Ah, pull-ups, the holy grail of upper body movements. They’re a benchmark of strength for many. Getting your first rep can feel like you’ve finally gotten on the list at Club Strong.
Now, this club isn’t as exclusive as some might think, especially when it comes to pull-ups. Getting into it isn’t so much about luck as it is about hard work and consistency.
Yet pull-ups are the number one thing I hear people, especially women, say they can’t do. And while it is true that they’re a tough exercise and women tend to have a harder time getting them, pull-ups are certainly feasible.
So then why can’t more people do them?
Let’s break it down.
#1 – They just think they can’t.
This notion is especially pervasive with women. We’ve been told our whole life that women have weak upper bodies, and so we buy into that idea. Yes, women have less upper body mass and strength compared to men. And yes, that makes it harder to do pull-ups and push-ups. But the the belief that we can’t is a much bigger barrier than the physical constraints. There are plenty of women who knock out pull-ups and push-ups like pros.
There’s also the idea that pull-ups are only for dudes in the military, and that training our upper bodies will take away from our femininity. Which is not true. “Bulking up” is very hard to do for a woman, and pull-ups would not be enough to put on slabs of muscle. And to be honest, knocking out pull-ups makes me feel womanly and feminine AF. You can be strong, powerful, and feminine at the same time.
Because pull-ups are an advanced exercise, people–regardless of gender–are intimidated by them. And that intimidation alone is what stops them from even trying and practicing.
#2 – Not enough upper body strength.
This one is obviously a huge factor. But it can be fixed. And the reason that it’s even a factor in the first place is because folks…
#3 – Don’t train correctly for it
You can’t do a few curls and triceps extensions with 10 lb dumbbells and expect to be able to do pull-ups. They’re a challenging exercise and require specific training. So how does one train to get pull-ups? By being deliberate about getting stronger.
That means free weights. Going heavy. Compound movements. Think lots of press and row variations done with dumbbells and barbells. Push-ups, bench presses, pull-downs, bent-over rows, single-arm rows, inverted rows, overhead presses, etc. Try to lift more weight over time. That’s how you get strong enough to do a pull-up.
And while strength is important–it’s not everything. I say with reservation that weight and size can be a factor. The smaller and lighter you are, the easier it will be to do pull-ups. You’ll often hear that lowering body fat can help in getting pull-ups, but I don’t think folks should use this as a scapegoat to not try. I’ve seen many people who are not super lean and light do pull-ups. You’ve really just got to put an emphasis on strength training.
It’s also important to do skill work that scales a pull-up for your level. What that means is doing different forms of assisted pull-ups so you get used to the specific movement. That can be banded pull-ups, negatives, jumping pull-ups, pull-ups holds, and so on.
Some other considerations:
- Play with your grip. At first, it will probably be easier to get a chin-up (palms facing in) than a pull-up (palms facing out).
- Pay attention to your core: Pull-ups work your whole upper body, including your core/abs. You’ll want to learn how to hold the hollow position and brace your core during the movement for optimum form. Fun fact: When I first started being able to do pull-ups, my abs would always be sore the next day because I was using them in a new way.
- Activate your lats: Next to lack of upper body strength, not properly activating the lats is the most significant factor I’ve seen that holds people back from pull-ups. People tend to think that a pull-up means pulling with your arms, but the chain of movement actually starts in your lats. You should be engaging your lats before you even start to bend your arms and pull. To learn how to activate your lats, practice scapular pull-ups: