Mistressing the pullup

June 25th, 2008  |  Published in Exercise instruction  |  35 Comments

Pullups are a cool exercise. They look tuff, they feel butch, they’re low-tech, and they are one of the best exercises for all-round upper body strength. Not only are your back, biceps, forearms, and shoulders involved, but you may also feel them in your abs. (Gawd, my abs were sore for a week after my first attempt at pullups… felt like I’d pulled my ribcage out through my nostrils)

Pullups are also darn hard for the average woman to do. Most untrained females who are older than 10 and heavier than 50 lbs can’t do them. The good news, though, is that most trained women CAN do them. It just takes practice, patience, and time. So, if you’ve always wanted to do a pullup, or you have to do a few to pass a military or police fitness test, this article is for you!

BTW, the May 2008 Experience Life has an article by me on how to learn to do a pullup. Check it out — their pictures are much nicer than mine! Clear the Bar

The first thing to mention is the role of strength relative to mass. The heavier you are, the more weight you’re going to be pulling up. If you need to do pullups for something like a job-related fitness test and you have excess body fat to lose, then consider dumping some of that body fat overboard (of course, using a sensible nutrition plan of moderate caloric restriction and perhaps some interval training, as recommended elsewhere on this site). The lighter you are, the better your chances. That being said, the heaviest woman I’ve ever seen do a pullup was nearly 200 lbs., so it can be done even if you’re bigger. It’s just that this is one of those areas of physical unfairness where it’s better to be smaller.

Here is the progression that will take you from ultra-beginner to your first pullup. Feel free to skip steps if you’re already advanced, and/or if you’re curious enough to see how you’ll do on the harder levels. You don’t need anything fancy like an assisted pullup machine, but the machine does come in handy if you’ve got one available.

holding the bar

But first, a word about pullup grips. There are many ways to hold the bar. While in general, the movement remains more or less the same regardless of grip, there are slight differences depending on the grip. There are no rules about which grip to use, so use the one that you prefer.

An underhand grip is probably the easiest along with the parallel grip (see below). This grip is approximately shoulder width or narrower — even as narrow as your hands touching one another — and palms face you. This grip involves the biceps the most. Pullups done with an underhand grip are often referred to as chinups.

A parallel grip, with palms facing one another, is my personal favourite and in my opinion, frequently the easiest and most comfortable for the shoulders. Some pullup bars have a parallel grip built in. If your gym doesn’t, steal the parallel handle from the cable row station and hook it over the bar as shown in the pic to the right. When using this modification with the handle, you’ll need to orient yourself so that the bar is pointing front and back, rather than side to side, as in a regular pullup.

An overhand grip tends to involve the rear shoulders (deltoids) much more as primary movers, especially if the grip is wide. The more the grip causes your elbows to flare out from your body (as in the wide grip, bottom pic), the more involved the rear deltoids will be. The biceps involvement is somewhat less compared to the underhand grip. Also, the wider the grip, the more stress on the shoulders, so if you have rotator cuff problems, avoid the wider overhand grip as it may trigger shoulder pain. A wide overhand grip is generally the hardest grip to use aside from modified one-hand grips.
As you get more advanced, experiment with other grips. A mixed grip uses one hand over and one hand under. You won’t pull straight facing the bar; rather, your body will twist a little as you come up. This is good for a little extra challenge, particularly to the midsection that will have to work to stabilize you. Alternate hands with each set.
A modified one-hand grip is great for climbers, grip strength, and for working on the ultimate goal: a one-hand pullup (no, I haven’t done it yet. I may never… but a girl can dream). One hand grasps the bar, while the other sits lower down, grasping the rope. You can use a towel looped over the bar, or in this case, the rope handle stolen from the cable station. This provides an asymmetrical load: the side holding the bar will have to do much more pulling work than the side holding the rope, but the side holding the rope will experience much more of a demand on forearm and hand strength. Again, remember to switch sides for each set.

