Tips To Help You Master The Pull Up

The other day I asked clients and my Facebook followers, “What move would you like to master in the New Year?”

It seems that the pull up is the tough move that everyone would love to master.

But it isn’t like bench press or squats or deadlifts where you just start with a lighter weight and work your way up.

Heck, even simply doing assisted pull ups doesn’t always even get you there.

But where there is a will, there is a way. Just like with any other fitness goal you have, you have to TRAIN to be able to do the pull up.

So here are some great strengthening moves to add into your training routine that will help you to master that elusive pull up in this coming year!

HOWEVER, you must be consistent in your training for these moves to work. You can’t simply do them a couple of times one week and then expect to be there!

1. Work on your scapular retraction. 

Here are three moves to help. You can add these into your warm up routines any time you do an upper body workout. They are also great rehab moves if you’ve suffered from any neck or shoulder injuries. These moves also help you activate the correct muscles so you can use all those strong back muscles to help you do the pull up!

Scapular Band Flyes – Hold the resistance band with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Arms should be straight out in front of you at about shoulder height or right below. Keeping your arms straight, open your arms out to the side. Pinch your shoulder blades together as you open. Do not let your shoulders shrug up. Then once you open the band to your chest with your arms straight, bring your arms back together so your arms are about shoulder-width apart again and there is no slack in the band. Repeat.

back flyes

Scapular Wall Hold – Stand with your back to the wall. Step a couple of inches away and bend your arms to 90 degrees. Keep your elbows in by your sides and drive them back toward the wall. Lean onto your elbows on the wall. Do not let your upper arms or back touch the wall. Relax your head back. Pinch your shoulder blades down and back while keeping your core tight as you lean into the wall. You should feel this move low between your shoulder blades. To advance the move, move your feet a bit further from the wall.

scapular hold

Scapular Push Ups – This move has only a very small range of motion. Set up in a push up position from your knees or toes. Create a nice straight line with your body. Then pinch your shoulder blades back and together and press your chest out. Then relax. It is really only a few inches of motion. DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CORE TO MOVE. Do not bend your elbows or allow your hips to sag. All you are doing is pinching your shoulder blades back and together. Also, do not let your shoulders shrug up by your ears.

scapular push ups

2. Use isometric holds to strengthen your pull up.

Isometrics are a great way to strengthen the muscles used during pull ups without you having to be able to do a pull up. Here are three isometric holds that I love to use to work on each part of the pull up. The dead hang is an isometric at the bottom of a pull up and the pull up hold is at the top. The mid-pull up hold is exactly what it sounds like – a hold in the middle of a pull up.

Dead Hang – Hold on to a pull up bar or suspension trainer and hang from the bar. Your hands can be facing toward you or away from you. As you hang, do not let your shoulders shrug up. Keep your chest pressed out and your core tight. Your legs should hang down toward the ground. Do not tuck your knees up toward your chest.

dead hang and pull up hold

The first is a dead hang. The second is a pull up hold.

Pull Up Hold – You can do this as a chin up or pull up. You can do it off a bar, off a peg board and/or off of XT/TRX straps. Whichever you use pull to the top of a pull up or chin up and HOLD. The less stable the appliance, the harder this move will be. Keep your legs straight down toward the ground and your chin above the bar. Keep your chest should be pressed out and your shoulder blades should be down and back. Squeeze your belly button in toward your spine and keep your glutes tight. Hold there until time is up.

Mid-Pull Up Hold – Hold on to a pull up bar or suspension trainer. Your hands can be facing toward you or away from you. You can either jump or pull yourself so that you are half way up a pull up. If the bar is low enough, you can simply set yourself a mid-pull up then hang from there. You arms won’t quite be bent to 90 degrees. As you hang, do not let your shoulders shrug up. Keep your chest pressed out and your core tight. Your legs should hang down toward the ground. Do not tuck your knees up toward your chest. Try to keep your arms bent as if you are halfway up or down the pull up and do not let them lengthen.

pull up

3. Strengthen the muscles of your back.

Once you’ve got everything activated (and before that even you will want to roll out your chest and traps to make sure no overactive muscles are trying to take over), you will want to work on making the big muscles even stronger.

