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Chin over the bar! A guide to achieving your first pull up

May 16, 2014


By: Leah Hardesty, Certified Personal Trainer at Show Up Fitness. Graduate of the National Personal Training Institute with specialties in disease prevention, weight loss and pre/post pregnancy.

Do you ever notice that girl or guy at the gym who can perform pull up after pull up with ease? Do you think, “I wish I could do that.” You can, and all it takes is a little effort and commitment. Male or female, everyone should be able to do a pull up. But most won't dare perform pull ups, even on the assisted machine, because they don't believe they can do it. How do you know until you try? I was one of those people merely one year ago. I HATED doing pull ups and I would groan and whine anytime a training buddy would suggest performing them in a routine. But a wise person (Chris Hitchko, that is!) told me the simplest thing. “If you want to get better at something, you have to practice and just do it.”

Hence my journey began to achieve my first unassisted pull up. It wasn't easy, but oh-so-gratifying when I pulled my chin over that bar all by myself. The feeling of freedom, independence, and empowerment. I felt like I could do anything! And I also felt like if I am ever in a movie-scene situation where I'm hanging from a cliff and zombies are grabbing at my feet, I can easily pull myself up to safety!

So, who's with me? Who wants to pull themselves up and away from the zombies? Here is my step-by-step guide to getting there.
1. Start with the machine. Every time you exercise, whether you are lifting weights or cardio, perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps on the pull up assisted machine. Work on lowering the weight resistance (remember the pull up machine is unique in that the lower the weight, the more difficult to perform the exercise) and once you get to 10 reps at 60-70 pounds, you are ready for the next step.
2. Move to the bands. Most gyms have resistance bands (the ones that are a full loop and don't have handles) available for members to use. Find those bands, grab the thickest one and wrap it around the jungle gym bar or the unassisted pull up apparatus. Use a box or bench to raise you up high enough to grab the bar and place your foot into the band. Straighten your leg, cross the other leg in front and start pulling up.
3. Challenge yourself. Once you move to the band, you may only be able to perform 6-8 reps. That's okay, perform 4 sets at the beginning of your workout when you're fresh. Once this becomes easy or you can perform more, graduate to a thinner band. Then start challenging yourself by changing up the amount of sets and reps you perform to work your muscles in different ways. For example, one day perform 5 sets of 6 reps with a thinner band at the beginning of your workout. On another day perform 3 sets of 12 or 2 sets of 20 with a thicker band at the end of your workout. Add them on as a superset to another exercise, perform pause reps (hold at the top for 3 seconds), perform supinated grip or place your hands wider. All of these are options for challenging your body.

Step 2: Move to the thickest band width and perform 4 sets of 6-8 reps 2-3 times per week until you can do more.
Step 3: Get a thinner band and vary up your sets/reps by performing 5 sets of 6 reps once per week, 4 sets of 8 reps once per week and 3 sets of 12 or 2 sets of 20 once per week.
Step 4: Try unassisted pull ups and perform at least one rep combined with band reps for 5 sets of 5 once per week. Rest 3-5 minutes.
Step 5: Work on strengthening those muscles with other exercises.

Good luck!

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