OK, on to the progression!

step 1: modifying the lat pulldown

This movement modification more closely mimics the type of demand on the midsection that pullups involve. You can use a cable station or the lat pulldown machine. Stand behind the machine’s seat if you’re using the lat pulldown station, as shown in the pic on the right, facing the stack. Reach up and grab the handle. Squat down slightly, bending at knees and hips. Pull the handle or bar to your chest as you normally would. You don’t even need to use the lat pulldown station; you could use any cable station that allows a handle to be attached at the top. It’s fun to experiment with other handles, such as the parallel handle, or to do these one-handed for a little extra zing.

step 2: assisted pullups

These can be done in two ways. One way is to use an assisted pullup machine (sometimes known as a Gravitron) that uses a counterweight so that you are only pulling up a fraction of your body weight. The assisted pullup machine has the advantage of providing progressively declining resistance. For example, you can begin with pulling up only 40% of your body weight and progressing in 5 or 10% intervals gradually towards your goal.

The second way, if you don’t have an assisted pullup machine, or if you feel like going low-tech, is to do the assisted chinup as shown in the photos to the right. This is perhaps the one good use of a Smith machine, as it should never be used for squatting unless you enjoy having your spinal vertebrae slide and crunch over one another like amorous tectonic plates. You could also use a barbell placed in a squat cage or rack, as I have done in the pictures.

Set the bar up at approximately chest height. Push a bench in front of the cage or Smith machine. Sit down in the cage and reach up to grab the bar, then put your feet on the bench. The bench will support some of your lower body weight so that you aren’t pulling up quite so much. The more of your legs that are supported by the bench, the more assistance you’ll get.

The first photo shows the starting position for the assisted pullup. You can use whatever grip you like, although a shoulder-width or slightly wider overhand or underhand grip will work best. Dorky facial expression, as demonstrated, is optional (although judging from how often it appears in my lifting photos, perhaps it is the secret to strength).

The second photo shows the top position of this pullup. Why am I looking to the side? I have no idea. Perhaps there is a shiny object over there. I have the attention span of a goldfish. Anyhoo, notice that I keep my legs straight throughout the movement.

step 3: negative pullups

This involves the same use of the Smith machine as in Step 2. Or you can use a regular bar; it’s just easier to do when the bar is a little lower. A negative pullup eliminates the pulling up part of the rep, which is the hardest part, and just focuses on the lowering down part, which is easier. The “negative” refers to the negative part of the rep, also known as the eccentric portion. Thus, instead of focusing on pulling up (known as the “positive” or “concentric” portion of the rep), you focus on slowly resisting gravity on the way down.

Start by grabbing the bar with your desired grip. Jump up to the top position of a pullup, with arms fully bent and chin over the bar. That’s the starting position. Then, lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Try for a slow 3 or 4 count per negative.

step 4: partner assistance

Once you can do 4 to 5 good slow negative chins, try a partner assist. Grab the bar, bend your knees 90 degrees, and have a partner place their hands under your shins in order to apply gentle upward assistance.

Often, just a little boost from a partner at the bottom is all you need, and you should be well on your way!

step 5: the pullup

Hell yeah! You did your first big-girl pullup!

Pause to celebrate the completion of your first pullup. It is a special moment in every woman’s life, ranking just below giving birth and above your wedding day. Or something like that. Force everyone in the gym to kiss your biceps. Scream “YEAH!!” and pump your fist in the air. Do a victory lap around the gym while singing, “Weeeee are the chaaampyuuuns my freeeeeeend…”

readers butch up, pull up

Stumptuous readers busting out their first big girl pullups! Show us how it’s done, ladies.

And update from Katie:

Lee-Ann’s pullup (Click to download in MOV format)

ok, i can haul myself up, now what?

You’ll find that it’s often easier to add weight than reps to chinups. Try for sets of singles rather than multiple reps, and try them more frequently than once weekly, say 2 to 3 times weekly. As long as you don’t max out and you stay well under your capacity (e.g. do 1 pullup if you can normally do 3), you can even do them every day if you’re used to them, but I don’t suggest that beginners do this, as their wrists and elbows are not sufficiently conditioned and will likely complain.