Inverted rows are a great move to help you work toward the pull up because they also force you to work on grip strength and lifting your own bodyweight.

Inverted Rows – Hold a suspension trainer strap in each hand. Walk your feet out so you are leaning back. The closer to parallel to the ground you get, the harder the move will be. Squeeze your core and glutes and press your chest out so there is tension between your shoulder blades. Then row up, keeping your body in a nice straight line. Row until your chest comes up to the handles and then lower yourself back down. Don’t let your hips sink as you lower back down. Also, keep your chest pressed out the entire time (do not let your low back arch though).If there is no bar or XT/TRX on which to do rows, do scapular push ups or corner rows.

bodyweight row

One arm weighted rows and T-Bar Rows are also great options. When you do any weighted row, really focus on not rotating or using your legs to help you lift the weight. Focus on keeping a nice flat back and not rotating. You want your back to have to really work to row the weight up.

Doing pull ups are another great way to strengthen your back, but we will get into those with the next point….

4. Use different pull up variations to work on your weak points.

I’ve found that people get super stuck on one pull up variation and never mix it up.

Here are some ways to vary your pull ups to strengthen all the muscles needed to do an unassisted pull up:

  • Mix up the grip you use. Don’t always hold with a pull up or chin up grip. Also try a neutral grip (palms facing each other and hands parallel). You can also place your hands wider or closer together. Each grip activates/uses the muscles in slightly different ways. For instance, a chin up engages a slight bit more bicep while a wide grip pull up uses a lot of lat!
  • Do assisted variations. The key word there is VARIATIONS. Don’t just always hop on that assisted pull up machine. Try doing a pull up assisted by a jump. Or set up a bar so that your feet can help you push up by pushing off the ground. Or use a band. Vary the assistance you use to force your body to work in a few different ways. Also make sure you are always using as little assistance as possible. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you can’t try using just a little less assistance. Find your point of failure and then move backward until you can just barely do one or two. Don’t just allow the move to be easy and depend on the assistance.
  • Use tempo to strengthen your pull up. Slowing down the tempo of your pull up or down also helps strengthen your pull up. Do an assisted pull up, but pull up for a 3-5 count instead of pulling up as quickly as possible. OR jump to the top of the pull up, hold for a second then lower down as slowly as you can. All of these strengthen muscles in different ways to help you build toward the full pull up.

All of these moves and tips will help you master the pull up. While you need to be consistent in using them, you don’t have to use every single one every time you do an upper body workout. Mix a few in a couple of times a week.

Maybe during your metabolic use a pull up hold or even jumping pull ups. Or the next time you do a strength circuit do a weighted row and maybe some assisted pull ups.

Mix up the techniques you use, focusing on the moves that strengthen your weakest points. There is always a limiting factor to the weights or amount of reps we can do. Find that limiting factor, that weak link, and strengthen it.

And in case you aren’t sure what your weak link is, feel free to comment below and I can help you incorporate these tips into your training!

ALSO, while I didn’t discuss foam rolling above, make sure to roll out and do dynamic stretches before any strength training routine. A huge part of mastering these killer moves is getting the overactive muscles loosen and the correct muscles ready to work!

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Posted on December 10, 2013, in Man Bicep Form Bible, Man Biceps, program development and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Really good tips and advice. Upper body strength is such a challenge for me so I hope these tips will help me to achieve my first unassisted pull up.

  2. Thank you! I especially like that you used everyday stuff- like a playground- now both my kid and I can get a workout on the jungle gym!

  3. I love this post!! thank you for the pointers! I am still working on my pull up and want to get there so badly!! I am wondering how often to do these moves/warmups to get me to my first pull up?

    • I would use a combination of these moves 2-3 times a week. I do scapular holds, scapular push ups, inverted row holds or some “scapular retraction hold” in my warm ups probably 3 times a week. Then one day I’ll do a pull workout where I use rows or pull ups or some moves to strengthen the back. And then a third day I’ll incorporate one of the moves into a metabolic workout.

      Does that make sense?

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