Mistressing the pullup

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.