Developing A Pull-up

Mondays consist of posts primarily for or about females.

Last Monday I put up a poll asking whether or not the ladies could do a dead hang pull-up. 34% are unable to, 58% can, and the remaining 8% can do a chin-up (underhand/supinated grip). This post focuses on some techniques that can be used to develop a chin or pull-up. But first we have to detail some points about mechanics.

Guys, if you’re bored, this vid is for you.

More impressive vid.

[spoiler]Taller girls will always have more trouble with being able to do pull-ups than shorter girls. It’s primarily because taller girls have longer levers and thus worse leverage. The longer limbs will not have as much relative musculature on them compared to shorter girls, and most types of lifting will be more difficult for the taller gal. Longer levers with acute angle attachments are much less efficient than short levers with more obtuse angle attachments. This disheartening reality is present in new lifters; the untrained shorter girls typically have more initial success than untrained taller girls.

But pull-ups are particular challenging for the taller girl because she will also weigh more than the shorter girl. Combine worse leverage with more weight and you get a frustrated girl. It will also take more time to develop musculature on a taller girl compared shorter girl since the musculature has to be distributed over a greater area. This is why Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thighs weren’t particularly huge; he had long femurs. Keep this in mind, because hypertrophy will play a part in this quest. [/spoiler]

Chins vs. Pull-ups
[spoiler]The underhanded chin-up will be easier to do initially than the pull-up because the angle of the humerus uses a traditional shoulder extension and elbow flexion (that moves anterior to posterior). In comparison, the humerus angle in the pull-up will have about a 45 degree angle and use the lats in a different, yet specific way. Most girls don’t have big, flaring lats that can glide on a warm breeze, so the pull-up is initially more difficult. This means that if the girl can’t do the chin or the pull-up, her focus should be on developing the chin since most girls can do one before an overhand pull-up. [/spoiler]

Where to Start
[spoiler]I did a few posts on getting untrained females to train, so let’s start at the very beginning. Usually untrained females won’t have any decent musculature in their upper body. Whether it’s from atrophy or blatantly ignoring it because “45 minutes on the elliptical” was the primary training stimulus is irrelevant. What is relevant is the need to develop that musculature.

The first thing to try is to put the girl on a pull-up bar and see what she can do. A girl who is 5’3″ and 100 pounds may be able to do one without realizing it (she also doesn’t realize that there are dogs who weigh more than her). However, if you’re a guy and you know she’s going to fail miserably, don’t have her try. Sometimes the utter failure can bother the girl so you have to set her up for success.

If it doesn’t go well, then that’s okay; we have a measuring stick. We need to do something that will strengthen and develop musculature to support the chin-up motion. You can use either an assisted pull-up machine or a lat-pulldown machine. Initially, just focus on a few sets of a higher rep range (8 to 10) on each training day. The weight should be progressed so it’s on that threshold of failure given the prescribed reps. Feel free to test the progress on a pull-up bar at the beginning of a workout; sometimes you’ll find that a chin-up comes out of no where (especially for the shorter girls).

Johnny Pain likes to have folks do neutral grip pull downs to develop chinning strength and upper back musculature. I like this, especially initially. However, the problem with the assisted machine and the lat-pulldowns is that it neglects to develop the trunk muscles within the confines of the actual movement on a bar. In other words, the girl will need to stabilize her trunk — mostly with he abs — and the machines don’t allow for this.

Lots of CrossFit gyms use bands wrapped around a pull-up bar, but I don’t like this (mostly cause it can slip off and pop someone in the kisser). When I was at Rippetoe’s gym I used his method of putting a band horizontally in the rack (using the safety support bars) and had the girls stand on that. It works pretty well because the resistance can be adjusted in many ways; the safety bars can be moved up or down in the rack and different combinations of bands can be used. If a rack is available this is a superior way to doing it compared to tying a band over the bar and sticking a knee or foot into the loop.

[spoiler]Now that the girl has done some introductory exercises, it’s time to get her on the bar. Sometimes a girl can transition from a machine to a completely dead hang chin-up, but the limiting factor is usually specificity with the actual chinup movement. Negatives are the first thing to try as they address the previously mentioned “torso and abdominal stabilization” issue mentioned above as well as the specificity issue.

A negative just means that she starts at the finished part of the ROM and lowers herself down under control. Negative, or eccentric, work is particularly disruptive to muscle cells, so use them sparingly at first (about 8 reps total). Drop them in at the end of the workout and increase the total number of reps gradually. Grip width will typically be at or right inside of shoulder width. [/spoiler]

The Frequency Method
[spoiler]If she doesn’t get a chin-up from transitioning into negatives, then start using the negatives with a high frequency. This doesn’t have to be complicated, just do a set number of reps each day when possible. It’s easy to get half the reps in the morning and half at night if there is a doorway pull-up bar installed at home. Last Monday 70’s Big reader meggersp gave her experience with successfully using an organized frequency method.

[spoiler show=”Show meggersp’s post” hide=”Hide meggersp’s post”]

meggersp Says:

I realize Justin is probably going to do a post about girls getting strong enough to do chin-ups/pull-ups, but I’ll chime in with my 2 cents worth anyway.

