There are few tests in the gym more intimidating than a strict pull-up. To get strict pull-ups is like earning a new belt in Karate. Suspended in a dead hang, the simple concept of using all of your strength to lift up — nevertheless over — a bar above instills terror in the masses.
Plain and simple: unless you train the muscles involved in the movement, including the biceps, traps, and pecs, then getting strict pull-ups will be anything but a walk in the park.
“Most commonly, people can't do pull-ups because their upper body strength is lacking in relation to their overall weight,” says Jon Pearlman, personal trainer and co-founder of Mission Lean. ” If you're able to knock out a solid series of pull-up reps, it means that your body is strong, in proportion, and fully functional.”
If you’ve ever crushed through other bodyweight exercises including push-ups, planks, or handstands, then you truly understand how difficult it is to move your own bodyweight efficiently at times. The big question: How does one get that ratio of strength? Here, experts unpack three essential strategies that will help you nail your first strict pull up (and then, the next one, and the next one after that.)
How to Master Strict Pull-Ups: The Toolkit You Need
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Unless you’re built like Dwayne Johnson, you won’t be able to just hop up onto a bar and bang out rep after rep of effortless pull-ups. There are a number of tools that beginners can use to help facilitate the movement pattern and get you to move comfortably overall at the bar to help you get strict pull-ups.
Starting with resistance bands. “Resistance bands help those who may not be able to do pull-ups because the bands will compensate for your strength,” says personal trainer and RSP Nutrition athlete Quianna Burgess. Available in a variety of thicknesses, you can use one or more bands simultaneously at the bar for an extra boost. Experts will suggest you rig them up in one of two ways: over the bar or spanning between a rig on two J-hooks, parallel to the ground. “Make it your goal that each week, you’re lessening your bands or doing more reps,” Burgess suggests. Are bands not your thing? That’s OK. Often times, you’ll see coaches integrate jumping pull-ups into programming for those who aren’t advanced in the movement. Exactly how it sounds, the jumping pull-up is when a person jumps from a higher-than-the-ground object, hoisting their weight above the bar, then returns back to start. To do these, reach for something like a plyo box.
Work Your Mobility
Just like with any other movement, it’s important to have the proper range of motion to be able to execute pull-ups. If the muscles you’re recruiting are tight, you’ll be stressing your spine and your joints, too.
A go-to shoulder stretch? The sleeper. Here’s how to do it: Begin laying on your right side. Lie on your right side, resting your head on a block or rolled up yoga mat for support. Extend your right arm straight out from your body, so it’s perpendicular to your torso, with your elbow bent and perpendicular to the ground. Using your left hand, press your right forearm toward the ground. When you feel a stretch, stop. Hold the position for 30 seconds. Do three times; repeat on the opposite side.
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Do other exercises
“Many believe you have to practice the actual movement to be able to perform it in the future,” says Carlos Solis, personal trainer at San Francisco’s DIAKADI Fitness. “This might work for some, but the majority of fitness enthusiasts have not built up a base level of strength for that to be true.” Solis compares this logic with practicing a 500-pound back squat having never done a regular squat before. So, this is where the alternative exercises come into play.
“Improving your horizontal rowing strength is a vital component to developing the stability and strength in the shoulder girdle (editor’s note: this includes your lats, rhomboids, traps, and rear delts) to reach your goal,” says Solis, in regards to being able to get strict pull-ups.
Here, Solis and Pearlman offer up four exercises that help to build essential pull up strength. String them together for a complete workout, doing three rounds with 30 seconds rest in between each exercise.
1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
You’ll need: 20 to 40-pound dumbbell set
Do it: With feet at a shoulder-width distance, hinge forward at the hips maintaining a flat back and place your right foot on a bench, holding a dumbbell in your left hand. Bend your right elbow and pull the dumbbell up to the side of your chest. Pause, then slowly lower back to start. That's one rep. Do 12 reps; repeat on the opposite side.
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Solis says: “I like single-arm dumbbell rows because it develops the shoulder, forearm and upper back unilaterally.”
You’ll need: Just your bodyweight
Do it: Start in a high plank. Keeping the core engaged, lower down, bending the elbows and keeping them close to the side body. Straighten back to plank for one rep. Do 12 to 15 reps.
When it comes to using push-ups to get strict pull-ups, Pearlman says: “Traditional push-ups are the way to go if you're set on building up functional muscle in the upper body. Working up your max set of push-ups will allow you to get comfortable working with your own bodyweight.”
3. Dumbbell Deadlift
You’ll need: 20 to 40-pound dumbbell set (you can up this when you feel more comfortable)
Do it: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width distance, holding dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing in. With a slight bend in your knees, push your hips back and slowly slide the weights down your legs toward the floor. Keeping your spine straight, push through your heels to return to start for one rep. Do 12 reps.
Solis says: “The tension, grip strength and power of the deadlift develops a lot of the same muscles you need to get closer to that strict pull-up. Again, focus on moving more weight over time using various loads and volumes to build a solid base.”
4. Lat Pulldown
You’ll need: A cable machine
Do it: Kneel in front of the cable machine and face away, holding a bar with an overhead grip with your arms at shoulder-width distance overhead. Lean back slightly and push your chest out. Pull the bar down to your chest. Return slowly to the start position. This is one rep. Do 12 reps.
Pearlman says: “This machine closely models the movements in pull-ups. As you begin to see strength improvements, you can hop over to the pull-up bar and see how your gains are translating.”