How To: Learn to Pull Up
The pull up is one of those key exercises that for many fitness enthusiasts is a staple in their gym routines. It makes for an impressive fete of strength to show off to your non-gym going friends when you can easily do rep after rep of pull ups. However, for those who perhaps haven’t been in and around the gym for very long, the pull up can sometimes feel like the Mount Everest of exercises. It can feel as though you’ll never be able to do it, so you just stick to simpler machine variations of the movement, such as the lat pulldown. However, as we shall see here, the pull up is an attainable goal if trained correctly and if you follow this rough guide you too can be showing off to your friends at how strong you are.
It is important to understand a little bit about how muscle strength curves work. This sounds much more complicated than it is. Your muscle is weakest in the stretched position and is strongest in the contracted position. Imagine for a moment you’re a dumbbell and you’re doing bicep curls. You have done a set of 10 reps and you can no longer curl the weight up from the bottom, i.e. with the muscle in the stretched position. If you were to have a friend lift the weight for you to the top position of the bicep curl, i.e. with the muscle contracted position, then you would be able to control that weight from the top of the movement to the bottom. This is called the “negative” portion of the lift.
Training the negative portion of the lift is an extremely important aspect of getting stronger. You are using all the same muscle and the movement is the same, it is simply reversed. It allows you to “overload” the muscle and get the body used to controlling much more weight than it would otherwise be able to handle. For the pull up, this is done by starting at the top. Stand on a box to reach the top of the bar and hold your bodyweight at the top with your chin just over the bar for a couple of seconds. Slowly lower yourself down until you are in a fully stretched position. Repeat this until you are unable to comfortably control your weight on the way down.
Another important part of strength training is a principle called “submaximal loading”. This means, in essence, doing lots of reps at less than the maximum amount of weight that you can handle. For the pull up, this will be doing assisted pull ups. At Stack House we have lots of resistance bands for you to be able to set the amount of resistance that works for you. The amount of assistance you will need will change over time. As you get stronger at the movement, the amount of resistance you want will decrease. You can fine tune this by adjusting the tension in the band, for example choosing a different band to use.
In this step you will want to be doing rep ranges of 6-10 reps. This not only trains and strengthens the correct muscles for the pull up, it also allows you to work on your form and technique. You can feel how the pull up is supposed to feel and where you’re supposed to feel the contraction in the muscle.
Build general strength in your back muscles in general before you pull up. Whether this is on machines such as the seated row or lat pulldown, or whether this using free weights such as the dumbbell row or the barbell row, strengthening your back generally will help develop your pull up strength.
These steps should ideally be taken as part of a single back training session, or as part of a training structure that spans across the workout week. By training using these methods for a few weeks, you will make a quick adaptation and in a short period of time you will be able to complete your first unassisted pull up. Once you have learned how to do one pull up you will quickly adapt to be able to do multiple reps, as long as you stay consistent in using the movement as part of your general gym training.
For more advice on learning the pull up, or with strength training in general, why not contact one of the Personal Trainers at Stack House Gym? They will be able to give advice and guidance on the best ways to reach your fitness goals.