At the high school where I teach and coach, we’ve had good success with frequency method pull-ups and negatives. We program pull-up work into the regular lifting, but for those who really want to get better at pull-ups, I recommend FM (this is actually why we finally installed a bar outside the weight room – students can drop by during a passing period or during lunch and do some FM pull-ups without someone having to unlock the weight room).

Suppose “Jill” can’t do a pull-up – we use FM negatives in this case. The first week, Jill might do 3 sets of 3 negatives spread throughout the day – perhaps using a mental count of 1-2-3-4 for lowering purposes (she’d do this for 5 days out of the week). The next week, she’d do 4 sets of 3, then 4 x 4, then 5 x 4, etc.

In this process, about once a week, Jill will usually attempt a pull-up to see how things are progressing. Eventually, she nails one. We usually wait to use an actual pull-up in the FM work until she can do 2-3 pull-ups, and then it’s something along the lines of 4-5 sets of 1 pull-up, and each set includes a couple of negatives afterward.

This has worked well for us, and we use it with any guy or girl who wants to improve their pull-ups. It should probably be noted that our students have access to a pull-up bar pretty much all day at school – this is not usually an advantage that most people possess. Also, as has been noted elsewhere, negatives have to be used carefully – we don’t use them with someone who just drops down from the top of the bar. (there’s always ring rows, bar rows, etc.).


Developing the top ROM
[spoiler show=”Show” hide=”Hide “]Last week 70’s Big reader hamburgerfan asked a ‘dickhead’ question that basically said, “Why is this so complicated? Just do them!” Well, brah, some girls have more trouble than others, particularly the taller girls. Up to this point, here is the progression (depending on where the girl needs to start): use the machines for initial strength and musculature, transition into negatives, and then do negatives with high frequency. Usually the girl can do a pull-up by now, but there might be one part of the ROM that is holding her back.

In the case of the top ROM holding her back, this is what will help. Start at the finished ROM like a normal negative, do a negative down to the halfway point (or when the elbows are about 90 degrees), and then return back to the top ROM. Then, do a normal negative. So that was down and up through the top half, then down all the way through the full ROM until getting to the bottom. That’s one rep. Use the frequency method on these, and you can call them “Double Negatives”.

If the top ROM was the limiting factor, then it won’t be in two weeks or less. [/spoiler]

Developing the bottom ROM
[spoiler]Read the previous section, then do the same thing for the bottom ROM. Start at the top, drop all the way down, use the stretch reflex out of the bottom to go as high as possible, then negative the rest of the way down. So, do a negative down, rebound and go as high as possible, then negative from that point down followed by a full, regular negative. That’s method A.

Method B would be to start at the bottom (hanging), start the chin and go as high as you can, then negative from that point back to the bottom. Then hop to the top ROM and do a full negative. So try a chin from the bottom and negative down, then do a full, regular negative after.[/spoiler]

[spoiler show=”Show ” hide=”Hide “]1. “Drive the elbows down” helps the beginning of a chin. Often girls try to pull with their arms, and this cue will help utilize shoulder extension instead of elbow flexion.

2. “Elbows to ribs” helps the lockout for the same reasons as #1.

3. “Pull the bar to face” helps with the lockout by keeping the bar as close to the body as possible. Sometimes the girl will lean back in an attempt to lock it out, but she’s just increasing the distance from her shoulder to the bar which increases the leverage and decreases the efficiency. [/spoiler]

Regardless of the strength or height of the girl, she needs to use a high frequency practice to develop a chin-up. The trainee can be dropped anywhere on this progression and continue on it until the first chin is achieved:
– use machines (assisted pull-up or lat pulldown) or bands for initial strength/musculature
– switch to negatives
– do negatives with high frequency
– work on the weak ROM

38 thoughts on “Developing A Pull-up

  1. Thanks, I think this will be very helpful. BTW you pasted the Johnny pain paragraph twice in the “Where to Start” section.

    oops, I need Cloud as my full time editor. I was arranging shit around and had to apply the spoiler a bunch.


  2. Anyone have recommendations on a good at-home pull up bar? I’ve received the go ahead from HQ to move on this objective.

    The standard one at a sport’s store is fine. I’m referring to the kind that is removable from the doorway and uses the molding (or block of wood you install) on the opposite side to stay.


  3. @Harvey I have the Irongym brand one. It’s good and doesn’t scratch the wall. Shoudl cost like $25. I used to have one that required putting screws in the wall. Don’t get one of those unless you have a stud detector or enjoy falling.

    That’s the kind we have too, and that’s what I was referring to the in the post above. The cushion stuff on the sides have rubbed some marks on the molding around the doorway (including rubbing some of the paint off), but it’s an apartment and I don’t give too much of a shit. It could easily be painted over, though. I’ve done a set of 20 on it as well as having 20 extra pounds to make it about 235 pounds on the bar, but the support is more likely due to the framing than the bar itself. My brother put one in an unfinished basement, but had to add a 2×4 for the back part to rest on.


