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Master the Pull-Up with These 5 Effective Exercises

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

The pull-up is a timeless exercise with a purpose: The bodyweight workout strengthens your whole upper body, enhances your posture, engages your core, and develops your grip strength (just to mention a few advantages). But, like most exercises that have immense potential to boost your fitness, pull-ups are also among the most challenging moves to execute without support.

“Something that is completely misunderstood is how challenging a bodyweight pull-up or chin-up truly is,” explains Rae Reichlin, a certified personal trainer accredited by NASM and the creator of Ladies Who Lift, a strength training program for women. “Pull-ups or chin-ups require you to hoist your entire body weight using just your upper body. While you do engage numerous muscles in your arms, shoulders, and back, your lower body and torso contribute significantly to your body and body weight.” Interpretation: You’re demanding your upper body to raise a substantial load and withstand the forces of gravity in the process.

If you haven’t yet mastered the pull-up exercise, don’t give up. Instead, initiate your training with alternative moves that target the same muscle groups — lats, biceps, deltoids, rhomboids, and core — until you develop enough strength for the authentic movement. “I would also include exercises that target the smaller supporting muscle groups of the pull-up (biceps, deltoids, rhomboids, and core) with movements like dead bugs, hollow body holds, biceps curls, reverse flys, Y raises, lateral raises, and face pulls,” adds Reichlin.

And here’s a pro tip: If achieving the pull-up is a major goal for you, you must ensure that you’re training intelligently and strategically, according to Reichlin. “When anyone is striving for a specific goal, it’s always more beneficial to follow a program designed to help attain that goal rather than doing a random workout every time you hit the gym,” she explains. “Specific goals necessitate particular protocols, and in strength training, that’s known as the ‘principle of specificity.'” In short: Succeeding in a pull-up requires a dedicated training program.

How it functions: How you’ll incorporate these exercises for pull-ups depends on your weekly workout frequency (and whether you’re following a specific workout split). If you train four days a week, employ these pull-up exercises as a standalone workout for your back and biceps day.

If you exercise three days a week or fewer and primarily do total-body workouts, incorporate at least three or four of these exercises into your training routine during the week. In either situation, strive for 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per exercise.

You’ll require: A TRX, a pull-up bar, a lat pulldown apparatus (or a resistance band with handles), and a long resistance loop.

TRX Seated Pull-Ups

Why it functions: By commencing in a seated stance on the floor for these pull-up alternatives, you decrease the workload for your upper body. Make certain you’re not using your legs to propel yourself up; instead, concentrate on employing your upper body solely.

A. Position yourself directly beneath a TRX strap with straps adjusted so that arms are completely extended while in a seated position, legs bent at a 45-degree angle and heels on the floor. Grasp the handles with palms facing one another.

B. Keeping your back even and your core activated, contract your shoulder blades downward and backward, engage your lats, and employ the handles to draw your torso upward until your hands touch your chest.

C. Gradually and with command, lengthen your arms until your buttocks touch the ground.

Hanging Scapular Retractions

Why it functions: Scapular retractions may be subtle, but this small exercise delivers substantial benefits as a substitute for pull-ups. The compression of your shoulder blades is the initial movement you’ll perform in an actual pull-up, so isolating and practicing this exercise for pull-ups is a practical, specific aspect of training.

A. Commence in a complete hanging position from a pull-up bar, arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing out in a pronated (overhand) grip.

B. Contract your shoulder blades back and down without moving any other part of your body. This motion will elevate your body slightly toward the pull-up bar. Hold for one breath.

C. Gradually and with command, relax your shoulder blades forward and upward to return to the starting position.

Lat Pulldown

Why it functions: The lats are a significant muscle group in the development of pull-ups, and the lat pulldown enables you to scale the movement while seated. Pro tip: If you don’t have access to a lat pulldown apparatus, loop a resistance band with handles over a pull-up bar and utilize that (in a kneeling or sitting position) instead.

Sit in front of the bar. If needed, adjust the seat height and/or the knee pad to allow your knees to bend at a 90-degree angle while keeping your feet flat on the ground.

Reach your arms overhead and hold onto the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing away from you. This is the starting position.

Lean your torso slightly backward and pull the bar towards your chest (just below the collarbone) as you exhale. Imagine pulling your elbows and shoulder blades down and back while pulling the bar.

Slowly return the bar by raising and extending your arms overhead and widening your shoulders as you inhale.

Eccentric Bodyweight Chin-Up

Why it is effective: Even if you are unable to pull yourself up yet, you are likely capable of lowering yourself down from a pull-up position. In this pull-up alternative, “eccentric” refers to a movement that elongates the muscle fibers instead of contracting them, as you would during an actual pull-up. By focusing on this part of the exercise, you will develop the muscles necessary to perform the concentric movement in the future.

Step onto a plyo box, bench, or chair positioned beneath the pull-up bar. Grasp the pull-up bar with your palms facing you, and your hands shoulder-width apart.

Using the box for support, jump up into a chin-up position with your chin over the bar, your biceps fully contracted, and your elbows tucked in by your sides.

Hold for a breath, then slowly and carefully lower yourself towards the ground by fully extending both arms.

Step back onto the box and repeat.

Banded Chin-Up

Why it is effective: The resistance loop assists with some of your body weight, allowing you to practice the movement of the pull-up without having to lift as much. Additionally, imitating the pull-up exercise and practicing the motion helps build confidence as you approach your pull-up goal. You can modify this exercise for pull-ups by placing both feet into the band, or increase the difficulty by using a lighter resistance band that supports less of your weight.

Secure a long resistance band over the pull-up bar by looping it over the bar and threading one end through the other. Use a plyo box, bench, or chair as a platform and step into the bottom of the band with one foot. Grasp the pull-up bar with your palms facing towards you, and your hands shoulder-width apart.

Agreement lats, compress shoulder blades downward and toward the back, and activate core. Compress biceps to drag body upward until chin floats over the pull-up bar.

C. Maintain this position for a moment, then gradually and with command, decrease body towards the ground by completely stretching arms.

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