Pullups are one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises out there. They engage your entire back, abs, biceps, and forearms—so if you are looking to build true upper-body strength and a rock-star physique, pullups are your move. All you need is a bar.
Because pullups engage all those different muscles, they require more energy to perform, which means they burn more calories than other back moves, like cable lat pulldowns, for example.
The one potential downside? Pullups are difficult to do correctly—and for many people, hard to do at all. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to struggle with pullups even after years of training. Trust me, it’s not just you. I’ve met plenty of people who work out regularly but can’t nail a single pullup. The average guy who trains with us at Jeremy Scott Fitness starts out able to do between one and five true dead-hang pullups at first, while the average women can do even less, if any at all. Because men naturally tend to have more upper-body strength than women, even the fittest women have more trouble nailing pullups than their male counterparts.
The thing is, the more you weigh, the harder it is to pull yourself up—so if you’re over 200 pounds, they may not be your strong suit. They’re also tougher for anyone with longer arms, because you have more distance to cover when pulling your body up to a bar from a dead hang position.
So if pullups elude you, don’t worry. I’m here to help you get off the ground and all the way up. Your job: Start every workout—even leg day—with three to four sets of one or two of the moves below, all of which will help you build the upper-body strength you need to crush pullups. Just a few sets of back work a day will go far.
Here’s a sample of how you might hit these moves throughout the week. Start with three sets of eight to 10 reps per move:
Monday: band or machine-assisted pullups, inverted bodyweight rows, dead hangs
Wednesday: dumbbell chest-supported rows, inverted bodyweight rows
Friday: band or machine-assisted pullups, dead hangs, dumbbell chest-supported rows
Remember, building up to pullups takes time, so don’t be discouraged when it doesn’t happen in a week. But I promise, if you’re diligent you will be able to nail a full pullup soon. If you have a decent strength base already and put in the work, you could go from zero to three pullups in six to eight weeks.
Here are the details for each move:
Exercise #1: Chest-Supported Rows
Face an incline bench with a pair of dumbbells in-hand. (Use weights you can lift for eight to 10 reps, but no more.) Anchor your feet down and press your chest firmly into the bench.
Let your arms hang with the dumbbells in-hand and then bend at the elbows to row the dumbbells toward your chest, keeping your elbows packed in next to your sides as you go. Keep your shoulder blades down and back and focus on pulling through a full range of motion. Imagine you have an orange between your shoulder blades and try to squeeze it hard enough to make OJ.
Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position. If you can perform 10 reps and feel like you have enough gas in the tank to churn out another rep or two, it’s time to up your weight.
Exercise #2: Inverted Bodyweight Rows
This exercise mimics the movement pattern of a pullup—but from a different angle. Set up the Olympic bar or smith machine so the bar sits at mid-quad or waist level. Lie flat on your back facing with your torso beneath the bar.
Grip the bar with hands about shoulders-width apart and form a long, stiff line with your body, with your feet planted on the floor. (Squeeze your glutes and brace your core.)
Keeping your shoulder back and down, bend at the elbows and pull your torso up toward the bar. Try to get your chest as close to the bar as possible. Then slowly lower back down to the starting position.
As you progress, you can mix up your grip on the bar (overhand vs. underhand) or try moving your hands closer together.
If this is too difficult, you can do inverted rows with bent knees. In the starting position, bend your knees and plant your feet on the floor so your body forms a straight line from your head to your knees. Again, squeeze your glutes and core, and perform the rows. Once you can do 10 solid reps, move on to the straight-leg position.
Exercise #3: Dead Hangs
This exercise sounds simple enough—but don’t be fooled. It’s a lot harder to just ‘hang from the bar’ than you might think, and tons of people struggle to hang for even 30 seconds. But this position is great for developing the strength you need for pullups.
The setup is simple: Grip a pullup bar overhand with hands about shoulder-width apart and let your arms fully extend so you’re hanging with your feet suspended above the floor. (Use a box or bench to get up there.)
Hold your grip as long as possible. Your goal is to work up to more than a minute of dead-hanging at a time—but you might need to start out with 10 to 20 seconds. Just try to hang for a few seconds longer each workout.
Keep your shoulder blades down and back and your chest up to engage your entire backside as you hang. As you progress, you can mix up your grip (underhand, overhand, or one hand under and one over) and the width of your hands. The farther apart your hands, the more difficult dead hangs become.
I also like to add some three-quarter body turns to my dead hangs to open up the shoulders and spine, as well. Simply rotate your upper back and shoulders, letting your hips follow and allowing your feet to scissor back and forth.
Exercise #4: Band or Machine-Assisted Pullups
Assisted pullups allow you to develop the pullup movement and build strength without having to pull your entire body weight. For band-assisted pullups, lace a big looped resistance band around a pullup bar. (Choose a band thick enough that you can complete full pullups but still feel challenged.)
Use a step or bench to secure one foot (or knee, depending on the length of the band) into the hanging loop of the band. Then, grip the bar with hands shoulders-width apart. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and bend at the elbows to pull your body up. (Think about pulling the bar down with your arms.)
Keep your glutes tight and core braced so your body swings as little as possible as you pull up. Try to get your chin above the bar, or your upper chest to the bar. Then slowly lower back down to the starting position. Maintaining full control on the way down will help you engage as many muscle fibers as possible.
Once you can complete eight solid reps, lower the resistance of the band. Keep decreasing the resistance as you progress, until eventually you’re pulling your full weight.
An assisted pullup machine helps you do essentially the same thing. You’ll either stand or kneel on a platform and select how much of your weight you want the machine to support.
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