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.).
Okay, more realistically this time:
Raise your hand if you’ve seen people do pullups and thought “I wish I could do that“, but then you didn’t try 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:
- they can do pullups
- they wish they could do pullups
This article and video are for those of you in group 2. Group 1 people: As you were.
Is it a pullup or is it a chinup?
Before I continue, let’s talk semantics for a minute. I use the term pullups in this article, but I’m actually talking about pullups or chinups. What’s the difference?
Technically a pullup is done with the palms facing away from your body (referred to as pronated), and chinups are done with the palms facing toward your body (referred to as supinated). There’s a third type called a neutral-grip pullup where your palms face each other.
I use the term pullup when referring to all three of these exercises. I do this for two reasons:
- It seems odd to me that two of them are called pullups (pullups and neutral grip pullups) while the supinated grip pullup is called a chinup. I much prefer consistency, so I call them all pullups, and when a distinction is needed, I note the grip.
- For the most part, the way you’re going to build up to “chinups” and “pullups” is the same, so why not talk about them as though they’re the same.
Should you try to do chinups or pullups?
If you are reading this article, you should be working on supinated-grip pullups (aka chinups), or if those are uncomfortable for your shoulders, then try neutral-grip pullups. I don’t recommend working on pronated-grip pullups unless you are able to do at least 5 full range, unassisted supinated-grip pullups. This is because supinated-grip pullups are easier. Which is not to say they are easy! They are hard! But awesome. It’s better to work on the awesome and hard exercise before trying to do the extra hard (and still awesome) exercise.
So, stick to chinups, but feel free to call them pullups. Or call them chinups if that feels less complicated.
Side note: how to remember which way is supinated and which way is pronated
When your hand is supinated, it’s in a position where you could hold soup in it. Hold your hand in front of you like you are making a bowl – that’s supinated. Cool, eh? I was chatting about pullups with a client who is a plastic surgeon, and mentioned I always forget which way is supinated and which way is pronated. He told me that’s how he remembers, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget again. I love stuff like that.
Traditional exercises for building up to pullups
Most people try to progress to pullups with the following exercises:
- Lat pulldowns.
- Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups.
- Pullups with band or machine assistance.
- Holds in a pullup position (jumping to get there)
I think 2 and 3 are great options, 4 is okay, and 1 is a waste of time.
Inverted rows, or horizontal pullups are great exercises, but they often don’t quite translate to pullups. That is, being able to do inverted rows is not a great predictor of being able to do pullups. There is a missing step.
Band-assisted pullups can also be great, but it’s often not enough. The band provides more assistance at the bottom (when it’s fully stretched) than it does at the top. For many people (not everyone), the bottom of the pullup is the hardest part, so while the band helps you through the hard part, once you take the band away, the result is often that you won’t have built enough strength in that bottom part to even start. Which can be very discouraging, especially if you’ve been working with the band-assisted ones for so long.
Similarly, holds in the pullup position, where you jump (or get help) to get into the pullup position and then hold for time don’t work the bottom part of the pullup, where a lot of people need help.
The missing exercise
Introducing TRX partial pullups. Set the TRX up with handles high enough that your arms can be straight up while. your butt is on the floor (see video), with your knees bent and feet on the floor in front of you. From this position, pull yourself straight up until your chin is above your hands and then lower yourself back down. Keep doing this for as many repetitions as you can. Make sure you aren’t pushing yourself up with your feet. The point of this exercise is that, with your feet on the floor, you are unweighting yourself, meaning you are only pulling up part of your weight. The reason this is different from the other assisted pullups, is that the amount of effort at the bottom is as much as it is as the top – in other words, you’re not getting extra help at the bottom, so you get to strengthen bottom of the movement.
Note, if you don’t have access to a TRX but do have access to a squat rack (with bar), you can do the squat rack version instead.
- When doing TRX partial pullups, make sure you aren’t pushing with your feet. Your feet are on the floor (or box) as a way to reduce how much weight you lift off the floor; they are not on the floor to help push you up.
- Make sure you go all the way down and that your hips and shoulders and hands make a straight vertical line at the bottom. If you don’t do this, you’re not letting yourself build strength in that bottom range.
- Work on core exercises to complement this progression. Pullups are both an upper body and a core exercise, so working on core strength is an important part of building pullup-ability.
- Build up your strength first. You want to be able to do 10 inverted rows in a fairly horizontal position before progressing to TRX partial pullups.
How to incorporate these into your program
As noted above, I think inverted rows and band-assisted pullups are great and we do get our clients to use them; we just also use the partial TRX pullup. Here’s how we do that:
- Plan for 2 to 3 sets of assisted pullups in your workout.
- Do your first set as band-assisted pullups and then your second set as TRX partial pullups. If you will do 3 sets, do whichever was harder as your third set. Next time you work on pullups, switch the order. Mark down how many you can do in each set so you can track progress.
- Make sure to rest in-between, or that you’ll do exercises that work differnet muscles in-between. Also plan to put the pullups early in the workout as you want to be fresh when you’re doing them.
- Once you can do 10 of each in a workout, replace your first set with an attempt at unassisted pullups next workout, and then do your second and third sets as band-assisted and TRX partial pullups. In this case, instead of alternating the order, do the one that is harder for you first.
- If you can do one or more full pullups, you better have a big smile on your face when you finish! If you can’t get to one, mark down how much of a pullup you got. Was it 0.5? 0.2? 0.8? Seriously – mark it down like that. When it comes to getting your first pullup, 0.5 is a big increase from 0.2, and 0.8 is a big increase from 0.5, and you should celebrate those improvements. That means it’s coming along!
Elsbeth Vaino is the owner and head trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.
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