Another option is to do a regular chinup 1 to 2 x weekly, then assisted lighter chins another 2 x weekly. This will also help with your grip. Ideally, go for shorter sets with pullups, and do them a couple of times a week. You’ll fatigue easily with these, so the first set is where the magic happens.

There's another dorky facial expression. Maybe there is something to it. To be fair, it is hard to do a weighted pullup and not make a goofy face.

The easiest way to add weight to pullups is with a dip belt. This is a nylon belt with a chain. The chain is threaded through a weight plate, and the plate hangs between the knees, as shown in the pic to the right. The belts are pretty cheap; maybe $20 or so at your local fitness emporium. They come in leather versions too, but I’m not crazy about those, as the leather tends to cut into your hips.

You can also try holding lighter plates (such as the 2.5, 5, and 10 lbs) between your knees. This isn’t a bad method but I do not recommend just dropping the plate by opening your knees when you’re done the set. It has a surprisingly high probability of smashing your ankle on the way down. Must be a funny gravity thing, I guess. Make the extra effort to remove the plate by hand. As you get into larger plates, such as the one shown in the pic (which I think is a 25 lb one but can’t tell definitively), you’ll want to use a dip belt unless you have Knees O’ Steel.

And of course, feel free to pursue the pot of gold dream of a one-handed pullup by using the mixed-grip methods shown above, and placing your rope hand further down the rope over time. If you manage it, take a picture and send it to me. I shall proclaim you Pullup Mistress.

Responses

  1. Fitness Brainery » » Mastering the Pullup says:

    March 1st, 2009at 1:06 pm(#)

    […] Mistressing the pullup […]

  2. David says:

    May 7th, 2009at 1:21 pm(#)

    I’m a 56 year old male that has not done a pull up for years. Your step-by-step approach for getting re-wired for this exercise was very helpful. I want to thank Kyra for introducing me to your site.

  3. Mandy says:

    July 1st, 2009at 2:55 pm(#)

    Wow! Did my first unassisted pull up today from a full hang (wide overhand grip). I screamed so loud people must have thought I was having a hernia! You are right! It’s as empowering as natural childbirth! It took me eight months of training to do one!

  4. Jody says:

    August 3rd, 2009at 11:13 am(#)

    Thanks for the info and the videos. The other women make me feel like I can actually do it. I have been working on a chin up for months now and making progress. Love your site!

  5. Neither Here Nor There says:

    September 10th, 2009at 3:34 am(#)

    […] Mistressing the Pull Up […]

  6. Kathy says:

    September 14th, 2009at 10:44 am(#)

    Hi!! Just found your website a few days ago and am now an addict. Love your tips and humour!!

    Question about chin-ups…I have tried over and over again to do them but injure my left ribs every time. I have seen doctors, chiropractors and physiotherapists who cant figure out why I am having such a hard time with the ribs.

    I am going to try your assisted pull-ups..perhaps this is where I need to start.

    Thanks for all your awesome advice. Great site!!

  7. CoachSherilyn says:

    September 28th, 2009at 8:37 am(#)

    Hi! I have been a trainer for almost 15 years, and in that time only once have been able to do a pullup for about 14 seconds! Must have been a good day years ago, as I don’t even remember when it was. I do think it was before I added this muscle mass to my weight though. Your article has given me the desire to give this another go! I don’t have a Smith machine, but I think my Fluidity barre will work for the assisted with the bench, and I also have these wonderful HUGE rubber bands for assisting with pull-ups on my regular pull-up bar. I am going to do this again by gosh! If interested, see my fitness articles at ezine.com, I would love to read your comments! Push on and Pull up!!

  8. Scarlett says:

    October 8th, 2009at 8:26 am(#)

    Krista, I found an awesome website with multiple videos of ladies doing pull-ups, and there is one of a girl doing multiple one-armed pull-ups. http://chin-ups-training.com/girls-doing-it/

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    October 8th, 2009at 9:02 am(#)

    Great link Scarlett!

  10. Emily says:

    October 13th, 2009at 11:59 am(#)

    Just want to say, the negative pull-ups regiment definitely builds strength that the pull-up assist doesn’t. I started training about a year ago– my goal (among many) was to be able to do an unassisted pull up. For many, many months, I countered my body weight with the assist machine, and barely made progress. Once I started the negative pull-ups (maybe just 3-5 reps, 3-5 times a week?) I saw progress within weeks. I’m almost there now– can pull up from about 3/4 of the way down. Thanks for the great advice!

  11. Scarlett says:

    October 20th, 2009at 2:16 pm(#)

    Interesting comment Emily. I want to caveat off that to say I improved the best when I got some bands. I got mine from ironwoodyfitness.com. The pull-up assist machines don’t do the job, as Emily stated. I find negatives to be annoying. I went from nothing to two chin-ups in 2 months after I got the bands.

  12. Rena Rosenquist says:

    October 28th, 2009at 9:41 pm(#)

    I have lost 176lbs and one of my long terms goals was to do pull ups. It has taken me two years to master pull ups.. I used the assited pull up machine with super huge results until I removed all assistance and when over to a standard pull up bar starting with chin ups and progressing there from, but made real progress came bombing the upper body as a unit with every possible exercise to gain steer upper body strength. Push ups came as a bonus without realising it.
    These days I super set the pull up with pushups and pull downs, the results keep getting better with dedication.. I don’t look much, but other women and even men stop dead when I do this trick at the gym. NOT because I do them, but the steer number of sets.
    I think I now have wow muscles efter 2 years of body building.. My measurements to start were 152 cms around the hips, 141½ around the bust and 116 cms around the waist with a weight watcher nutrition and now body building. I had skin removed from my stomach but the rest of me is me lol.. I sport 90 cms bust and hips and 70 cm waist.. Body building evened up my body measurements heaps.. I also train with a c7 spinal injury and no longer use pain killers. The pull up is like a super wonderful stretch that massages tightness out of my back..

  13. Jennifer Foss says:

    December 4th, 2009at 4:53 pm(#)

    Krista,

    I know I’m late to the post, but I just found your site. I hope it’s not too late to get your advice.

    This autumn I finally got my pull-up bar at home. I don’t belong to a gym, so I can’t do machine assisted or even lat pull-downs. I set my goal as a set of 10 pull-ups. I trained for this with sets of as many full pull-ups as I could do, followed by slow negatives to fill out a set of 8-10. I usually did 3 sets, twice a week.

    For me, the hardest part was getting past 3 or 4. Actually, every additional rep I really had to fight for. I had figured that once I could do 5, going to 6, and then 7 etc wouldn’t be that hard. I can believe what you say about it actually being easier to add weight than add reps.

    In two months I almost reached me goal. On a very good day I could manage 9 pull-ups, but more often I could only do 7 or 8. Then I got the flu for a few days, and just generally slacked off from weight training for a month. I did pull-ups again for the first time yesterday and I could only do 4 in the first set.

    My question is do you have any advice for how I can best get back to a full set, and maybe even more? I would love to do 12. Is there a better way than what I was doing? Most of your article is geared toward getting that first one, but not so much about what to do then. Thanks.

  14. Mistress Krista says:

    December 5th, 2009at 7:55 am(#)

    Jennifer: Try 1-3 reps, several times a day, every day. Every time you walk past the bar, do a rep or two. Don’t go anywhere near your max (which is currently 4). Just a few reps, here and there, frequently. Every few weeks, test your max, then take a day or two off. Following that, go back to your “a few reps a day, several times a day” protocol, adding reps if needed (e.g. if your new max is 6, then do 2 to 4 per set).

  15. Jennifer Foss says:

    December 11th, 2009at 2:43 pm(#)

    Thank you for the suggestion. I will certainly try that.
    Jennifer

  16. Katy says:

    January 20th, 2010at 12:20 pm(#)

    Do you have any ideas for working up to chest dips? My gym doesn’t have an assisted dips/pullups machine, right now I’m doing them with my hands behind me on a bench and my feet up on another bench.

