Pull-ups are important to perform, yet difficult for anyone new to resistance training.
If you can’t complete even one pull-up, work toward mastering the movement rather than abandoning the idea and sticking with machines.
There are a number of ways to decrease the intensity of pull-ups for beginners.
Make the necessary modifications to be able to perform approximations of pull-ups until you’re fit enough to incorporate this essential movement into your regular workouts.
Here are some suggestions.
Making Pull-ups Easier
- If you are unable to complete a pull-up with an overhand grip, use an underhand grip (a chin or chin-up).
- Use “negative” or eccentric repetitions until you’re strong enough to pull yourself up to the top of the bar. To do so, stand on a bench that’s high enough to allow you to begin the exercise with your chin above the bar and your back muscles and biceps already contracted (where you would be if you had just completed a pull-up). As you move your feet off the bench and hold yourself in this position, allow your arms to extend slowly as you lower yourself with control to the ground. Repeat as desired.
- If negatives are still too difficult, go to a squat rack and position a barbell at a level that will allow you to keep your feet on the ground while you pull your angled body up to the bar. This will minimize the biggest challenge of the pull-up–lifting the entire weight of your body vertically through space.
- Use a “weighted assistance” machine (below). This is the least desirable approach because it requires only minimal involvement from the stabilizing muscles in the midsection.
Whatever you do, make it a priority to perform this outstanding exercise. Do not be fooled into thinking that bent over rows and seated rows are “good enough” for exercising the back or, even worse, that neglecting back training and developing only the biceps will suffice.
If your back is not strong enough to do pull-ups, you are not ready to begin biceps-focused training. Rest assured, your biceps will experience great development from pull-ups and this will continue once you begin to perform heavy pull-ups with additional weight. Rowing exercises will also stimulate the biceps. For a balanced physique, aim to build the large muscle groups (e.g., the back) through compound movements (e.g., pull-ups) before concentrating on smaller muscles like the biceps. Work hard, be patient, avoid excuses, and take the appropriate steps at any cost to master the basics.
For pull-ups and chins, allow your arms to extend fully (or with a slight bend in the elbow) before pulling yourself up. You may experience a greater contraction in the back muscles by pulling the sternum, rather than the chin, to the bar. Pause briefly while the back muscles are completely contracted and allow the arms to extend slowly to avoid putting stress on the shoulders. Do not “bounce” your body up to the bar and avoid “swinging” your body to reach the top of the movement. At times, a controlled swing can be used to work past sticking points. Experiment with different grips.
Remember the principle of progressive overload: add a weighted belt or vest to increase intensity after you can easily complete bodyweight pull-ups. As you add more and more weight, decrease the exercise volume (i.e., perform fewer repetitions). This strategy will promote strength and hypertrophy.