Pull-ups are one of the toughest bodyweight exercises.
Even people who work out regularly can struggle to do a single pull-up, and the quest to develop the strength and technique to master pull-ups for beginners can be a long process, especially if you have a higher body fat percentage and limited upper-body strength.
How can you get better at pull-ups? What kind of pull-up training will make pull-ups easier?
In this article, we will discuss the reasons why pull-ups are hard and how to do more pull ups.
We will cover:
- Why Can’t I Do a Pull-Up?
- How To Do More Pull Ups
Let’s jump in!
Why Can’t I Do a Pull-Up?
Many people are frustrated with their lack of ability to perform multiple reps and sets of pull-ups, or even a single pull-up.
Pull-ups are not only challenging for beginners who have yet to develop the upper body strength and technique necessary to perform pull-ups successfully, but the exercise is also notoriously challenging for even experienced athletes who have been working out consistently for months or years.
Pull-ups require a tremendous amount of upper-body strength and a high strength-to-weight ratio. Carrying excess weight and having weak back muscles, shoulder muscles, and triceps can make doing pull-ups prohibitively challenging.
Additionally, pull-ups require a lot of grip strength in order to hang on to the bar and support your entire body weight.
How To Do More Pull Ups
Here are a few tips for how to get better at pull-ups and how to increase pull-up strength:
#1: Lose Excess Weight
If you are overweight or have a high body fat percentage, your strength-to-weight ratio might not be sufficient to successfully perform a pull-up.
Fat tissue does not contribute or assist in generating force or strength to hoist your body up; rather, it adds to the workload that your muscles have to contend with when performing bodyweight exercises.
Of course, body fat is essential for your health, and this is by no means saying that you need to be thin and svelte to do pull-ups. Plenty of people with a higher BMI and even a higher body fat percentage can successfully perform pull-ups, but it requires much more work for your muscles, so it may take longer to develop adequate strength for this exercise.
If you are happy with your body weight and composition and are healthy, you don’t necessarily have to lose weight to be able to do pull-ups. However, it may take more work and dedicated strength training to get to the point where you can bang out a set of pull-ups.
On the other hand, if you are overweight or obese and you would like to lose weight, gradually losing weight by following a healthy, well-rounded calorie-controlled diet and engaging in a consistent exercise routine with aerobic exercise and strength training workouts will help you lose weight and improve your body composition.
The beautiful byproduct of your health improvements will allow it to become easier to do pull-ups.
#2: Increase Your Grip Strength
A lack of grip strength is an often overlooked limiting factor for performing pull-ups.
Performing dead hangs is a great way to increase your grip strength.
#3: Modify Pull-Ups
If you are using dead hangs as a stepping stone to progress towards full pull-ups, you can begin to make strides towards a pull-up by doing negative pull-ups.
This involves using your step or box to bring your body up to the finished position of a pull-up, such that your chin is above bar level, your palms are facing away from you, and your body hanging from the bar. Then, as slowly as possible, lower your body down into your full dead hang position.
Next, use your step to return back to the starting position above the bar and perform another slow negative pull-up. Again, the focus should be on moving as slowly as possible, resisting the tendency of gravity to plummet your body down into your dead hang position.
Essentially, you are working on the eccentric, or lengthening, portion of the movement, which will help progress you towards being able to also do the concentric or lifting portion.
Another way to progress dead hangs towards pull-ups is to do partial pull-ups with your dead hangs.
Perform your dead hangs as you normally would, but perform partial pull-ups, lifting your body up several inches by bending your elbows and contracting your lats and then slowly lowering yourself back down. You don’t have to get your chin all the way over the bar, but try to lift your body at least part way up.
Another good way to modify pull-ups when you are working on getting better at pull-ups and increasing your pull-up reps is to do assisted pull-ups.
If you’re not yet strong enough to do an unassisted pull-up, you can use an assisted pull-up weight machine to offset some of your body weight.
Beginners can offload 50 percent or more of their body weight. On an assisted pull-up machine, the higher the weight you set it at, the easier the exercise will be because more of your body weight is offset.
If you don’t have access to an assisted pull-up machine, you can also perform assisted pull-ups using a regular pull-up bar. Loop a thick resistance band from the bar to under your knees or feet. The band will provide some lift and make it easier to do a pull-up.
As you get stronger, use a thinner resistance band.
#4: Work On Your Technique
The pull-up exercise might look simple enough since it essentially involves nothing more than your body weight, but using the proper technique can make the difference between struggling to eke out a single rep and being able to do a couple of pull-ups back to back.
The most common pull-up form issue is that people space their hands too far apart. When you use a wide grip, your lats have to work much harder, and many people lack this strength. Moving your hands closer together, just about shoulder-width apart, may make it easier to do pull-ups.
Another tip is to focus on driving your elbows down toward the ground rather than thinking about hoisting your body up over the bar. Although this is more of a mental switch than necessarily changing anything about your form, it can help activate your lats more effectively to do pull-ups.
Finally, try to keep your head in a neutral position with your eyes gazing forward rather than cocking your head back to look up at the bar. This can throw your body out of alignment and make the exercise more difficult and less biomechanically sound.
#5: Strengthen the Pull-Up Muscles
If you can’t do full pull-ups or you are trying to develop the strength to be able to do more reps, it’s critical to spend time strengthening the muscles used in pull-ups.
Some of the best pull-up exercises to add to your routine are:
- Inverted rows using a barbell in a squat cage or suspension straps
- Dead hangs
- Assisted pull-ups using a resistance band or assisted pull-up machine
- Negative pull-ups (just the lowering portion)
- Lat pull-downs with a weight machine or resistance bands
- Face pulls
- Lat push-downs
- Bent over rows
- V-bar pull-downs (like a lat pulldown on the same cable machine but using the close grip V bar attachment).
With any of the aforementioned exercises that are bilateral using the same bar or barbell, make sure to vary your hand spacing with different workouts, using a wide grip, neutral grip, and narrow grip to target different muscle fibers for better improvements in functional strength.
Additionally, perform variations of these strength training exercises. For example, you can do cable rows, renegade rows, suspension strap rows, chin-ups, and dumbbell pullovers.
Exercises to strengthen your shoulders, such as shrugs, overhead presses, forward raises, and lateral raises can also be helpful for how to do more pull ups.
You can also target your triceps with exercises such as dips, tricep extensions, skull crushers, and tricep push-down using the rope attachment on a cable machine.
#6: Engage in Pull-Up Training Consistently
Training consistently by progressing your pull-up workout routine will help you develop the strength and technique to do real pull-ups.
Once you master standard bodyweight pull-ups, you can progress the exercise by wearing a weighted vest, which will increase the effective load your muscles have to lift. For a really challenging progression, you can also try doing single-arm pull-ups.
Following a pull-up training program or fitness challenge can be a great way to have some structure and motivation to guide you and help you get better at doing pull-ups.