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How to (Finally!) Do a Pull-Up

Pulling your body weight up from a dead hang is no joke. But that's why being able to do it even once is a brag-worthy feat and a gold-standard measure of your upper-body strength.

While it may look as if your arms are doing all the heavy lifting, there are actually nine primary muscle groups—basically the entire back and front of your upper body—that work together to hoist you. "It's the ultimate upper-body sculpting exercise," says strength-and-conditioning specialist PJ Stahl, a co-owner of the Lock Box Fitness Center in Los Angeles. To see the top of that bar, "develop the movement pattern and strengthen the muscles and stabilizers that will carry you to your first rep," Stahl says.

All it takes is these five key moves, he says: Hanging shrugs create a neuromuscular pattern that teaches the shoulder blades to lower and recruit the muscles that will be doing the work. Bent-over reverse flyes strengthen the muscles that maintain stability by keeping your shoulder blades down. Ring rows build the primary muscle groups that you'll rely on. Banded pull-ups help you work on nailing the movement pattern. Negative pull-ups create the strength and control that you'll need to lower yourself. (Want even more? These eight moves will also help you master a pull-up.)

Follow Stahl's weekly plan of five strength exercises below and you'll be able to check "do a pull-up" off your fitness bucket list. "If you're starting from a place of very little strength, you'll need to put in about 12 weeks of work before you can expect to do a pull-up," Stahl says. "If you've already got a decent strength base, you'll need closer to six weeks, and if you're strong already, you could accomplish your first pull-up in as little as one week." (But be careful not to over do it: one woman's pull-up workout almost killed her.)

Day 1:

Hanging shrug: Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Bent-over reverse flye: 3 sets of 10 reps
Assisted pull-up Do 3 sets of 5 reps.
(Give yourself two to three rest days between sessions.)

Day 2:

Bent-over reverse flye: 3 sets of 10 reps
Ring row: 3 sets of 10 reps
Negative pull-up: 3 sets of 5 reps

Master the Moves:

Hanging shrug

Hang (completely relaxed) from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that's slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep arms straight and slowly pull shoulder blades down your back, shrugging your shoulders toward your ears. Then slowly release that tension to return to hang. That's 1 rep.

Doing a proper shrug is the first step in completing a pull-up. "It creates a neuromuscular pattern that teaches the shoulder blades to lower and recruit the muscles that will be doing the work, including the traps, lats, and rhomboids in the back and the pecs in the front," Stahl says. It also strengthens your forearms and grip.

Bent-over reverse flye

Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a light weight (such as a 5- or 8-pound dumbbell) in each hand with arms by sides. Bend knees slightly and hinge forward from hips until torso is almost parallel to floor, letting arms hang down from shoulders with elbows slightly bent, palms facing forward, to start. Squeeze your back to slowly raise weights out to sides until elbows are in line with shoulders. Slowly return to start. That's 1 rep.

"This exercise strengthens your assisters, the muscles that work to maintain stability by keeping your shoulder blades in the correct position during a pull-up," Stahl says.

Ring row

Stand facing a set of rings (similar to the ones used in gymnastics, usually in the weight room at the gym) or a TRX suspension trainer ($130, that's anchored overhead, feet hip-width apart and hands gripping rings or handles with palms facing in. Lean back and step feet forward, lowering straight body until arms are extended directly up toward ceiling and straps are taut (weight is in heels). Keep body straight and bend elbows behind you tight to ribs, pulling chest up between your hands. Lower. That's 1 rep.

Think of this as a horizontal pull-up. "This move will build strength in all the primary muscle groups that you rely on when doing a pull-up, plus it will get you used to the motion of the movement," Stahl says. "And because it's done horizontally rather than vertically, it's easier."

Assisted pull-up

Wrap a superband (one of those giant colored-rubber resistance bands, such as the Spri Superband, $20 and up, around the pull-up bar by tossing one over the top and threading that through the bottom end and pulling the knot tight to the bar. Put one foot in the center of the band at the bottom, then grab onto the pull-up bar with an overhand grip that' slightly wider than shoulder width; hang. Pull your body up until your chin clears the bar. Lower. That's 1 rep. (You could also use an assisted pull-up machine; many gyms have one.)

Doing a pull-up with a little help lets you work on perfecting the movement pattern (pulling and rotating shoulder blades downward to engage your back, then retracting your shoulder blades as you lift your chest and bend your arms to pull your chin over the bar) without as much weight. "You'll get stronger and be able to work through the full range of motion to ensure proper sequencing of muscle recruitment during the real thing," Stahl says. As these start to get easier, use a lighter band or do more reps.

Negative pull-up

Use a bench to start at the top of a pull-up (chin over the bar, hands slightly wider than shoulder width with an overhand grip, elbows bent tight to sides, body straight), then, lower your body for a four count to a dead hang. That's 1 rep.

"The greatest strength gains occur during the negative, or lowering, motion of an exercise," Stahl says. Studies show that your body can handle up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically than concentrically. "Training the lowering phase of the movement isn't just to teach you that you can hold your weight up by your arms, but it creates the strength and control that you'll need every time you lower during a pull-up," he says. Technically, you're doing half of a pull-up every rep.


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