The Road to Your First Strict Pull-Up
Written by Holden Rethwill

The strict pull-up. From old school gym classes teaching young kids, to the armed forces cranking out reps as part of their training regimen. We all fall on one side or the other. We’ve either done one, or we haven’t.

For those of us who have, it seems like a mundane movement, a thing of a past, the first stepping stone on the path to bigger and better movements. Then there’s the people who fall on the other side of the spectrum. A range of reasons has kept them from ever being able to lift their chin over a bar after starting at a dead hang. For many of these fitness enthusiasts, a strict pull-up is their Mount Rushmore, the tip of their Everest when it comes to movements.

I’m here to tell you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with not being able to complete a strict pull-up. Some people try and try, yet still never get one. But maybe they were going about it all wrong? Maybe they were trying to run before they could crawl? Follow along as I take you on the journey of how – hopefully – you can be proactive and hopefully check this movement off your bucket list.

The Uncomfortable Reason to Talk About: Your Weight

Before we get into any of the accessory work, or the nitty gritty as I like to call it, that will build the muscles necessary to complete a pull-up, we need to take a look at body composition. It’s a plain fact, one that many people don’t want to hear, but if you weigh more than your strength permits, you’re going to struggle mightily with the progress you need to make.

So, the first thing we need to do, is find where we can lose some weight, and more specifically, where we can lose it from. Are you someone considered bottom heavy, meaning your legs carry the large majority of your weight? If so, on top of all of the accessory work I’m going to provide you in this series, we need to make sure that we are completing the necessary cardiovascular training, and lower body strength and conditioning work to shed weight in areas that will not help us pull.

Take one of my own clients for example. Her biggest goal is to someday complete a strict pull-up. To get there, not only are we working to make her upper body stronger, but we are also attacking a piece of the problem, her lower body. She carries much of her mass in the lower half of her body, so on top of all of the accessory work we’re completing daily, we are also working to trim some of the excess and unnecessary weight that she carries in her legs. In just a short amount of time and small body composition change, she has been able to reduce the amount of band tension needed to assist her in getting her chin over the bar!

As much as some people don’t want to hear it, we need to first take a look at our weight and how we can manage it if we’re ever going to pull our body up to that bar. This means not only losing weight via our exercise regimen, but through our diet and nutrition as well. Take a look in the mirror, and if you’re someone who wants to join the list of those able to pull their body weight around, you’re going to have to make sure you’re making the right lifestyle choices that will push you towards your goal, not drive you away from it!

Phew! Now that we got the often uncomfortable and hard talk out of the way, let’s get to the fun! We’re going to dig lightly into some of the philosophies behind how to train for your first pull-up.

More Pulling (duh) and PUSHING (what?!) are in Your Future!

Let’s get to the obvious…you need to start pulling! Any way shape or form, start making your body pull. Horizontal, vertical, angular, upper body, lower body, any and all ways shapes or forms! Pulling is the best way to build your back (specifically the lats and rhomboids) and a strong back only makes pulling easier. Funny how that works, pull to make your pulling easier!

But here’s something I bet a lot of people don’t think about. You also need to PUSH!

Pressing is one of the best ways to strengthen the shoulders and pecs! The shoulders and pecs – especially the deltoids, pectoralis major, and minor – are equally as important when you’re trying to do a pull-up!

The first benefit tied to pressing is that these muscles help to keep the shoulders packed into proper positioning so that it remains stable and moves correctly. By doing so, you’re ensuring that each muscle is doing what it’s supposed to so that they all work together and you can optimize maximal output.

A second benefit, much more obvious I’m sure, is that pressing plain and simple makes your upper body stronger. The pull-up is a great test of relative strength, meaning your strength in comparison to bodyweight. By strengthening your upper body you are tipping the scale in the direction you need it to go, physically and metaphorically! Plain and simple, stronger arms equals stronger pulls!

