There’s nothing more impressive than seeing a woman knocking out a few pull-ups at the gym. It just looks so damn cool. A few years back I decided that I wanted to
be just as cool dominate the pull-up bar too. I failed the first year, mainly because I was inconsistent and too focused on learning the kipping pull-up first (during my CrossFit phase). Quick side note: Unless you can crush 10 strict pull-ups or chin-ups with good technique you have no business attempting a kipping pull-up. You want to kip? Great – learn a strict pull-up first.
Now that that is out of the way, let’s get back to that pull-up!
Once I decided on getting my first chin-up / pull-up (mind you, these are two separate movements), I hired a coach to build up my strength and demanded asked that we work on pull-ups too. He happily obliged and put them in my program.
**Fast forward a month or two**
One day as I was out walking my dog, I asked myself ‘I wonder if I can do a pull-up without assistance.’ As luck would have it, the park I was at had multiple pull-up bars available, so I walked on over, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and gave it a whirl. I wrapped my hands tight around the bar, let my body hang for just a moment before tensing up and…..I EFFING DID IT!
Not for one rep but THREE! Three sets, three reps. BOOM!
When I was done, I looked around again, this time elated, wondering if anyone witnessed this feat of strength (except this time, I wished someone was watching). I stayed calm but inside it was HAMMER TIME!
More and more women are realizing how fun and exciting it is to crush a strength goal like this. If you want a sculpted back and arms, the pull-up will get you there long before those 5lbs dumbbells in cycling class ever will. I guarantee it. Achieving this feat of strength says a lot about you. It screams “I am badass. I am fit. I am a force to be reckoned with. Anything is possible.”
It also means you can carry all your groceries back to your place in one trip.
Why the pull-up?
The better question is why not?
Pull-ups are the perfect pull exercise. You won’t find a better bodyweight movement that activates so many muscles in the back, arms and core. I’m all about getting the most bang out of my fitness buck. If I can achieve strong arms, a sexy back and firm stomach from one exercise I’m all in. I have bikinis and backless dresses in my future, baby! Let’s go!
Obviously, how long it takes to achieve this goal depends on the individual. The more weight we carry the harder it is to achieve it. If an overweight client asks me how to do one, our attention will be on bringing down his/her body fat while also building up grip and upper body strength. That’s just common sense. A person with less body fat but zero upper body strength might also take longer to achieve said goal, while another person with lifting experience and solid strength will get there a lot faster. Be realistic about where you are fitness-wise and don’t set the bar so high (pun intended) that training becomes a frustrating experience.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the tips that will get you chest to bar quick!
What you need
Bands, bands, more bands
Resistance bands are key to mastering your first chin-up or pull-up. Invest in high-quality bands that allow you to progress and regress the movement. Rogue Fitness is an excellent option (no affilitate, I just happened to have used these myself), and you can find other options on Amazon for a great price. In Post 2, we’ll go over band assisted exercises in more detail but for now, just make sure you have access to quality resistance bands at home or at the gym.
A pull-up bar
Most gyms have a pull-up bar of some sort, but if you want to practice outside of the gym (high-five to you!) than it’s wise to invest in an at-home pull-up bar. Or if you have easy access to a park with one pull-up or monkey bars – use that.
What you gotta do
Do it fresh
Pull-ups are hard enough as it. Don’t make it harder by leaving it until the end of your workout to work on them. Focus on the exercise during the start of your training session when your body is fresh (after a dynamic warm-up of course). If you’re starting from square one, meaning you currently lack the upper body strength to even attempt a pull-up, the first few exercises you do will focus on building that up. Think dumbbell rows, inverted rows, push-ups, overhead press, farmer’s carries, etc. If however you already have a bit of upper body strength, then you can jump into working on those pull-ups as your first exercise and doing the exercises mentioned above as accessory work.
ROM, or range of motion, is super important in mastering your first chin-up or pull-up. You’ll want to come into full extension at the bottom of the exercise while keeping tension in your back and arms before pulling your chest up to the bar. Ever see someone do a pull-up with elbows bent at the bottom? That person lacks full ROM so he never achieves the full benefit of the exercise. Whether you practice negatives, band assisted chin-ups or inverted rows (more on that in Part 2), you always want to practice full ROM, otherwise you won’t have the strength to get your first, unassisted pull-up.
Hold on tight
I’m talking about getting tight in your butt, abs and maintaining tension in your back throughout the movement. Squeeze your butt, legs and abs like you’d do in a plank or push-up position and maintain it. This will make it a lot easier to pull yourself up toward the bar and keep your trunk engaged throughout the movement.
You also want to grip the bar tight. Seriously, grab on to that thing like it’s the last Lilly Pulitzer dress on sale on the planet and hang on to it as if some other dress-eyeing devil is out to rip it out of your hands. Don’t let that s**%t go.
Underhand first, experiment later
An underhand grip (palms facing you) is what you’ll need to work on for the chin-up. This is a lot easier to do than an overhand grip typical of the pull-up (palms facing away) because your biceps are recruited more in this position. Of course, it’s safe to mix it up once in a while. When I don’t have access to a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings, I prefer a neutral grip (palms facing in) because it’s easier and I get to work on my biceps more without having to do curls. And I dig that. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about trying out different grips, just start with the underhand and work on that.
This is a great tip I got from Jen Comas at Beauty Lies In Strength.
As you’re building up the strength and grooving the technique for your first chin-up or pull-up, it makes sense to work up to as many reps and sets as possible as long as the movement is perfect. At times, we get so caught up in getting that last rep that we get sloppy, lose tension and do it wrong. I’d rather have you do one less rep but and have them be with perfect form and technique than have you fight to the death for the last rep. If it’s sloppy it doesn’t count. Avoid going to failure.
Getting your first chin-up or pull-up can be very fun or very frustrating. Everyone’s journey is different. Rather than compare your strength and journey with others, focus on the little wins from each training session, such as ‘I completed that rep with full ROM’, or ‘I held that chin-up for 5 seconds longer than last time’. It’s not just about how many reps you do. Enjoy the process – the reward is coming!
Final thoughts…for now
Chin-ups and pull-ups are not one and the same. Before I did my first pull-up I had to improve the chin-up, but the technique and movement pattern translates well from one to the other. If you’re starting from square one, you’ll spend a lot more time on getting your first chin-up and improving grip strength instead of the traditional pull-up.
Every woman regardless of age or fitness ability can achieve her first pull-up. There’s no such thing as an overnight success and that also applies to this exercise. But the benefits are tremendous and let me tell you – it will ignite something in you I can’t even describe.
In part 2, we’ll dig into the progressions and regressions to get your first chin-up.
Now it’s your turn. What big fitness goal did you achieve that left you super pumped and proud? What was it and how did you achieve it?