says. “You don’t want your legs flopping around.”
Using these moves, you should be able to finish a pull-up in as little as 12 weeks:
Strengthen your butt
“Most people are sort of lacking activation in their glutes from sitting all day, so most people have to start with this,” says Singer. Isolate those tough-to-target butt muscles with a glute bridge. Lie on your back with your legs bent, heels flat on the ground. Push through your heels to lift your hips in the air, creating a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold for five seconds, then lower yourself back down. Repeat nine times for a total of ten reps.
Work on your core
“Doing a crunch won’t help you, because it’s not the strength of the abs, it’s strengthening that stability, the ability to hold your core in place,” says Singer. Instead, he recommends planks. Focus on keeping straight, which will activate your abs more than if you arch your back. Start by holding yourself there for ten seconds, and work your way up to 50 seconds.
After perfecting a 50-second plank, make the move harder instead of adding more time. “Your body doesn’t want to plank forever—it wants to be doing short exercises for a short period of time, and making it difficult,” says Kelly. Hold your arms against a stability ball, and bring your knee to the opposite elbow, then switch sides, to engage your abs even more.
Get strong arms
Every other day, alternate between doing bicep curls and hammer curls, says Kelly. Hammer curls use the same movement as bicep curls, but your wrist is rotated so your thumb faces up instead of your palm. Do three sets of 12. When you can do 15, increase the weight of your dumbbell.
Work more muscles by adding triceps extensions, says Kelly. Hold a dumbbell above your head. Now dip the weight behind your head, keeping your elbows close to your ears. Start with three sets of 12 and work your way up.
Call in reinforcements
“Bands and assisted pull-up machines are great for teaching proper form before you go unassisted,” says Kelly. Gym-goers can head to the assisted pull-up machine. Set the weight at three quarters of your body weight. It might sound heavy, but the weight refers to how much weight is balancing your own, meaning you’ll actually be lifting just one quarter of your body weight.
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Kelly recommends starting with two sets of 20 or 25, working your way up to 50 reps. Then switch the weight to half your body weight, working your way up to three sets of 15. Finally, use one quarter of your weight, aiming to do four sets of six to eight reps.
Alternatively, use resistance bands on a regular bar instead of a machine. Follow the same routine, starting with three resistance bands holding your legs, and working your way down to one.
Learn how to hang
Assisted pull-ups can help your form, but other moves will get your body used to holding its own weight. “You want to start with just being able to build the grip strength and ability to hang,” says Singer. Try hanging on a bar for just ten seconds, he says. Once you can stay there for 30 seconds, try holding yourself above the bar. Step up from a box or jump up so your chin is above the bar, then stay there for 10 seconds. Once you’ve built the strength to stay there for 30 seconds, you can move on.
Do the reverse
After you’ve got your grip down, add some movement with a negative pull-up. Instead of hoisting yourself up, start with your chin above the bar and lower your body down. “You’re still holding your whole body weight and using the same muscles,” says Singer. Once you can do ten with good form, you’re ready to try a pull-up.