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6 Reasons Your First Pull-Up Hasn't Happened Yet

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Photo: Shutterstock/Dirima

After years of debate, the question of whether women can actually perform a bodyweight pull-up is officially over. It's a fact: Women of various shapes and sizes can—and do—crush pull-ups on the regular. But what if, despite your best efforts, you haven't been able to nail one yet? Two pull-up experts weigh in on potential stumbling blocks—and how to push past them. (Related: How to (Finally!) Do a Pull-Up

1. You still don't believe you can do a pull-up.

According to Karen Smith, master kettlebell instructor and chief bodyweight instructor with StrongFirst, one of the biggest reasons women struggle with pull-ups isn't physical; it's mental. "We've been told for so long that we can't do this," she explains. "So as soon as [women] struggle, they go back to that mindset." If you struggle with self-doubt (*raises hand*), give visualization a try. After all, you have to see it to believe it to achieve it, says Smith.

Do this: While in a seated position, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach to help you gauge where your breath is coming from. Close your eyes and focus on breathing deeply through your diaphragm. You'll know you're breathing correctly if you're pushing against the hand that's on your stomach. Once you're breathing deeply and you've cleared your mind of distractions, begin your visualization: Picture yourself jumping up to the pull-up bar, bracing your body, pulling yourself up and over the top of the bar, and releasing back into a straight-arm position. If you can, spend a few minutes on visualization every day. You can do it before bed, first thing in the morning, or even in the weight room.

2. You're not consistent.

Do you go right for the full pull-up, fail to make it to the top of the bar, get discouraged, stop, and try again a few weeks later? Well, if you want to get your first unassisted pull-up, you need to work up to it with consistent practice, says Meghan Callaway, a strength coach in Vancouver, BC, and creator of the Ultimate Pull-Up Program. And the best way to practice pull-ups if you can't do one (yet) is to progress through variations of modified pull-ups.

Do this: Incorporate variations of a modified pull-up into your routine on three nonconsecutive days per week. Smith recommends spacing out variations so you're tackling the easiest on a light day (e.g., basic hangs), a moderately difficult one on a medium day (e.g., concentric hangs), and a challenging variation on a heavy day (e.g., eccentric pull-ups). According to Smith, spacing out your effort throughout the week will ensure you're giving your body the chance to recover and adapt to grow stronger. If pull-ups are your main training goal, tackle your pull-up variation at the beginning of your workout when you're fresh. Start with the easier variations and progress once you're no longer challenged.

Basic Hang
Grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, shoulders down and feet off the bench or floor. Hold for as long as you're able. Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and flex your feet to keep your body as rigid as possible. Hold for 5 to 30 seconds. Repeat for up to 5 sets.

Concentric Hang
Use a bench or jump to the bar so you're in the top position of a pull-up with arms bent, shoulders down. Brace your core, squeeze your glutes and flex your feet to keep your body as rigid as possible. Hold for 5 to 30 seconds. Repeat for up to 5 sets. Once you can hold a concentric for 20 to 30 seconds, you're ready for scapular pull-ups. If you're unable to do a concentric hang from the pull-up bar, modify by hanging on to a TRX, Smith machine, or fixed barbell in a squat rack.

Scapular Pull-Up
Grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended and feet off the bench or floor. Brace your core and squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other. Then, allow your shoulders to relax so your shoulder blades move away from each other. Begin with 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps and build up to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with a slight pause in the top position.

Eccentric Pull-Up
Use a bench or jump to the bar so you're in the top position of a pull-up with arms bent. Lower your body as slowly as you can under control until your arms are straight. Aim for 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps, spending 3 to 5 seconds in the lowering phase. Once you can do 3 sets of 5 to 6 fluid reps, progress to band-assisted pull-ups.

Banded Pull-Up
Loop a resistance band around the pull-up bar and step into the loop with one foot, using a bench if needed. Grip the pull-up bar and hang so your arms and legs are straight. Initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades in toward your spine. As you pull yourself to the top of the bar, try not to use any momentum from the band. To make the exercise more difficult, use a thinner band. Perform 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps using as little assistance as possible while maintaining perfect form for each rep.

3. You use your arms.

According to Callaway, many women try to rely on the power of their arms to pull themselves to the top of the bar. But treating the pull-up like a bodyweight biceps curl is the wrong move. After all, you have larger muscles in your back and shoulders that can generate a lot more strength and movement than the smaller muscles in your arms. One powerful duo is the latissimus dorsi ("lats"), which are two fan-shaped muscles that cover the bulk of your back. The other key upper-body muscles on your pull-up journey are the muscles that surround your shoulder blades, or scapulae. Together, your lats and scapula form a strong team. Use them!