  17. Mistress Krista says:

    January 21st, 2010at 1:12 pm(#)

    Katy: You can use an elastic band for assistance, similar to a band-assisted pullup thus:
    http://www.youtube.com/v/efpptPJFiyc
    http://www.youtube.com/v/TindOf7zyXM

  18. Joanna says:

    January 31st, 2010at 3:59 pm(#)

    Dear Katy–

    Another thing you can try is your feet up on a stability ball while doing dips! Fun and challenges your proprioception in a different way!

    Krista–I have just looked at your site for the first time today, thanks to “Bitch” magazine–I love it!! I am a gal who frequently does 2 or 3 sets of 3 or 4 reps of chin/pullups in the gym, and I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to pull my own weight!
    What’s the point of lifting/being strong if not being able to move your own beautiful body around? =)

    And honestly, I really don’t mind the guys coming up to me and saying, “Wow! That’s really impressive! I wish I could do that!”
    I tell them, “Well, keep trying–you’ll get there eventually!”

    Perhaps I should direct them to your site!
    Thanks again!

  19. Bela says:

    April 23rd, 2010at 4:51 pm(#)

    I’ve been doing assisted pull-ups as part of my routine once a week but you have inspired me to see what I can do without any help. I’m proud to say that I managed to haul myself up more often than I thought. It wasn’t pretty but I got all the way to the top. Ok, maybe not on the last one, but still… 3 sets of 5 isn’t bad for a start!

    Thanks for this site! It’s an inspiration to try new things and work harder.

  20. Mimi says:

    July 23rd, 2010at 8:01 am(#)

    Finally did my first unassisted chin up! Using the bands rather than the gravitron really made all the difference! I went from zero to 2 chin ups in just over two months. For those in GTA, I wasn’t able to find the bands downtown and ended up ordering them online – I used the medium size:

    http://www.legacyfitness.ca/92-spri-superbands-mini-40q-x-12q.html

  21. Mistress Krista says:

    July 24th, 2010at 5:13 am(#)

    YEAH Mimi!! Right on!!!

  22. Evelyn says:

    August 2nd, 2010at 2:36 pm(#)

    I just came here to brag about my own success, but first: Go, Mimi!

    About six weeks ago, I start a strength training program at home, with the basics like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats with the heaviest object I could find. (Right now it’s a 25 pound kettlebell, but that’s about all I can handle at the moment.)

    For pull-ups, I’ve got a bar that fits in a doorway. I stand on a chair and then use as much of my upper body as I can to crank out maybe five assisted pull-ups. The problem is that I couldn’t really gauge how much of my weight I was really lifting and how much the chair was taking. A couple of weeks ago, I attempted a negative pull-up, and pretty much just dropped, which didn’t do my left shoulder any favors. I figured it would be a while before I could even manage one of those.

    So today, I decided to try one, expecting to have to put a foot on the chair almost immediately to take the extra weight. I didn’t have to! I couldn’t believe it! In fact, I didn’t believe it, and had to try again. But it was true, I really had! Yay me!!

    This has been very empowering. I’m a 43 year-old, overweight woman, and getting stronger really is making life much more pleasant. Carrying the laundry upstairs, bringing in the groceries–all that stuff is easier. (Not to mention the fact that, because of the squats, my butt is starting to be shaped like a butt instead of a pancake. I thought that was a genetic impossibility for me!)

  23. Mistress Krista says:

    August 2nd, 2010at 6:11 pm(#)

    Right on, Evelyn! Yeah!!

  24. JSweet says:

    August 28th, 2010at 8:14 pm(#)

    Oh man, why can’t I do one???????? I don’t get it! I lift more weight than a lot of women, I can do a million good push-ups, why can’t I do even one chin-up?
    I’ve been using the Gravitron for a couple of months now and reading the comments, I think I need to try bands or negative chin-ups instead. I can do one chin-up on the Gravitron with only -10 pounds assistance so I feel like I am almost there.
    I wonder if being pear-shaped makes chin-ups or pull-ups harder? I feel like the only women who can do them are straight up and down shaped, and very thin. I am fit but I have a lot of hips and butt and a small upper body (but strong!).
    Anyone else having a hard time?

