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“What are the best weight lifting exercises to do so I can do five pullups? I’ve never been able to do more than one.”
- -Cameron Fowlkes, via Facebook
Pullups are one of the best exercises for building muscle in your upper back and biceps, but for many people the move is difficult to perform. That’s because pullups require a great amount of relative upper body strength; that is, how strong you are in reference to your bodyweight, says strength coach, Jim Smith, C.S.C.S.
To build the foundational strength needed to move your own body, perform exercises such as lat pulldowns, inverted rows, and bent-over rows. These help you develop the pulling muscles in your back. Do 3 to 4 sets of each of at least two of these exercises for 8 to 12 reps in the first few weeks of your strength routine. As you become stronger, decrease to 6 to 10 reps per set and add weight to the exercises.
HOW TO START
If you can't perform any pullups, start with "negatives." Instead of pulling your body up towards the bar, focus on slowly lowering your body from the top position of the exercise. Negatives build strength because your muscles spend more time under tension during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift, says Smith.
Here's how to do it: Stand on a box or bench, jump up and pull your body to the top position of a pullup (your chest should touch the bar with your elbows pulled back towards your ribcage). Then, take 4 to 8 seconds to slowly lower your body back to the box. Jump back up and repeat. Perform 4 to 6 sets of 6 to 8 negatives, resting about 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
Good technique can go a long way towards helping you perform more pullups. Here are eight steps, from Smith, designed to teach you proper form:
1. Grab the bar shoulder width apart. Using too wide a grip can hurt your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
2. Extend your arms fully when you hang from the bar. Do not relax your upper back, which places excess stress on your shoulders. Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down (imagine keeping your shoulders away from your ears) and maintain tension to protect your shoulders.
3. Begin pulling yourself upwards with your gaze straight ahead or slightly up.
4. Your elbows should follow a path slightly in front of the sides of your torso.
5. Your chin should pass the level of the top of the bar to finish the movement and your drive your elbows down and back towards your ribcage.
6. Keep your descent controlled and deliberate.
7. Once your arms are fully extended, begin the next repetition.
8. Always focus on quality over quantity.
When you are able to complete your first full repetition, use this simple plan designed by Smith to perform more reps with less rest.
Week 1-2: 10 sets x 2 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
Week 3: 8 sets x 3 reps, rest 50 seconds
Week 4: 7 sets x 4 reps, rest 40 seconds
Week 5: 6 sets x 5 reps, rest 30 seconds
Week 6: 5 sets x 6 reps, rest 20 seconds
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Jim Smith, CSCS, is the owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning and is a member of the LIVESTRONG.com Advisory Board.