Here's what you need to know...
- Kipping pull-ups have their place, but they should never be performed until you first build strict pull-up strength.
- To get stronger at pull-ups, you must build your base of pulling strength. Sweeping deadlifts and specialized row variations will get you there.
- Lifting weights and lifting your body up are two different things. Pulling your body up is a motor skill. You must practice it often.
- Pull-up machines won't help you, but band-assisted pull-ups will... if you do them correctly.
- Drop the fat. The leaner you get, the easier pull-ups will become.
- Correcting a weakness will always lead to fast improvements in your physique. Suck at pull-ups? You have the opportunity to correct a major weakness.
I use to dislike pull-ups, mostly because I was very bad at them. I was strong in many high-performance movements like the bench press, snatch, clean & jerk, squat, and deadlift, so I reasoned that I should automatically be good at pull-ups.
My first experience with pull-ups was laborious at best. And because of that I avoided them for a long time. They felt hard, they felt bad, and they felt uncomfortable. I told myself that I didn't need them to become strong overall and have a solid physique.
And since I'm a "world renowned authority" I was able to convince myself I was right. To some extent, it is true that you don't need the pull-up to build muscle. In fact, no exercise is mandatory to be able to build some muscle.
Some people have built great physiques without squatting or deadlifting, others without bench pressing, and a lot without doing the Olympic lifts. The same applies to pull-ups.
However, I also hate not being good at something. And while you can build a lot of back muscle using rows and pulldowns, properly performed pull-ups will give you a better back than most other exercise combinations. Also, building the strength to move your body should be developed as much as the strength to lift weights.
And let's face it, being able to knock out a set of dead-solid pull-ups is something that's pretty cool to do! So I decided to un-suck my pull-ups.
Add to that the new popularity of CrossFit, which has people doing kipping pull-ups without first building the strength to do strict pull-ups, and I feel that some advice on how to become strong at strict pull-ups is much needed.
While doing rows and pulldowns won't get you better at doing pull-ups, if you make all the pulling muscles stronger it will increase your potential to do strict pull-ups.
You can have the best pull-up technique in the world, but if your muscles aren't strong enough to lift your body up, you ain't going anywhere! By becoming strong at rows and pulls, you won't automatically become good at pull-ups. However, you still need to build your base of pulling strength before you can become good at using that strength on pull-ups.
As a rule of thumb, most people have weaker pulling muscles. This is often due to people not training their backside as seriously as their mirror muscles. It can also be due to the fact that their mind-muscle connection with their back is bad, causing them to rely mostly on arms to pull themselves up.
Either way, if you can't do a lot of strict pull-ups, the first order of business is to get stronger overall on pulling exercises and also get better at pulling with your back, not your arms.
Here are the best exercises to get it done:
1. Sweeping Deadlift
I started using this drill to teach my CrossFit athletes to engage their lats when they pulled (deadlifts and Olympic lifts). But I quickly discovered that it can turn the deadlift into an even more complete back-builder.
A regular deadlift works great for the lower and mid-back as well as the traps. There's some lat involvement to keep the bar close, but not enough to stimulate maximum growth. By using a resistance band attached to the bar and a post in front of you, you drastically increase the force the lats must produce.
The sweeping deadlift will help you build strength in all the muscles of your back. It has the least specificity to the pull-up but is the best overall strength-builder: do it first!
Perform sets of 5 reps, 4-6 sets. Use a bar weight that's about 70% of your maximum deadlift and walk back far enough to feel a good tension in the lats.
An even better movement for the upper back/lats is the same movement but using the wider snatch grip. Alternate both. When using the snatch-grip version, use about 15-20% less weight.
2. Chest-Supported Row
This is my favorite movement to strengthen the back in a pulling/rowing motion. It's a staple of the Chinese Olympic lifters.
This exercise will take the lower back out of the movement, and you can't really cheat. The deadlift will already tax your lower back, and if it tires out when doing regular barbell rows or Pendlay rows, your capacity to produce force in a rowing movement will decrease.
