A pull-up is by no means an easy feat. It's a very complex compound exercise that takes a huge amount of upper body strength. Because of how complex it is in fact, there's a lot that you can do to make sure that you're in the best possible shape to start being able to do them in the first place. It will take a lot of work, and you'll probably have to get on the bar a lot of times before you can actually do them, but they are great when you finally hack them.

They are a back orientated exercise, and even more so lat focussed. This is the logical place to start building up your strength for the best chance at success to be able to utilise them to their full potential. There are a lot of lat exercises out there, but some stand out more than others for this exercise.

Off the bar

Man doing lat pulldown

A good place to start is staying away from the bar at first. It’s an awesome tool, but you need to be in a good place to start off first. Rome wasn’t built in a day after all. These two exercises are the best lat builders there are without the use of a bar or tower, so we’ll hit them hard.

Lat Pulldowns

They are awesome at what they do. The lat pulldown is not one to shy away from, and it can accommodate you no matter what your skill level is when you first start. You can choose any weight to be able to do it, but the equipment choice really needs to be ideal if you're building up to a pull-up. Use a wide grip on a pull-down bar to make sure that it is your lats that are being engaged rather than your biceps or anything else. This is your best chance.

TRX Rows

Using TRX straps instead of a bar can also be a great idea. They are amazing for you to utilise, and again, you can change the angle that you are placing yourself to suit your fitness level until you build up some serious lat strength. The more horizontal that you are, the better the lat activation will be, and the bigger the strength boost.

On the bar

two people doing pull-ups

When you have built up some strength in your upper back and mid back by proxy, and your biceps, and your shoulders… Pretty much your whole upper body in some way or another, it's time to try the bar. There are three main exercises where you can use the bar to get yourself ready for pull-ups at a good standard. They are all effective and do different things to improve your pull-up.

Scapular Pull-Ups

Scapular pull-ups are an excellent way to go about building up to a pull-up. They are a little confusing to explain, but the exercise itself is incredibly useful. The general idea of it is to hang from the bar with your arms fully extended.

Once you’re at your lowest, perform a reverse shrug type movement to lower yourself even further and back to rest again. This is one of the muscles that is not really trained by doing anything other than a pull-up, and therefore it's essential that you build it up before you can go for gold.

Chin Ups

Chin ups are one of the more obvious exercises that need a bar to do. They do your biceps more than anything else, but they are still a good stepping stone to pull the whole movement together. There are different grips you can use, and a neutral grip is better than overhand as is with the standard version. Any progress is good progress though, and the more that you can sue the bar, the closer to a push up you’ll be in the long run.

Negative Pull-Ups

Finally, possibly the single best way to be building up to a pull-up is to do them, but in reverse. Using whatever means necessary, usually, a step, box or a resistance band under your foot to assist you, climb into the highest point of a pull-up, and then lower yourself down holding your whole weight.

This trains your muscles to be able to deal with the weight that you’ll be putting on them, and it’s one of the best ways to overload the muscles involved and finally get you to the point where you’re ready to go.

That's all there is really. If you do these five exercises to the best of your ability over a few weeks, you'll be able to start struggling through a couple of pull-ups and then build on from there. It is, of course, easier the less you weigh, as you'll be moving less weight, but you'll progress regardless. Just make sure that you nail your form when you do manage to get there and choose the pull-up type that is right for you!

Exercise.co.uk Pull up Towers


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