“All I want is one solid freaking pull-up!” I yelled to one of my trainer colleagues while dangling from a bar nearly five years ago. I just wanted one, not even ten, and there I would hang staring up at the bar, not moving. Luckily for me, my co-trainer—a retired Marine and an amazing coach—took me on as a “30 days to one perfect pull-up” client.
Yes, I was able to get there, but not without a lot of work and focus on specific movements that I practiced over and over. Activating the back of the body (which is crucial for pull-ups and not the natural area people think to focus on) is difficult for a lot of people because they can’t see it. Think about the muscles you’re using—especially the lats (the big “wings” on your back). Very few people can just hop on the bar and go straight into a pull-up; but you can work on these movements and progress to get there. Be patient, focus on activating the right muscles, and really feel them to create correct muscle memory. Then practice more!
3 Movements That Will Get You Started
Why: Speaking of muscle memory, this is where it starts. You don’t step up to the plate and hit a home-run right out of the gate. You have to learn the basics and repeat it over and over without getting exhausted, until bad form no longer slips in.
How: Sit directly below the TRX handles with your arms fully extended. You’ll know if the handle height is correct because you’ll be able to sit with straight arms. Your first move is to lift your chest and depress (meaning, your shoulders stay down and away from your ears). Being able to sink down into your lat muscles is crucial. Most people need to practice just the first few inches of the pull to get that motion right. Use your legs to give you a boost. If it’s too difficult, just keep walking your feet back to give yourself a less challenging angle.
Jump and Pull
Why: Prepare for the bar. It’s going to feel different going from handles or rings to a bar. The angle of your body here more accurately imitates what a real pull-up will feel like versus the suspension trainer. Your grip and forearms might feel a little more taxed. Your lats—the wings—will have an opportunity to get nearly full range of motion.
How: For the jump and pull you’re going to mimic that same pull you practiced on the suspension trainer, but now you’ll use momentum to spring up over the bar. Keep your form tight. It’s easy to get sloppy and just use your arms. Go all the way back to depressing your shoulders and engaging your lats.
Why: Here’s the final step. You’re so close to “one solid freaking pull-up!” At this point, your form is probably looking pretty good, but strength may be lacking. The bands will give you a chance to keep working the perfect form and build the strength you need to pull yourself up over that bar. You may even start with a thicker band (more boost), and progress to a thinner band (less boost) to build confidence.
How: It’s important to know before you hop right to using bands that there are many ways to practice, progress, and even regress your pull-up form in order to build strength and technique. Using bands to complete an assisted pull-up will mimic the movement and help you learn how to fire the correct muscles and position your body. But bands are not an end-all solution; one solid freaking pull-up is!
The hardest part of this motion is getting the band on your foot. You might need a buddy for it. Secure a band around a bar by looping it through itself. Put one foot in the band and cross the other leg in front (this will help you from swinging forward). Stay still and straight up-and-down. Lift your chest, depress your shoulders, and pull! At this point, you may want to experiment with how wide your grip is. Some people pull more efficiently with a wider or slightly narrower grip. See what works best for you before the training wheels come off.
Pull, Pull, Pull. Practice, Practice, Practice.
I know your frustration. As a trainer, I was there for many years just hanging on that bar, not going anywhere. But with some coaching, determination, and lots of practice I finally popped up over that bar, and I know you will too. Stick to the basics, learn and feel the movement, and when you’re ready, PULL!