Also, if you have to spread the neural drive over more muscles, the intensity of the contraction can be lower. By focusing only on your back you'll develop more contractile strength and a superior mind-muscle connection.
You can do the movement with kettlebells, dumbbells or a barbell. They all work and you should rotate through all of them. Remember the goal is to become strong in all types of rowing motions. The pulling angle with a barbell will be different than the one with a dumbbell, especially if you use a neutral grip.
Perform sets of 6 to 8 reps for a few weeks, then add weight and drop down to 4 to 6 reps, but only when you've built a solid mind-muscle connection with the back.
Always hold a slight squeeze at the top. Don't rely on momentum to get the weight from point A to point B. Focus on a quality contraction of the back muscles.
3. Banded Hammer Strength High Row
Most people rely subconsciously on momentum and body swing to get the weight down in a lat pulldown. This is why when they try to transfer to pull-ups they can't do it. You need to get stronger muscles, not stronger at taking the weight from point A to point B regardless of how it gets there.
The Hammer Strength machine (and those like it) is more fixed, which reduces the use of lower back swinging. Adding bands compensates for any momentum that can be created by increasing the difficulty of the movement as you go along. This will also strengthen the finish of the pull, which is normally the weakest point in a chin-up/pull-up.
Do these rows with minimal momentum. Don't try to accelerate. Feel the muscles doing the work every inch of every repetition.
Perform sets of 8-10 for a few weeks, then heavier sets of 6-8 when your mind-muscle connection gets better.
4. Kroc Row
I'm not a huge fan of Kroc rows - which are very heavy dumbbell rows performed for high reps - when it comes to building the back itself. Most lifters use too much momentum and trunk rotation to get the weight up.
However, this exercise has great value for someone wanting to become good at pull-ups. How? By drastically increasing grip strength.
Force is transferred through the hands when doing pull-ups. If you have a weak grip you won't be able to transfer maximum force to the bar. As a result you'll lose a lot of pull-up strength.
Perform 1 or 2 sets at the end of your session a couple of times a week to build your grip.
To be good at doing pull-ups, you need to do pull-ups! Lifting weights and lifting your body up are two different tasks. The latter requires a much more complex interaction and motor pattern. Even if you have strong pulling muscles, it doesn't mean you'll be strong at pull-ups.
Pulling your body up is a motor skill. And to develop a motor skill you must practice it often. Frequency trumps volume and intensity when it comes to motor learning. When you want to improve your pull-up performance you should do pull-ups as often as possible. To paraphrase Pavel Tsatsouline, do pull-ups as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible.
If you can only do one or two pull-ups, that means doing single reps as often as you can during your day or workout. Start every session with 10 singles and include a few singles between your other exercises.
Once you become a bit stronger - enough to do 5 strict pull-ups - shoot for a specific number of reps (I normally use 30) to do at the beginning of every single workout.
I don't care how many sets it takes to get there; just try to get there in as little time as possible. This normally means stopping 1-2 reps short of failure on all your sets. I used this strategy with a figure competitor to improve her back, and it worked fast!
When you can do 30 strict reps in 5-6 sets you can think about learning the kipping pull-up if such a thing interests you. When you can do all 30 strict reps in only 3 sets you're ready to start doing weighted pull-ups.
What If I Can't Do A Single Pull-Up?
If not being able to pull yourself up is because of a lack of strength versus your body weight, go get stronger on the pulling exercises. In the meantime, practice the pull-up motor pattern with band assistance. Attach the band to the pull-up bar and put one foot or knee in the bottom loop.
In the video, the third rep is the type of movement we're shooting for: no momentum on the way up, body straight, bringing the chin over the bar and holding for a second, then lowering under control.
The second rep is acceptable. The first rep isn't because leaning back too much brings the body away from the bar and causes swinging.