  4. +1 for “iron gym” style pullup bar. I picked mine up at walmart, gold’s gym brand, was half the price of the official “iron gym” one despite being the exact same product.

  5. Great post Justin. I have been working steadily for four months to get a strict chin and it’s a slow progression. I’m short, but on the heavy side. I have been combining weighted negatives (5×1 10-second negative with 15 lb. dumbbell) with assisted chinups and rows to help build up the musculature. I seem to have trouble

    Simultaneously losing body fat will help decrease the weight you have to move as well if you’re able to address that.


  6. Here is a post I wrote on SS a while back about how I program pullups using bands. This has worked well for some of my women who have been doing CrossFit for a while without getting a single dead hang. I wrote it as two days a week mainly because most of them are still doing CrossFit a few days a week, and therefore, that means more pullups (even if they are kipped). I think overuse injuries are fairly common with pullups, so I tell people to alternate the workouts for 3 days a week instead of two if they can.

  7. The second young lady gets most of her reps disallowed because she’s not going anywhere near the bottom of full range. The Spetsnaz gal was much more impressive.

  8. Justin and others using the iron gym type thing.

    Wrap washcloths around the pads that rub into the molding. Problem solved. Of course I didn’t realize this until after it dug into the molding…but I to live in an apartment and don’t give a shit…my dog has done much worse.

    I’ve actually been meaning to do that, but just stopped caring, I guess.


  9. My wife had JUST starting making some good progress in the weight room, and was very close to a full chin.

    Now she’s pregnant with twins in her belly. Sounds like a good, naturally progressive workload, but the puking has otherwise stunted her strength gains. She can’t wait to start training again.

  10. I had an iron gym style pull up bar tear the top molding off my door. I had previously done weighted pullups and it handled it fine, but a few workouts later during a FM pull up set it ripped right the hell off, and I’m not particularly heavy either at 210ish. YMMV.

    That sucks. Hopefully you weren’t in a house you owned.


  11. Justin (or gang)- what’s your basic recommendation for increasing bodyweight pullups during a linear progression?

    Your article on weighted pullups is great ( but I’m not ready for them yet, as I’m only doing 3×5 at bodyweight. I know this is discussed all over the net, but I’d appreciate the 70s Big recommendation.

    Details: I’m doing SS (A day: squat/bench/dead, B day: squat, press, clean) and I’m doing three sets of unweighted pullups on A days with 2 minutes rest between sets. I’ve been getting ~5,5,6. The most I can do in one all out set is 7 reps. Do you recommend ladders or pyramids? Or just doing them more frequently, grease-the-groove style? Or a couple of weighted singles? Also, the pullups are the only assistance work I’m doing now. Thanks.

    I’ll answer your question on Friday, but I’m more concerned with you alternating deadlifts and cleans (even if they are power cleans) every workout. That’ll be fine for a couple weeks, but you’ll eventually overreach with the high frequency of pulling (particularly from the deadlifts). I’d suggest doing the deadlifts on Friday and the cleans on Monday.


  12. I’m curious as well on increasing pullups while on an LP or SS program. The most I can muster up after heavy pressing and power cleans is 8,5,4. Some days worse than that.

  13. I’ve noticed from consistent olympic lifting and crossfit over the years that I can do more pull-ups than chin-ups now. Is there a logical explanation for that?

    Sure. It sounds like you got stronger.


  14. Yep I’ve had the same problem with the black rubber leaving skid marks on the molding. I also live in an apartment and don’t give a shit. I will probably do a quick spackle before moving out to avoid fees. Another great thing about having a pull up bar in the house is you can use it for spinal decompression and shoulder stretching. Any time I get low back tightness and pain (which is a regular thing) I just hang from it and everything gets back in line.

    Maxine–Doug Hepburn reported his pull up ability improving greatly from just doing power cleans, snatches and barbell rows for years. He never trained the pull up itself because he thought it wasn’t good for shoulder health, but once tested it after not doing a single pull up for several years and was able to knock out some large number (I don’t recall exactly how much).

  15. Justin – thanks for the reply, much appreciated. I’m jazzed about Friday’s Q&A.

    Your suggestion about deads and cleans is interesting, but I’m thinking about how to incorporate it. Like I said, I’m in the gym MWF, each day squatting and alternating bench and press. If I do cleans on Monday and deads on Friday, what would you suggest for the missing third “lift” on Wednesdays? Maybe bodyweight work like the pullups or dips? Ok, that might run into Friday’s Q&A territory. It’s fine.

    Just do pull-ups on Wednesday; don’t over complicate it. And don’t forget RDLs; they can have the greatest impact on lifting development early on. Maybe even more than deadlifting itself.


  16. Justin, can you elaborate a bit on the acute vs obtuse angles of attachment? I assume you’re referring to the lat/humerus relationship, and I was trying to picture it but for some reason (protein coma?) couldn’t get a handle on it.

  17. i neglected to comment on the last post…

    my wife at 32yrs old can do at least 10 deadhang chin ups in a row. she’s working on her squat but it’s already close to 100kg at a bw of 65kg.

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