Use the TRX to Work Your Way up to Pullups

Raise your hand if you’ve seen people do pullups and thought “pft – what a stupid exercise; nobody wants to be able to do that.” Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? (If you don’t know this reference, then it’s time to catch up on your 80s pop culture movies. Or time to say “wow, she’s old”. Either or.).


Take two:

Raise your hand if you’ve seen people do pullups and thought “I wish I could do that”, but then you never tried it because you didn’t want to look like a weakling in front of all the other people in the gym (who probably would think “good for you for trying” but in our minds they would point and laugh).

I think most people fall into one of two categories:
1. they can do pullups
2. they wish they could do pullups

As a personal trainer, I would like all of my clients to fall into group 1, but we’re not there yet.

This article and video are for group 2. Group 1 people: As you were.

Traditionally people try to progress to pullups in one or more of the following ways:
1. Lat pulldowns.
2. Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups.
3. Pullups with band or machine assistance.

I think 2 and 3 are great options, and 1 is a bit of a waste of time. That might be my anti-machine bias speaking, but it’s my blog, so I get to have a bias. If anyone has successfully transitioned from lat pulldowns to pullups, do share and perhaps I’ll change my tune. I doubt I’ll have to find a new song.

Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups are great exercises, but they often don’t quite translate to pullups. That is, once you can do inverted rows, that does not mean you will be able to go and do pullups. There is a missing step.

Band-assisted pullups can also be great, and for some people, they really work. But for others, they are either too daunting, they don’t have access to heavy bands, or they just don’t yield the results they want. I have struggled to understand why it doesn’t necessarily work. I started to read research studies about pullups to help me understand. I did not find a lot of research, but one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research may have the answer: Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or Perfect-Pullup™ rotational exercise. In addition to comparing the muscle activation values for each of these pullup variations, they looked at the sequencing of muscle activation, with the following conclusion:

    “A general pattern of sequential activation occurred suggesting that pull-ups and chin-ups were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major and completed with biceps brachii and latissimus dorsi recruitment”.

In other words, the lower traps are recruited the most at the bottom of the pullup. Due to the nature of band resistance, band-assisted pullups provide the most assistance at the bottom of the pullup and the least at the top. What does this mean in the context of this study? The band-assisted version provides too much help to the lower traps, which are weak for many people (desk sitters!). Then when they transition to full pullups, they do not have the strength to initiate the pullup because the band-assisted pullup did not address their lower trap weakness. Once they get up a few inches, they tend to do very well for the rest of the pullup because the biceps and lats take over. In other words, the band-assisted version neglects to address a key weakness in the pullup for many people.

The series of TRX partial pullups below is meant to fill the gap left by these other options.

They should be done once someone is already able to do either TRX inverted rows, or power rack inverted rows. The benefit of these variations over the band-assisted versions is that the resistance is consistent assistance throughout the exercise – the lats and lower traps do not get a free pass in this version.

Give it a try, and remember that you should also be working on core exercises to complement this progression. Questions or comments? I’m happy to answer!

Elsbeth Vaino is an FMS certified personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

If you like this article, please share it by clicking on one of the social media buttons below.

13 thoughts on “Use the TRX to Work Your Way up to Pullups”

  1. AWesome, glad they are helping. I see this was months ago (sorry – I need to get better at replying to comments!) Any more progress?

  2. Thank you so much for the three progressions mentioned in you video.
    They really work great. I started pull-ups using assistance in the form of a Pullup Revolution pro. I first was so happy because I was able to perform 10 pull-ups starting from zero. But I realized when I tried to do unassisted pull-ups I failed after two or three. Your TRX assisted pull-ups together with negative pull-ups and inverted rows helped to build the traps and gain the strenght to initate a proper pull-up. I am still doing assisted pull-ups at the end of a training unit but with less strong resistance bands so that I always have to move 2/3 of my bodyweight by myself. Thanks again!!!

  3. That’s a tough one. Can you get a pullup bar? If not, the TRX can help. As can doing rowing exercises. But realistically, you’ll have a hard time being able to do pull ups without really working on it. Sorry!

  4. Ok I want to be able to do a pull up but I don’t have access to a gym and my job keeps me on the road for weeks at a time. Aside from push ups what exercises can I do to help me to be able to do pull ups?

  5. Okay – just read the comment you’re referring to. That article that would be ready “in a month”, well, is not ready yet. I have a habit of being overly optimistic about when things will be finished. But the one I linked to should help. Also, I’ve got a few lat activation exercises on my youtube channel that you may find helpful in the meantime (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6pv98gVlkI – look in the comments for a couple more videos). And working on pushups complements your pullup training very nicely!

  6. This is such a great progression. Can you link to the pullup progression article you mentioned in the June comments? I’m stuck between the feet-elevated pullup and the real deal. Thanks again Elsbeth.

  7. Thanks Mike! I hope to get my complete Pullup progression up in the next 2-3 weeks, complete with a plan around the regressions.

  8. It depends on your situation, but I think generally you could do it every second day. As for sets and reps, I would suggest 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps. As you get better at them, I would suggest you start to try full pullups for your first set and then go to the partials for the sets after that. Even if you only get 1, that counts as a set! I will be writing another article about pullups within the next month that will have a more complete progression. It will include these, as well as some lat activation, some supporting work on pecs and biceps, and some technique work. Either check back, or if you want to make sure you don’t miss it, sign up for my newsletter. Don’t worry – it’s not spammy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>