Do this: Next time you attempt a pull-up, whether assisted or unassisted, focus on initiating the movement with your shoulder blades instead of pulling with your arms, and draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine and down toward the opposite hip, says Callaway. If you have trouble drawing your shoulder blades back, incorporate scapular pull-ups into your weekly pull-up practice. (Related: Your Guide to Do a Pull-Up, Master Crow Pose, and More)

4. You treat it as an upper-body exercise.

Yes, the lats and scapulae are key to nailing your first pull-up (see above), but they're not everything. "In order to perform your first pull-up ever, your entire body must be working as a synchronized unit," says Callaway. This means you need to learn how to engage not only the all-important lats and scapulae, but also the glutes, core, and even legs.

Do this: When performing a pull-up or any modified version, focus on bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, and flexing your feet to fire up your leg muscles. The goal? To keep your body as rigid as possible whenever you're hanging from the bar.

5. You rely too much on bands.

You might be tempted to skip every pull-up progression and just use a resistance band to help you build up to your first pull-up, but chances are you'll only delay your progress. According to Callaway, the resistance band offers assistance where most people need it the least: at the bottom of the pull-up. As a result, you never gain the strength to pull yourself those last few inches to the top, which is where most people fail with the pull-up. "The band can be fine if it's done properly, but because so many people don't do it correctly, they never make progress," says Callaway.

Do this: You can still use a band, but just make sure you've nailed the other progressions (straight-arm hang, concentric hang, scapular pull-ups, eccentric pull-ups) first. Working through the other progressions will build strength while teaching you how to engage and control your lats, shoulder blades, core, and glutes throughout the movement, making you less likely to swing and use the momentum from the band to get you to the top of the bar.

6. Your grip is weak.

If you have trouble hanging on to the bar, you're going to have trouble nailing a pull-up. And once you do get your first pull-up, a weak grip will compromise further progress, especially if you attempt weighted pull-ups. "If your grip is your weak link, that's totally going to limit you," says Callaway. And while you'll definitely build grip strength by doing the modified pull-up progressions, Callaway recommends adding in some grip-specific exercises to complement your pull-up practice. (Here's more on why it's important to have good grip strength.)

Do this: Tack on one or two grip-specific exercises at the end of your routine three or four times per week.

Pinch-Grip Carry
Grab two small weight plates (try 5- or 10-pound plates) and pinch them together in one hand, holding them down by your side. Your thumb should be completely flat against the plates on the side closest to your body and your fingers completely flat against the opposite side. Walk 25 to 50 meters while pinching the plates down at your side. Switch sides. Repeat for a total of 3 sets per side.

Towel Hang
Grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, shoulders down and feet off the bench or floor. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat for a total of 3 sets.

One-Arm Kettlebell Bottoms-Up Hold
Grip a kettlebell by the handle so the bottom of the bell faces the ceiling. Bend your arm 90 degrees so the kettlebell is in front of your body. If needed, use your free hand to help steady the kettlebell. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat for a total of 3 sets. Callaway recommends starting with a 10- to 25-pound kettlebell.

Dumbbell Carry
Grip a heavy dumbbell in each hand down by your sides. Without letting your torso lean to either side, walk for 25 to 50 meters. Repeat for a total of 3 sets.

Fat Gripz Curl
Add a Fat Gripz (a clip-on attachment that increases the diameter of any bar or free weight) to a dumbbell and perform a standard biceps curl. Aim for 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps per arm. Callaway recommends starting with a 10- to 25-pound dumbbell. You can also use Fat Gripz for other exercises anytime you want to work your grip.

One Last Word On Body Weight

If you're carrying excess body fat, you may find it harder to achieve an unassisted pull-up than your leaner counterpart. After all, the more body fat you have, the more weight you have to pull over the bar, says Smith. That said, it all depends on the individual. For example, a woman could weigh 100 pounds but still struggle with pull-ups simply because she hasn't built her upper-body strength or learned proper technique. Meanwhile, a woman who weighs nearly twice as much could have an easier time getting to the top of the bar if she has great upper-body strength and technique. The moral of the story? Don't let the number on the scale deter you from training for pull-ups. "It's a very technical exercise, and technique usually trumps everything," says Callaway.

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