However, that "pulling away from the bar" action can be an effective exercise in its own right. It's called a sternum chin or a "chest-to-bar" pull-up in CrossFit circles.
That movement is harder than a regular chin-up – the further away your center of mass is from the bar, the harder the movement – and it hits the back more completely, if you can do it properly.
Still using a no-momentum style, pull yourself up while simultaneously doing a backward arc with your torso, trying to look behind you. Pulling the bar while doing this will bring the bar toward your sternum/lower chest region.
This is a great exercise to strengthen your capacity to do regular strict chin-ups. Even if you can knock a few strict chin-ups without help, you'll probably need the band to do this one properly.
Some coaches aren't fond of using band-assisted pull-ups, but I've personally seen it work on too many people to dismiss it completely. Yes, the force curve in the band-aided pull-up isn't the same as in a pull-up. Yes, if you use the band to catapult yourself up in the air you won't become better at doing pull-ups.
However, if you continue to do plenty of strength work to get the pulling muscles stronger, doing band-assisted pull-ups will get you better at lifting your body up, which isn't the same thing as pulling a weight to you.
Banded pull-ups can actually be effective in their own right if they're done in a smart way. My wife went from doing no pull-ups to doing 10 strict ones and the only thing she did was banded pull-ups, gradually decreasing the band resistance as she got stronger.
Focus on doing the movement under control, gradually producing more force as you go up, holding the peak contraction at the top for 2 seconds then lowering yourself down slowly. You will strengthen the whole range of motion.
Start with a band resistance that allows you to do 5 controlled reps. When you can do 10, use a smaller resistance. You'll probably drop down to 5-7 reps. Work your way up to 10 then change the resistance again. Keep it up until you no longer need the band.
Remember, moving your body in space is a motor skill. You need to practice it. It's not just about having strong muscles.
Avoid the Pull-Up Machine!
No, the machine that helps you do pull-ups will not work the same. For one thing, most of them don't go high enough to allow the chin to clear the bar. Second, they do not work on the capacity to move your body in space since the body is fixed (no tridimensional movement).
Another acceptable strategy is stage reps. Bring yourself up to the chin-up bar by stepping on a bench. Do partial reps at the top - only go down to a position you can get yourself back up from - for 3-5 reps.
Then lower yourself down to the bottom position under control and do partial reps from the bottom - from dead-hang to as high as you can - lowering yourself under control. Do this for maximum reps. Over time, the length of each phase will increase and soon you'll be doing full-range movements.
While these don't involve the same movement pattern as the pull-up, they still make you practice lifting your own body. There will be some skill transfer to the pull-up. This isn't my primary strategy, but it can be added since it's not too stressful on the body.
Face facts. When you're pulling yourself up, the more you weigh the more resistance you have to overcome.
You must lift roughly 80-85% (maybe more) of your body weight when doing pull-ups. When the arms are extended overhead, you have to lift everything below your elbows to some extent. I say "to some extent" because the movement isn't linear and neither are the joint functions.
So an obvious way to become better at pull-ups is to reduce your body weight! Obviously we don't want to sacrifice muscle mass, so our only option is to lose fat. The leaner you get, the easier pull-ups will become.
I train an IFBB pro bodybuilder in the 212 class. He's plenty strong in the back and arms to do pull-ups, but because of his poor shoulder mobility, and probably the size of his biceps, he can't bring his chin over the bar. He can do plenty of reps with the bar coming up to his nose, but he physically can't go higher.
If you want to be very good at pull-ups you'll need to have full shoulder joint mobility, otherwise you will not only fight the weight of your body but also the opposite pull of some muscles.
With my own training, I always look for things I'm not good at and focus on improving them. Every time I decided to focus on correcting a weakness it has lead to significant physique changes as well as strength gains where I didn't expect it.
Correcting a weakness will always lead to big changes in your physique. If you suck at pull-ups, you have a weakness... and an opportunity.