If you think you can or can’t do a pull-up, you’re probably right. As a personal trainer, I know how intimidating this movement can be for beginners. It’s so easy to build up a mental block if you’ve tried it and failed over and over. Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that you can conquer this exercise. Not everyone was built to complete the full pull-up, but that is no reason to not implement modifications that achieve similar benefits.
Before we dive in, it’s essential to clarify why we should be doing this exercise in the first place. Here are three things to keep in mind:
The pull-up doesn’t have to be your priority. It is not a ‘rite of passage’ into the gym or anything other than just another exercise. There are many other related movements that you may find work better with your anatomy/training regime.
Contrary to popular belief, this movement isn’t the most effective for increasing strength and hypertrophy. As we’re recruiting so many muscles in a pattern, there is very little isolation of specific muscle groups. It’s more of a functional exercise than anything.
There is absolutely no shame in using assistance (step-up, resistance bands, etc…) to help you complete this movement. The folks who are doing pull-ups with chains strapped to their waists have been at it for a long time, so don’t let them discourage you from starting somewhere.
Without further ado, here’s the trick you need to capture that elusive pull-up!
The Negative Pull-Up
Keep in mind that this isn’t the only way to get better at pull-ups. There are virtually hundreds of alternatives to this movement. The negative pull-up movement pattern has worked wonders for me and my clients, however, so I believe it deserves more spotlight within the health and wellness community.
Suggested Rep Range: Start with 3-5 reps (5s each) x 2. Work your way up to 8–10 x 3. Take a brief pause between each rep.
Important Cues: Use momentum to get to the top position. Next, actively lower for 5–6 seconds while keeping the core tight and glutes squeezed. Try to exhale slowly for the whole duration of each rep. Once you’ve reached the bottom, take a brief pause and set yourself up for your next rep.
The concept of the negative pull-up is quite simple. Use assistance from a box or step-up to guide you to the top of the movement. If you’re a beginner, I’d suggest using an object high enough where you don’t even have to jump or use any momentum to get all the way up. All the hard work comes when you actively control your lowering phase. The slower the better!
Without having to do a full rep, you’ll be training your lats, traps, and biceps to get used to the recruitment pattern of the pull-up. You’ll also be acclimatizing yourself to the grip strength and core stability requirements for this movement.
Still too difficult?
Although this is a regression to the full pull-up, it is still quite challenging. If you’re unable to complete the negative version with control and good form, try adding a band!
Once you can comfortably perform a set of negative pull-ups with the band, take the band away. After you’re able to do ten negative pull-ups (no band), bring the band back and remove the step-up (see photo). Now, progressions come easy! Your goal is to gradually lighten the strength (or colour) of your band until you can complete a pull-up without it entirely!
The pull-up can be extremely intimidating, but it’s not impossible. Whatever your fitness level is, there is an alternative for you! Your best weapons in the gym are creativity and patience. If you’re struggling to perform this movement, grab a step-up and throw on a band. You’ll be shocked at just how capable you are when you think outside the box. If you keep at it and progress in a timely manner, you’ll be doing full pull-ups in no time!