Have you ever checked out a guy on the beach with that V-shaped back? You know: That broad, masculine frame with a slim, athletic waist? Or have you admired women who dare to bare their backs? All too often, we forget about our backs, an area of the body that is key to both our physical fitness and aesthetic appearance. So how do you develop this aesthetically and athletically fundamental area of your body? The pull-up, of course! The pull-up is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your body, and you only need a bar and your body weight. These 10 exercises save time and create functional strength that's applicable to numerous other physical activities.
1. Lat Pull-Down
HOW TO DO IT: Loop a band around a pull-up bar and drop down to one knee on the floor. Grab the band with both hands shoulder-width apart. Engage your core as you squeeze your lats together and down while pulling the band town and toward your chest. Release back to the start with control. You can also do this move on a lat pull-down machine by placing your hands on the bar with a wide grip and sitting down facing the lat pull-down machine. Place your feet firmly on the floor, engage your core and squeeze your lats down and together as you pull the bar down to your chest. Let the bar return up with control and repeat. REP SCHEME: Use a weight that's challenging for four sets of eight reps.
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2. Pull-Up With Band
HOW TO DO IT: Loop a band around a pull-up bar. Start by placing one foot at the bottom of the loop to support your weight while your hands grab the pull-up bar with palms facing away from you. If you're a beginner, start with a thicker band to support more of your weight. The thicker the band, the more support it provides. Engage your core and lats as you pull your chin up and over the bar. Lower down with control and repeat. REP SCHEME: Three sets of three to six reps.
3. Ring Row
For a more advanced version of this exercise, scoot your feet out so that your body is parallel to the floor, with most of your weight and tension on the rings. For a beginner version, scoot your feet back so that you're more perpendicular to the floor and can support more of your bodyweight. HOW TO DO IT: Hold the rings in your hands and keep your body in a straight line, like you're performing an inverted pull-up. Engage your glutes and abs as you pull your body toward the rings. Squeeze your lats together like you are trying to pinch a penny between them as you bring your chest through the rings. Lower down with control and repeat. REP SCHEME: Three sets of 10 reps.
4. Bent-Over Row
This exercise can be completed using a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells. HOW TO DO IT: With slightly bent knees, hinge forward at the waist with a flat back and proud chest. Using your desired form of weight, squeeze your lats together and engage your glutes as you row the weight up to your chest. Lower down with control and repeat. REP SCHEME: Five sets of six to eight reps.
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5. Jumping Pull-Up
Jumping pull-ups are a great way to build muscle memory and train your body through the motion of the pull-up. HOW TO DO IT: Hold onto a pull-up bar with your hands facing away from you. Hang on the pull-up bar while keeping your feet on the ground so that the weight is in your hands and not your feet. Focus on pulling with your lats and back as you lightly jump up and reach your chin over the bar. This should not be a full jump, but instead it's a way to engage the muscles you use during the pull-up with a little extra help from your lower body. REP SCHEME: Three sets of three to five reps.
6. Rope Climb
Climbers are known for their strong lats because they fully support their body weight when they scale mountains. Channel your inner climber through rope climbs! HOW TO DO IT: Start by grabbing as high as you can on the rope with one hand stacked on top of the other (usually your dominant hand will feel better on top). Next, wrap the rope on the outside of your dominant side (it should match your hand) and have the rope dangle next to your foot. Using your upper body, hop up and, using the nondominant foot, take the rope and secure it on top of your dominant foot. Reach up as high as you can with your hands and bring your knees to your chest while keeping your wrap intact. Secure your feet and straighten out your legs. At this point, your hands should be at your chest. Repeat this movement. To lower, keep your hands and feet in place. Slightly relieve pressure on your nondominant foot to slide down with control. REP SCHEME: Three sets of two climbs.
7. Flexed-Arm Hang
Time to bring you back to your gym-class days! HOW TO DO IT: Step up onto a box or jump up on a pull-up bar so that your chin is above the bar. Engage your core and keep your chin over the bar in the same position. This position is known to make you shake, and that's OK. Push through it! REP SCHEME: Start with 10-second holds and work your way up.
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8. Scapular Pull-Up
Learn to turn on your lats with scapular pull-ups. HOW TO DO IT: Start by hanging on the pull-up bar with your hands facing away from your body. Engage your core and lats as you pull your lats down your back and away from your ears, creating space between the shoulders and ears. REP SCHEME: Three sets of 10 reps.
9. Inverted Row
This exercise is similar to the ring row, but this time you'll be using a bar, which is a stable surface. Use a bar in a squat rack or a Smith machine for the most support. HOW TO DO IT: Place your body underneath the bar and place your feet on a bench (or get a buddy to hold your feet). Keeping your body in a straight line, with abs and glutes engaged, pull your chest toward the bar as you squeeze your lats together. By placing your feet on a bench, your body should be parallel to the floor. If this is too difficult, use a small box or mat so that you're not fully parallel to the floor. REP SCHEME: Three sets of six to eight reps.
10. Negative Pull-Up
This is the only time you're allowed to be negative in the gym! HOW TO DO IT: Use a step stool or jump up so that you're hanging at the top of your pull-up with your chin over the bar. With control, slowly lower down on a three count to the bottom of your movement. Eccentric movements (in the pull-up, that's the lowering phase) are key in building strength. REP SCHEME: Three sets of five with a three-count down.
Mastering the Pull-Up
Now that you've mastered the exercises to help you earn that elusive pull-up, it's time to put your practice into action. HOW TO DO IT: To complete the perfect pull-up, start by hanging on a pull-up bar with your hands facing away from you. Engage your lats, core and glutes as you squeeze your lats down and together, pinching that penny in between them (or a hundred-dollar bill, if that's more motivating). With control, pull your chin over the bar and slowly lower back down. You did it! Time to give yourself a pat on your chiseled back!
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What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever done an unassisted pull-up before, or is that something you're working on? How are you working to achieve that goal? What are your favorite exercises for pull-up strength? How many consecutive pull-ups would you like to be able to do? Or how many have you ever done in a row? Share your suggestions, questions and stories in the comments section below!