Pull-ups are hard, and of all the bodyweight moves, they're one of the hardest to master for women.
On the whole, women don’t have the same upper-body strength as men. Add a higher ratio of fat to muscle and a greater concentration of that fat below the waist and you’re fighting a frustrating battle against gravity underneath that bar. That being said, adding pull-ups to your training protocol will help build overall power that translates into improved results in the gym, on the field or on the court.
The Perfect Pull-Up
To do a pull-up perfectly, you have to master the mechanics. Here’s how:
- Grasp a pull-up bar with a wide overhand grip and hang freely with your shoulders relaxed (aka a “dead hang”). A wide-grip position is best for engaging your lats, the big, winglike muscles that help define your back and which generate the most power.
- Look up toward the bar to lift your chest and give your upper back a slight arch, which helps engage your entire posterior chain.
- Before pulling yourself upward, draw your shoulders back, engage your scapulae and tighten your abs to keep your hips steady (no swinging).
- Drive your elbows down and back and use your back muscles to pull your chin up above the bar. Contract your back as you reach the top.
- Control the descent. This builds strength in your eccentric (negative) contraction while protecting against shoulder, elbow or wrist strain.
- Return to a dead hang at the end of each rep.
A pull-up requires your muscles to fire in a certain pattern, and the best way to develop that neurological pathway is by doing the move. But there are ways to incorporate assistance to help build your strength. Remember to begin and end with a dead hang, even with assistance.
Superbands: Loop a band through itself around the bar and place one foot into the loop, stretching the band down as you come to the dead hang. Begin with a thicker band and progress to thinner bands as you get stronger.
Machines: A pull-up machine that uses air pressure or plates to counterbalance your weight is a good tool.
Decrease the number of plates or the air pressure as you get stronger.
Spotter: A partner can support some of your weight during the upward portion of the move. Your spotter should stand behind you and place her hands underneath your shoes or shins, offering assistance only when needed.
Negatives (self-assisted): Strengthening your eccentric contraction (negative) can help increase your pull-up potential. Place a bench or box under the pull-up bar; it should be high enough so you can take a wide overhand grip on the bar. Jump into the top, peak contraction above the bar. Then slowly lower yourself back to the start. Rest briefly, then repeat.
The 8-Week Pull-Up Plan
After a warm-up that includes several dynamic stretches for arms, upper body and core, head to the pull-up bar to determine your baseline.
See how many pull-ups you can do with good form — this is your baseline. Now set your goal: Those who can’t do any pull-ups should shoot for three to five unbroken reps at the end of the program, while more advanced athletes should go for eight to 10.
Strength: Do two sets of five to eight reps of negative pull-ups twice a week, and two sets of eight to 10 reps of assisted pull-ups on a separate day, preferably with two full days of rest in between assisted and negatives for recovery. At the end of the second and fourth weeks, try doing unassisted pull-ups again and note your rep count against your baseline.
Endurance: Continue with your negative pull-ups for strength, bumping your sets up to three and your reps to eight to 10. On a separate day, build endurance with drop sets: Begin with no assistance and do as many reps as you can. As you fatigue, immediately add assistance in the form of thicker bands, more weight plates/air pressure on the machine, or a spotter. At the end of the sixth week, do another test of your unassisted pull-ups and again note your rep count.
Retest: Do your warm-up and dynamic stretches, then immediately hit the pull-up bar. Do as many reps as you can without stopping using perfect form. Write down your number. If you hit your goal — fab! If you fell a little short, add a couple weeks onto your program and test again in week 10.