You’ve been challenged to do pull-ups since P.E. in elementary school, but chances are—especially if you’re a woman—that you can’t do any. “Pull-ups are so tough because it truly is a 100 percent bodyweight exercise; you are literally pulling up the weight of your entire body from a dead hang,” says Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer based in Los Angeles and creator of the Extreme Burn workout series. “Exercises like squats and push-ups are easier because you get the benefit of having weight on the ground and pushing off it.”
And women have it worse. Ladies have a lower center of gravity than men and have more of their weight (and strength!) distributed in their lower body. They also have a higher percent of body fat—a fit man can drop his down into the single digits while a very fit woman needs 10 to 15 percent to be healthy—which makes pull-ups harder.
There’s also the mistaken belief that pull-ups are all about your arms. In reality, your entire top half needs to be strong in order to get your chin over that bar. “Every muscle in your upper body is working when doing pull-ups—the muscles of your forearms, biceps, shoulders, chest, core, and back are all working together,” says Donavanik. “But what really needs to be strong are your back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi, along with forearms. And a good strong grip is crucial to performing pull-ups.”
But pull-ups are challenging even if you do strengthen your back: Researchers at the University of Dayton had a group of women do just that, and after training, only a quarter of them could perform pull-ups. But, considering the study only had the women train for three months, it could be that they just needed more time. Use these exercises from Donavanik, which mimic the movement of the full-fledged pull-up, to practice, and you'll be able to achieve what three-quarters of the study participants could not. Do the exercises three to five days a week; when one step feels fairly easy, move up to the next.
1. START WITH JUMPING PULL-UPS
Find a pull-up bar, or any bar that is easily reachable. You should be able to grasp it with your feet on the floor; if the bar’s too high, stand on a plyo box or bench to start.
Bend your knees slightly and jump up to launch yourself off the ground, then use your upper body to pull your chin over the bar. Use only as much leg strength as is needed to launch off the ground—really try to complete the movement with the upper body. Do three sets of 15-20 reps.
2. PROGRESS TO ISOMETRIC HOLDS
If your gym has an assisted pull-up machine, that’s a great tool to help get you to the real deal; just make sure you’re using only the minimum weight you need to help you get your chin over the bar, says Donavanik. No machine? Do these isometric holds instead:
Jump up, using as little force as needed to launch yourself up, and hold your chin above the bar for two to five seconds. Slowly lower to stand on floor. As you get stronger, “try to let the upper body take over more and more,” advises Donavanik. Do three to four sets of six to eight reps.
3. TRY A PULL-UP!
Once you’ve mastered isometric holds using very little force to jump up, a regular pull-up should be a natural progression. To get even stronger, Donavanik recommends doing drop sets. Do one full pull-up, then a few jumping pull-ups. ("By this time you should need minimal leg assistance, so don’t rely too heavily on the launch phase,” he says.) Work your way up to doing more pull-ups and fewer jumping pull-ups. To start, do four sets of one pull-up and five jumping pull-ups. Rest for three minutes between sets.