Pull-Ups Guide: Yes, You Can Do Them!

Fitness Tips

Pull-Ups Guide: Yes, You Can Do Them!

Pull-ups have a reputation as an elite exercise: only the muscle-bound exerciser with five percent body fat can do them, right? Wrong!

Anybody can start doing modified pull-ups. Work your way through progressively harder versions of modified pull-ups and you'll be doing the real thing sooner than you expect. Even if you're not focused on mastering pull-ups, the following exercises are all great for developing your back muscles.


Assisted Pull-Up Machine

These machines have a lever that you stand or kneel on as you do pull-ups; the lever is attached to a weight stack that counterbalances your body, effectively reducing the amount of weight you're lifting. The more weight you select on the stack, the easier the exercise will be. Gradually work down to lighter weights as you build strength and before you know it you'll be doing full pull-ups with no counterweight at all.

Using Dip Bars

Using dip bars to do your pull-ups lets you use your legs for an assist, turning the exercise into a half-squat-half-pull-up. You can also do this exercise using the arms of something called the captain's chair or a vertical knee raise station, or using the bar of a Smith machine, locked in place at neck height.

Stand between a pair of dip bars, facing out. Grasp the bars, squat down between them, then use a combination of back strength and leg strength to push yourself back up to the bars. As you get stronger, you'll be able to use more back strength and less leg strength to pull yourself up. Once you're ready, extend your legs straight in front of you, heels on the ground, to make the exercise harder. Always keep your torso upright with hips below the shoulders to target the correct muscle groups.

Using the Pull-Up Bar

If you're closing in on pull-up strength already, there are several ways you can scale pull-ups on a real bar to suit your fitness level.

  • The Step Stool: Position a weight bench or other sturdy, stable surface below the bar. Grasp the pull-up bar and push off from the bench with your legs, giving yourself a boost to get up to the bar. Keep your feet on the bench the whole time.
  • The Power Band: Girth-hitch a loop to the pull-up bar, then bend one knee and place that knee through the loop. You'll probably have to stand on a stool or bench to do this safely. The tension from the elastic band will give you an extra boost with each repetition. Keep your knee pointed downward so the band doesn't slide off of it.
  • The Buddy Assist: This technique is best used when you're very close to being able to do pull-ups on your own. First, grasp the bar, then bend your knees and have a gym buddy give you a little boost from the knees, shins or feet to help you complete each repetition.

Work Up to It

If you're not excited about any of these variations or don't have access to any type of pull-up bar, you can still build pull-up strength with exercises that work your latissimus dorsi -- the large, V-shaped muscle in your back. Do lat pull-downs on a weight machine, at a cable station or with elastic resistance bands, using the same sort of grip you want to use when you start doing pull-ups.

Dumbbell or barbell pullovers and bent-over rows will also help build lat strength and endurance. Whichever exercise you use, focus on maintaining proper form and a steady, regular pace. Flinging weights (or your body) around quickly may look impressive, but it doesn't build as much strength as counting to two when you lift, then two to four as you lower the weight.