Pull Ups are just one of those cool, but oh-so challenging, bodyweight exercises that most of us would love to be able to do.
Unfortunately, they may often seem out of reach, no matter how much we try and work toward them.
We may include extra back exercises in our workouts and even try to do a ton of assisted pull ups, only to find we still aren’t any closer despite our best attempts.
So if doing more back exercises and pull ups isn’t going to get us there…What is?
Well, there are often three things most people aren’t including enough of in their routine when working toward that first full pull up:
2. Eccentric Pull Ups
3. Core Strengthening Exercises
Activation alone is truly the most important piece of the puzzle that most of us don’t do enough of when we want to improve our pull ups.
(If you’re ready to improve your pull ups and combine these three things into a program that will get you results, check out this 30-Day Pull Up Challenge!)
Activation is such a key piece of improving your pull ups because it helps make sure the big muscles of your back are actually engaged and working, which often aren’t actually working because we sit hunched over a computer screen for 9 hours a day.
If the big muscles of your back aren’t actually engaged and working, you aren’t going to be able to perform a full pull up. And most likely all of those back exercises you are doing aren’t truly working the correct muscles; therefore, your back isn’t getting any stronger!
Instead, all of your back exercises and even your assisted pull ups may be working the muscles of your arms and even the smaller muscles of your back instead of recruiting big muscles, such as your lats. This not only doesn’t get you any closer to your goal, but it could also lead to injury.
So the first step in achieving that first pull up? ACTIVATION!
Activation means foam rolling, stretching and then doing movements that isolate and engage your back to improve your scapular mobility, especially your scapular retraction.
One of the best moves to activate your back and start working on your pull ups is the Band Pull Down.
This move will engage your rhomboids, lower and mid traps as well as your lats. It will open up your chest and work on scapular retraction. It will mimic the pull up movement and get the muscles working through that range of motion.
To do the Band Pull Down, hold a band in both hands with your hands a little closer together than shoulder-width apart. You don’t need a very heavy resistance to make this move work and can even use a towel if you don’t have a resistance or mini band available.
Press your chest out and slightly pull out on the band so that there is tension as you reach the band overhead. Keeping your chest pressed out and tension on the band, pull the band down toward your chest, as if you were pulling your chest up to a bar during a pull up.
Draw your shoulder blades down and back and feel your back working to pull the band down as you drive your elbows down and slightly back toward the ground. Keep tension on the band the entire time and do not let your hands come together at the bottom.
Pause at the bottom and feel your back engage then slowly reach the band back overhead before repeating the Pull Down. Move slowly and make sure to maintain tension on the band the entire time. Focus on feeling your back work to pull the band down so that you are “leading” with your chest.
Do not arch your low back as you perform the pulls. Keep your abs engaged. Make sure your arms and shoulders aren’t doing all of the work and that you feel your shoulder blades moving and coming down and together!
Eccentric Pull Ups
The second key to achieving that first full pull up is taking on your own bodyweight during pull ups. If you only use assistance, you really are only going to get better at doing pull ups with assistance.
So if you just constantly include 8-12 reps of assisted pull ups, you aren’t going to move toward that full pull up very quickly...if ever at all.
If you want to do a full pull up, you’ve got to actually take on your own bodyweight. You’ve also got to do the closest thing to a full pull up that you can.
That is why the Eccentric Pull Up is so key to achieving results. (It is also a key component of our 30-Day Challenge!)
The Eccentric Pull Up is a move focused on the eccentric portion of the lift, aka the lowering down of the pull up. So even if you can’t yet do a full pull up, you can set at the top of the movement and then simply lower down as slowly as you can.
This focus on the lower down allows even those unable to do a full pull up to take on their own bodyweight and strengthen their back through a piece of the full movement. It is a way to modify the full pull up without you just training constantly with bands or machines to assist you!
Doing lower reps and focusing on going slower on the lower down will get you closer to that full pull up than doing a bazillion machine assisted pull ups ever will!
Core Strengthening Exercises
The third thing you need to do is strengthen your core. Yes, pull ups are an upper body exercise, but they are also a core exercise and require a lot of core strength!
While hanging ab exercises are important to include in your workout routine because they activate your back while strengthening your core, an unexpected core move you should be including in your workouts if you want to improve your pull ups is the Push Up, especially Push Up Holds.
You may now be thinking, “Push Ups to improve my pull ups?!” YUP! Push Up Holds are a great move to work your entire core and even work on engaging your lats and serratus anterior - two muscles key to the pull up!
To do Push Up Holds, there are three main holds you can focus on – High Push Up Hold, Mid Push Up Hold and Bottom Push Up Hold.
High Push Up Hold- Set up at the top of a push up with your feet together and your hands under your shoulders but outside your chest. Your body should be in a nice straight line from your head to your heels (with your legs straight). Engage your abs, glutes, quads and back. Do not shrug your shoulders or tuck your chin.
Mid Push Up Hold- Set up at the top of a Push Up with your feet together and your hands under your shoulders and just outside your chest. With your body in a nice straight line from your head to your heels, bend your elbows to about 90 degrees and lower and hold. Do not let your hips sink or your butt go up toward the ceiling as you hold at that midpoint.
Bottom Push Up Hold- Set up at the top of a Push Up and then, keeping your body in a nice straight line and everything engaged, lower down until your chest is an inch off the ground. Make sure to engage your glutes and quads to keep your body in a nice straight line. Do not tuck your chin, let your hips sag toward the ground or your butt go up in the air. Do not let your elbows flare way out as you hold. You can also do this from your knees or off an incline even. Really focus on engaging your entire core as you hold.
Ready to start improving your pull ups and implementing these 3 Tips? Check out this 30-Day Pull Up Challenge! A complete 30 day workout program with video tutorials!
Learn more about the 30-Day Pull Up Challenge HERE and get a one-time offer of an extra 50% off the Challenge when you use code AZUMIO at checkout!
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.