Ask a Swole Woman: How Can I Actually Do a Pull- Up?
Strength is for everyone, but it's especially for women. Ask a Swell Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about the strength of training or anything related? AASW@self.com.
I have been weight lifting for the last two years. I'm pleased with the progress I've made on my lifts, but I'm getting really frustrated because one of my fitness goals is to be able to do a pull-up or chin-up. I cannot yet do this, and don't feel like I'm significantly closer to this goal than I was when I started this journey. Can you recommend lifts or movements to help me reach this goal? And can you give me your honest opinion as to whether or not this is even worth it? Is a pull-up a good movement in a lifting program, and does it matter if I do a pull-up or chin-up?
I see people about pull-ups. Few things look cooler than a pull-up, and I was about to describe what it looks like but I trust your imagination and also there is nothing I could say that would make it sound even remotely as badass as we all know it is.
While pull-ups are bad, they are also somewhat tricky. That is not to say they are impossible, so you should not believe articles that claim, for instance, women just can not do pull-ups, even with training (that may not have focused the best of protocols for strength, which we'll get to shortly. This is not my experience, nor is it the experience of many women. It is almost as if the world is stacked up against women, and it's hard to succeed. a year to get strong enough to do a single pull-up. I was not able to train the right way for the most of the time, 54
I am tall with long arms, and it took me a little over a year to get strong enough to do a single pull-up. I also didn’t train the right way for most of that time, so your mileage may vary, especially if you have a slightly more naturally-efficient-for-pull-ups build (people with shorter arms and smaller builds tend to be able to learn to do. But just know you might be in it for the few-month haul, at the very least. We would not all respect pull-ups so much if they were not at least a little difficult! The nice thing about the pull-ups as a goal, though, they are, are, you, and, that note, to begin with: Increasing how strong you are is a
So on that note, to begin with: Increasing how strong you are is a lifestyle endeavor. Unfortunately, learning specific skills and movements are not just a matter of showing up to the gym. You have to train (somewhat) smart, and you have to take care of yourself. By taking care of yourself, I mean you, 59 need to eat, and you need to sleep and rest. You're probably not going to get your pull-up by training to exhaustion every single day, and you very likely can’t get it by not eating enough. Muscles are not made of nothing, and are not fueled by nothing. They need you to give them enough food and protein so they can get stronger, so be nice to them. The time your muscles are resting after you use them in the gym is when they are actually rebuilding and getting stronger, so it’s important to have days off from heavy lifting and get good sleep.
Back to the training: A proper pull-up requires upper back strength, as well as arm strength. It is a pulling motion, so anything you can do that involves pulling (any kind of row) or maintaining tension in your upper back (conventional deadlifts, for instance) will help. But pull-ups are also more of a full-body movement than you might realize: You need your core to stabilize you. Fortunately for the pull-up aspirant, full-body strength training will train all the muscles you need together, and maybe more importantly, train them to work together.
The thing that can pull out. A good pull-up program will give you what lifters refer to as "volume." Volume is a tricky concept to explain, but the gist is, doing a lot more work (or reps) of a movement at a lower intensity This applies to all movements: Doing squats for sets of 10 at a relatively lighter weight will help me in the heavier weight, which will help me. Likewise, it's harder for me to get better at pull-ups if I can do only one or no pull-ups. If there is something, I can do that, I can do that, I can do it better, pull-ups, without having to do something as hard as pull-ups. In other words, doing some kind of assisted pull-up-and-lots of them-will-go-get-up-and-lots of them-will. I spent months on an assisted pull-up machine, because it did not work properly, getting better at using that specific machine, I was not really working the muscles. There were two training methods that worked best for me when I was training to get a pull-up. The first was
But not any kind of assistance will do. I spent months on an assisted pull-up machine to no avail, because it didn’t teach me to engage my body the right way, and it let me use my arms too much and my back too little, so even though I was probably getting better at using that specific machine, I wasn’t really working the muscles I needed to be working to get a pull-up. There were two training methods that worked best for me when I was training to get a pull-up. The first was using super-bands (giant rubber bands) looped around my feet on one end and to the pull-up bar on the other. With this setup, the band will bear some of my weight while still allowing a full range of motion, which let me do more pull-ups at a time. I am also trained with "negatives," which involves jumping to the top of a pull-up and slowly lowering myself down. For instance, if I could only do a 10-second negative once, I might do three sets of four five-second negatives. And then I was done! And I could carry on with my life. Pull-up training does not have to be wildly intense; even if you can not do any of these, just hanging from a bar. Just building on what I have got slowly and sustainably allowed me to get where I am today, where I can do probably five whole pull-ups at a stretch, if I am allowed to cheat and kick my legs very much on the last one.
As far as you know, whether you're pulling up or chin-up, it's really up to you. Pull-ups rely heavily on your lats (which, particularly for newer lifters, are tough to learn just how to engage), where chin-ups engage your biceps more as well as your back. If you want to learn how to really "turn on", you should do pull-ups. If you want to train your arms more, try chin-ups.
TL;DR: Make sure you're doing a good full-body strength program (something like Greyskull LP, StrongLifts, or New Rules of Lifting for Women) and that part of your routine includes rows, band-assisted pull-ups, and negatives. If you're worried you're not making progress, a coach or trainer can help evaluate your form.
Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @ caseyjohnston.