  25. lelea says:

    October 12th, 2010at 8:08 am(#)

    Jsweet, I too am pear shaped and I am reasonably strong with weights, and use the gravitron but also can’t do unassisted.

    My negatives right now are super fast, but I’m inspired and motivated to emulate whet Evelyn did.

  26. Paul Harker says:

    January 11th, 2011at 9:06 am(#)

    Nice article. The “Clear the Bar” article link is not valid, however the article may be found here: http://www.experiencelifemag.com/issues/may-2008/fit-body/clear-the-bar.php
    (change .html to .php)

  27. Strength is required | Satiate. Sleep. Sprint. says:

    February 1st, 2011at 4:51 pm(#)

    […] instructions with pictures, for […]

  28. Lycaea says:

    February 8th, 2011at 9:37 pm(#)

    Thanks for sharing alternatives to the “negatives” pull-ups. I’m not a fan of them at all, and don’t have easy access to fancy equipment.

    My goal is 3 beautiful and full pull-ups (palms out) by spring, and the start of Parkour season. I want to be able to muscle myself up at the tops of the walls, damn it! ;)

  29. lefty says:

    May 3rd, 2011at 5:15 pm(#)

    I went on deployment starting last year, and one of my goals was to lose weight and *gasp* do a pull up! I have managed to do one pull up after I lost an initial 15 pounds, but that second one has been alluding me for 5 months now. I don’t have access to any gym machines bieng stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean… In frustration I searched le google, and ended up here… I think I’ll try those negative pull ups, that shows promise.

    My fellow seamen aren’t impressed by my one dorky pull-up, but when I bust out two, ha-ha! (they still won’t be impressed, but dammit, I will be ecstatic!)

    Also, thanks for introducing me to fitday.com :D

  30. Laura says:

    May 31st, 2011at 8:02 am(#)

    Resistance bands are great for pullups too. It allows you to simulate the true motion of pullups, without the problem of not being able to hold your weight. I have them in all different resistences so that I can progress.

  31. Pullup Training Plan « Cranks & Crumpets says:

    June 10th, 2011at 7:23 am(#)

    […] these two articles, Mistressing the pullup from Stumptuous, and this commonly linked Men’s Health article, I’ve developed a […]

  32. Tyciol says:

    August 7th, 2011at 7:48 am(#)

    It’s so true that sometimes it’s easier to add weight than reps. Makes me value lat pulldowns and assist machines for building that endurance.

  33. stephanie says:

    February 25th, 2012at 10:03 am(#)

    all i really want for my 48th birthday is to be able to do one of these

    57 days

  34. Heather says:

    June 14th, 2012at 2:47 am(#)

    This article makes me feel like a tank :P I can already smash out 3 pull-ups easy. Aiming to get to 5 :D
    I can go for ages doing chin ups, it’s bizarre. Keep at it! When I first started I could barely lift my weight at all doing pull-ups, I thought, pfft, this isn’t going to happen.
    Also, POLE DANCING is a brilliant sport for developing similar muscle groups, plenty of up and down pull-up-like movements :D

  35. Deanne says:

    September 11th, 2012at 7:25 am(#)

    I was master (mistress?) of my bodyweight already so set a goal for double figures. I got one of those doorway chin-up bars. I went quick on the up-movement as I feel this develops strength. My progress was quick and visually it seemed that my upper body muscles had buffed up a bit. The day attained my goal I got so excited and confident (cocky?) that I interrupted my flatmate from cooking for an armwrestle on the kitchen bench. Less than 10 seconds later, said flatmate ends up with back of hand firmly pinned to bench top. You should have seen the surprise on HIS face.

    p.s. Me left smiling and displaying (showing off?) bicep to sheepish flatmate.


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