Mastering pull-ups is difficult for everyone. Some people even have it on their bucket list. That’s a bit dramatic. But I get it. I felt like I was going to pop a blood vessel when learning the movement. While this exercise is difficult for both men and women, women cite more difficulty with it. Part of this might be a general lack of upper body strength in women, but I think the biggest barrier is a lack of dedication to the exercise. Pull-ups just aren’t a standard “women’s exercise.” Many women may want to do the exercise, but after tasting the difficulty of it (as both genders do), they resign to the idea that it’s more of a manly, strength exercise, and therefore don’t stress over it. Pull-ups, however, are the best overall back exercise for development, function, and shape; and mastery of the movement adds pride and fun to your routine. The steps below will help instill both and get you to pull-up mastery.
Rule 1: Stay off the machines
A machine does not provide the body with the natural posture that one would use to do a free-form pull-up; thus, as often happens, leads to a difficult transition from the machine to the bar. The use of rubber bands hooked to an overhead pull-up bar is a better aid to learning pull-ups than a machine. Other options are the use of a stool, chair or other elevated surface to place a portion of your weight on; weaning off a bit each training session. Focusing on the eccentric (lowering) motion of a pull-up is another option, which strengthens and conditions the muscles to perform the full movement in the future.
Rule 2: Practice often
I purchased a doorway-supported pull-up bar to practice as often as possible — and to avoid struggling in front of everyone at the gym. I placed the bar in my bedroom doorway and attempted a pull-up each time before passing through the door. This was frustrating and required discipline, but it paid off. I credit this strategy with having the greatest impact on my mastery of pull-ups. I’m sure it also sped up the process.
Rule 3: Spend enough time in the struggle
Muscle adaptation results from stimulation. To master pull-ups, you must expose your body to the movement with enough frequency to adapt and overcome the stimulation caused by the exercise. In other words, don’t give up as soon as it hurts. Give yourself a target rep range and/or amount of time to practice the movement each session.
- 4 reps per set within 60 seconds
- A 60 second time limit to attempt as many pull-ups as possible without rest
Rule 4: Set a time limit to mastery
As discussed above, mastering pull-ups requires muscle adaptations and growth; and all of this requires time. But it doesn’t have to take a year or even six months. Pull-ups can be mastered in two to three months, sometimes less. This is why a target date of mastery should be set. If the three rules above are followed: limited assistance, practicing often, and time in the struggle, one can be proficient in pull-ups in little time. Make a schedule of the days you will practice the movement (every day is best). At the least, mark your calendar or place a sticky note in a highly visible area, displaying the end date of your goal. This will be a reminder for you to practice. Remember, practicing every day – even a few attempts per day, is better than a few times per week. With this frequency, you’ll be over basic pull-ups and on to weighted pull-ups within a month.
Now that you know the rules to become a pull-up pro, you can go forth and conquer the bar. But first, one more tip: set a follow-up goal. Doing so can help you reach your current goal faster. Instead of striving for just the mastery of basic pull-ups, strive for mastery of weighted pull-ups, then L-sit pull-ups, one arm pull-ups, and so on. This will make the goal of doing a basic pull-up seem less daunting and more like a stepping stone, not an endpoint, and certainly not an item for your bucket list.
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