It took me a very long time to do my first pull up. I could have accomplished my goal of lifting my body above that pull up bar in a fraction of that time if I’d had the right training and the right help, like a “Pull Ups for Beginners” guide. Having some guidance and know-how would have saved me a lot of time and frustration. In hopes of helping others learn how to do their first pull up, or increase the number of pull ups they can currently do, I’m sharing the best arm and back exercises I did that made the difference.
Pull Ups for Beginners
If you are ready to learn how to do a pull up and willing to put in the work, then you’re already half way to your goal. Doing a pull up is not about sheer upper body strength. It’s about will, determination, perseverance, and form. Ha, almost anyone could do a pull up if they could have a jumpstart and swing their body into it! But… would they have that overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride afterwards? No. You want to be able to do a perfect pull up, with pristine pull up form.
Before trying these upper body exercises, refer to the tips found in How To Do A Pull Up to help you reach your goal. These tips, combined with the exercises detailed below, will give you exactly what you need in order to do a pull up. This is not an easy task. But it is well worth the effort you will put in. Not only will you be able to say “I can do a pull up,” you will also have the lean and strong muscles required for it (which is a bragging right all by itself!). Your back will be sexier, your arms will be slimmer, and your confidence will be shining. Reaching a goal like this is so much more than the goal itself.
The Best Upper Body Exercises For Pull-Ups
Rows are pulling exercises that primarily strengthen your back muscles. There are a ton of ways to perform rows, but they all work your back (and your arm muscles) – so they are PERFECT for helping you increase your upper body strength so you can eventually pull your body weight up!
- Bent Over Dumbbell Row: With a dumbbell in one hand, place your opposite knee and hand on a bench to become parallel to the ground. The arm with the dumbbell should be hanging at your side. Bring the weight towards your chest, while keeping your elbow inward and tight to your body.
- Barbell Row (Overhand and Underhand Grips): Bend your torso forward, bend your knees slightly., and keep your back straight. Bring the barbell towards your belly button.
- Inverted Row: Best done with TRX equipment or a Smith machine. With your back towards the ground and your hands on the bar (or TRX grips), pull your chest up.
2. Lat Pulldowns:
Using a cable machine or a lat pulldown machine, sit facing the machine. Grip the bar, lean back slightly (but keep your back straight), and slowly bring the bar down towards your chest. Squeeze your lats together (imagine your back muscles are swallowing up your spine). There are many variations of the lat pulldown, but they’re ALL great! Pulldowns are a tried and true exercise for “Pull Ups for Beginners.”
- Wide Grip Lat Pulldown: Many pulldown bars curve downward at the end. So, instead of gripping the bar at shoulder-width apart, go wider (like to wear the bar is curving down).
- Narrow Grip Lat Pulldown: Decrease the distance between your hands and keep your elbows tight by your side.
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown: This is usually done with a narrow grip (less tension for the elbows). Usually your palms are facing away from you. When performing the reverse grip, your palms should be facing towards you.
- Behind The Head Lat Pulldown: Instead of pulling down towards your chest in front of you face, you will sit up straight and pull the bar down behind your head (towards your traps).
3. Assisted Pull Ups:
You will either be performing the pull-up motion with an assisted pull up machine or by using pull up bands. Regardless of the method, the band or the machine will help you lift your body weight. Not every gym or workout space has the full machine; So, I personally recommend investing in a pull up assist band!
4. Pull Up Negatives:
This is the ONE time you have permission to jump into your pull up… only because this is a strength building exercise to work on doing a pull up! Jump (or use a chair) to get your chin above the pull up bar. Then SLOWLY and STEADILY lower your body back down to the hanging position. This exercise should only be down if you have at least some upper body strength to depend on!
Don’t neglect your other muscle groups while you are working on your pull ups. Just because pull-ups primarily utilize your arms, shoulders, and back muscles, you still need to train other areas. For example, your core needs to be strong for pull ups as well! Dedicating some time to cardiovascular exercise as well as strength training for your core, legs, glutes, etc. is needed. This will also give your upper body some time to rest (and rest is REQUIRED for muscle growth!!) and will help strengthen other areas of your body. Additionally, giving your upper body some rest will help prevent injuries, like excessive muscle soreness, sprains, strains, tears, etc. Your physical fitness level will be at a much higher level if you train your entire body.
Another note: always listen to your body and consult your medical doctor if you feel that something might be wrong! It’s always better to be safe than sorry, right?!
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