Your Execution Plan for Press-Dominant Days

Now it’s time to get to it! Here’s some movements I’ve been incorporating into press dominant days for the client I mentioned previously trying to attain her first pull-up! Pick one of these for your strength portion and one for your conditioning and/or supplemental work. This is a general guideline so feel free to modify according to your own abilities!

1. DB Push Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
2. Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
3. Kneeling Landmine Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
4. Push-ups – 3 sets of 15-20
5. Single Arm Alternating Kettlebell Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
6. Barbell Strict Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
7. DB Z-Press – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions

Now I bet you’re excited to get to those pulling exercises that will get you to your first pull-up! Well, I’m here to apologize…because we’re not quite there yet! But that’s ok! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and for those of you who have stuck along this far, I know you’re committed.

Before I go any further I want to mention that these guidelines are not only for those who want to get their first pull-up, they can be for anyone simply looking to improve their relative strength or maybe add a few more reps to their max set of pull-ups!

Ok now that I’ve said that, let’s get back to it. This time we’re going to talk about the next step in building your body to achieve it’s first pull-up!

It’s Time to Talk about that Core

Everything we do originates from the core, so it only makes sense that in order to increase our relative strength, we must first increase our core strength. YoPur midline is what keeps your body from losing rigidity while executing movements. Bottom line, keep your core active, and you’ll move better and stronger!

In-CORE-perate these into Your Training Plan

Pick one or two movements each day to work into your strength, conditioning and supplemental training. Most of these movements are “static” movements which are perfect for “rest” days or if you are working around an injury.

1. Static Plank Hold – 3 sets of :45-:60
2. Side Plank Hold – 3 sets of :30 per side
3. Side Plank Rotations – 3 sets of 10-15 per side
4. Single Arm Suitcase Carry – 3 sets of 50-100 feet per arm
5. Single Arm DB or KB Front Rack Carry – 3 sets of 50-100 feet per arm
6. Single Arm DB Overhead Carry – 3 sets of 50-100 feet per arm
7. Hollow Hold – 3 sets of :30-:45
8. Sandbag Hold – 3 sets of :60-2:00
9. Push-up Position Shoulder Taps – 3 sets of :30-:45
10. Turkish Get Up – 3 sets of 3-4 per arm performed at slow tempo

PULL We Must!

So far we’ve had the pleasure of discussing our body composition, pressing strategies, as well as a new and improved midline. But, when it all comes down to it, in order to get better at pull-ups, we need to pull!

Pulling of all shapes and forms will increase posterior chain strength, which is crucial for strengthening the most important muscles involved in a pull-up – the latissimus dorsi, rear deltoids, rhomboids, as well as the biceps!

Some of the Endless Pulling Options You Should Try

There is a multitude of methods and angles we can approach this from, but I’m going to give you some ideas that maybe you’ve overlooked! Typically you’d use most of these in your strength or supplemental work for the day as you don’t want to move too quickly through these movements so that you don’t get sloppy and lose their benefits.

1. Banded Face Pulls – 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions
2. Bat Wings – 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions performed at slow tempo (1115)
3. Chinese Rows – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions performed at a 2111 tempo
4. Single Arm Landmine Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
5. Hand Over Hand Rope Pulls – 3 sets of 50-100 feet
6. Banded Lat Pull Downs – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
7. Tempo Ring Rows – 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions performed at 2112 tempo
8. Double KB Bent Over Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
9. Double KB Alternating Gorilla Row – 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per arm
10. Single Arm KB Romanian Deadlift – 3 sets of 10-15 per side

There it is! Your track to getting that first pull-up! This by no means is guaranteed to get you a pull-up, but it definitely doesn’t hurt the process! I will say that if you remain dedicated, and mix and match some of these movements and ideas into your current regimen, you’re only going to push yourself further in the direction of progress. For those of you who already have your strict pull-ups, I challenge you to still incorporate this and see how much better you can be! At the end of the day we’re all striving to become better versions of ourselves, so why not implement something that is only going to help!

Let me know any feedback or questions you may have, and get to pulling!

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