Pull-ups are one of the best whole-body exercises available and also have the added benefit of being available to do anywhere. In some cases, you don’t even need a pull-up bar, just something strong for you to hold on to.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or a newbie gym-goer, being able to complete a series of pull-ups at the drop of a hat is seen as a true sign of strength, and despite what you may think, it’s not all about having the perfect body, many people that look great and are considered ‘gym fit’ couldn’t actually complete a pull up if their life depended on it, so how do you do it?
How do you develop the strength required to actually do complete a series pull-ups and more importantly how do you do that without doing pull-ups?
In this article, I am going to outline some of the best exercises available to help you improve your pull up ability without actually having to do any pull-ups.
Can Anyone Do Them?
First and foremost it’s worth addressing a common misconception that not everyone is able to do pull up and that for some people it is impossible.
Yes, it is true to say that for some people, completing a pull up may be harder than others, but to say that not everyone is capable is a step too far.
A quick search on YouTube will bring up videos of the young, old, male or female and even people with one arm or in wheelchairs being able to do pull-ups and you should be able to do the same.
A pull up is simply, as the name suggests, being able to pull yourself up and get your chin too, and over, the bar.
Everyone is capable of doing that but there are a few factors that may limit your ability.
If you fall into one of these groups that may explain why completing a pull up has been so hard but it doesn’t mean you are incapable.
What Muscles are Worked?
As we mentioned, having weak muscles may be the reason you are unable to complete a pull-up but what muscles are actually worked when attempting one?
Lats (Latissimus Dorsi) - are the main muscles used in pull-ups and are the big muscles that cover your back.
Biceps – Pull-ups place a huge emphasis on your arms and grip depending, on your biceps specifically. They work together with your lats as you pull yourself up and lower yourself back down.
Traps (Trapezius) – found in the middle of the upper back, the ‘traps’ run along he lat muscles and take a high proportion of the load when doing pull-ups. Think of your neck muscles when thinking of the traps.
Deltoids – Depending on your grip you can stimulate far greater muscle activation in the deltoids, otherwise known as the shoulders. Having strong shoulders is a key aspect of being able to complete a pull-up and also help with having a well-rounded physique.
Tres Major – These are positioned above the lats and attach to the scapula and the humerus.
Now that you know which muscles are used in the pull-up you can start to build a better idea of which muscles need to be trained.
Why Train For Pull-Ups Without Doing a Pull-Up?
Conventional wisdom would tell you that to get better at something, you need to do more of it. Practice makes perfect after all.
But I’m sure you’ve also heard the old saying that doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result, is the true definition of insanity.
Ballplayers that are trying to improve their jump shot don’t just throw up shots, they also train their lower body and conditioning to ensure they can get sufficient lift and don’t fatigue too easily in the game.
Boxers that want to punch harder don’t just hit the bag, they also work on their footwork and hip, glute and back strength to ensure they can transfer the power efficiently.
What I am trying to say here is that completing pull-ups alone is only half the battle and if you can’t complete one, to begin with, then you’re not going to make much progress by simply doing more of them.
By developing your strength and fitness as a whole and working on your supplementary strength, you can begin to give yourself the required tools to actually complete a pull-up.
Exercises You Can Do
So, what are the exercises?
It should as no surprise that the main exercises you need to focus on to help you improve your pull-ups revolve around the muscles named above and mainly around your back and arms.
Take a look below.
One of the best exercises for pull-up development, the lat pull-down works the same muscles that are used in a pull-up and the same range of motion. Your goal here should be to complete 6-8 reps at around 80% of your bodyweight, pausing and holding at the bottom of the exercise to work the muscles harder.
A single-arm dumbbell row is another great exercise to help you develop stronger, more capable lat muscles, which will help your overall back strength. Although it doesn’t take you through the same range of motion as an actual pull-up, it does help you to build a bigger, stronger back.
Getting up on the bar is going to help, but don’t worry, you don’t have to do a full pull up yet. Instead, try three different hanging variations which are sure to help you overall.
1. Dead hangs
With an overhand grip tighten your core and try to maintain a straight hang for 10-second intervals. Press your shoulders down slightly so you aren’t just loosely hanging a retain a degree of strength throughout your body.
2. Dead hollow holds
This move is relatively straight forward. Grab the bar with an overhand grip and engage your core, tucking in your tailbone to ensure your body is in a ‘crescent moon shape’ try to hold this for 30 seconds before relaxing your tailbone and straightening up for another 30 seconds.
3. Hanging scap ups
Using an overhand grip you’re back up on the bar but again, you’re not pulling up. Instead, press your shoulders down and squeeze your shoulder blades together before releasing back to a normal hanging position. Hold that ‘squeezed back’ position for a second or two each time.
Inverted rows/TRX rows
Load the rack with an empty barbell at about chest height. Using an overhand grip at about shoulder width, walk your body under the bar until you are facing the ceiling. Your legs should be straight and your elbows close to your body, from here it’s simple. Pull yourself up to the bar, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you do, aiming to get your chest towards the bar before releasing back down.
The TRX row works exactly the same, except without a bar.
Once your strength starts to develop and you feel much more confident in your ability, it’s time to get back on the bar. Negative pull-ups are another great way of practicing your pull-ups without actually doing one.
Using an overhand grip and a box or bench to act as a step, jump up to the top of the bar, getting your chin over the bar.
Instead of pulling up, you’re going to slowly release your bodyweight down back until your arms are extended. Once you reach the bottom use the bench or step to jump back up to the top.
You aren’t pulling up but the isometric movement of actually controlling your bodyweight down again is a great way of training your overall ability to complete a pull-up and control your body weight.
There you have it, some of the best exercises to help you to complete a pull-up, without actually having to complete one.
Of course, at some point or another, you are going to have to try but my advice would be to work on your whole body strength, strengthen your back, biceps and your core and start building a stronger frame and a stronger body.
Instead of taking the old route and repeating them, time after time, and getting nowhere, try adding a solo set in at the beginning of your workout and simply use it as a measuring stick to see how you’re progressing.
Regular progress checks and an exercise program that helps to develop your overall strength will see you on the path to success.
Lowering your body weight will also help and with regular strength training, incorporating the exercises above, it won’t be long before you’re back on the bar knocking out a set of pull-ups without breaking a sweat.