A few weeks ago I asked on my instagram story what people would like me to write or post about. One of the ones that stood out was ‘how can I gain strength to do pull ups without a pull up bar or equipment?’. And whilst that’s still giving me a bit of a headache, I thought I’d put together my thoughts and experiences on getting clients from zero pull up strength - all the way to unassisted pull ups. I won’t put a time limit on this because I think it can vary so much depending on starting strength, body weight, general overall physical preparation and lifestyle (ie. are you eating enough/too much, are you getting adequate rest?).
What’s important to remember is that it is POSSIBLE for anyone. You’ve just got to stick at it, work hard and not be scared to fail. What’s the worst thing that could happen realistically, if you attempt a pull up? Most likely you just won’t get up. So give it a go!
I’ll write an approach from the point of view of somebody who has zero upper body strength and a very low training age and experience - if you use it as a guide you can work out where you’re at and start from there!
Build a general base of strength via the most accessible avenues. This means using a TRX, dumbbells, cable machine or bands and very simple grip strength challenges. This general preparation phase helps to build up the muscle mass of the back, arms and core - an essential phase for those new to training or new to pull ups!
TRX Inverted Rows
This exercise should provide the main bulk of your upper body work to start with. Some might argue that because it’s a horizontal pull that it’s irrelevant to the pull up but I wholeheartedly disagree. That doesn’t mean that just doing inverted rows will mean you can one day do pull ups - but when used in combination with other exercises, it plays a vital role.
One of the biggest reasons the TRX inverted row is so effective for those new to training is that it’s easily accessible and it’s not intimidating. It can be scaled to the individual and is simple to progress/regress. The more horizontal your body is, the more challenging the exercise becomes. Simple!
GOAL: Inverted rows for 10-12 reps at a body angle below 45°. Once you hit this, progress to step 2.
Inverted row demo showing roughly 90 degree body angle at the lowest point!
Whilst the inverted row should make up a large portion of your upper body pull work, supplementing with dumbbell exercises will certainly speed things up. This may include dumbbell row, bicep curls and hammer curls in the region of 6-12 reps - gradually working the weight up.
GOAL: Increase load or reps on each exercise each session. Even if it’s just one extra rep - that’s progress!
This is where you can introduce a little bit more variation in the types of pulling movements you use. Double or single arm pull downs; wide grip and narrow grip; underhand, overhead or neutral grip; high to low or low to high. My choice would be half kneeling single arm pull downs, overhand grip wide lat pull downs, neutral grip seated pull downs and low to high lat pulls - all working in the region of 8-12 reps and building up the weight on the double arm exercises to approximately 50% body weight or more.
GOAL: Double arm exercises to hit 50% body weight or more.
Finally, build up your grip strength using deadhangs in a variety of grip positions. 5-30 seconds for 1-3 sets a week is a great place to start.
GOAL: 30s deadhang - this won’t happen overnight, it may even take months. But that’s character building right?
Deadhang demo using overhand grip.
The first phase may take a couple of months to make a decent amount of progress but once you hit that big marker of below 45° body angle on the TRX then you can progress to step two. Continue the inverted rows, dumbbell and cable work with the addition of eccentric pull ups/chin ups and an assisted pull up machine if you have access to one at your gym. If you don’t have access to one of these then you can just skip that part!
Eccentric chin ups/pull ups
Jump up or use a high enough box to get yourself to the top of the pull up and lower yourself as slowly as possible. If this still seems impossible to maintain any control then spend a few more weeks on step 1. I try to squeeze and hold at the top for as long as possible and then aim for a controlled descent with a constant speed - not just a sudden drop from half way down. You can use bands on a squat rack to help with these initially if absolutely necessary.
GOAL: 2s pause at the top with a slow and controlled descent for 3-5 reps x 3-4 sets
Assisted pull up machine
As with the TRX inverted rows - these help to build muscle mass, just in a slightly more specific manner. Unlike band assisted chin ups (which will come later) they offer a constant level of assistance throughout the entire movement.
GOAL: 8-12 reps x 3-5 reps, aiming for 50% bodyweight or less in assistance.
Once you have achieved both of the goals in step 2, progress to step 3.
Chin up iso
This is optional but works as a good finisher at the end of a workout. As you would with your eccentric pull up, jump up and hold at the top for as long as you can!
Chin up iso demo. Keep your chin above the bar/handle!
At this point you will have built a decent amount of upper body pulling strength. During step 3 you should continue TRX inverted rows (making reps more challenging as you lower yourself to a more horizontal position and then adding weight/elevating your feet) and reps on dumbbell/cable machine exercises should be reduced and intensity (weights) increased. Once you progress to step 3, introduce band assisted pull ups/chin ups. Using resistance bands to help you do pull ups differs from the assisted pull up machine as the level of assistance will now vary through the range of motion - you have the most help at the lowest point of the pull up where most people are generally weakest. Take advantage of that assistance as you do your reps - making sure you hit full extension!
Feet elevated inverted row demo on olympic rings.
Loaded inverted row demo on olympic rings.
Band assisted chin ups/pull ups
Start with the thickest band available (double up if necessary) and work your reps up from 5 to 10, 3-4 sets. Once you can do 10 reps with full extension and chin above the bar on each rep, progress to a slightly thinner band. Repeat until you are on the thinnest band! From here you can use a combination of unassisted and band assisted reps in order to build up your strength.
GOAL 1: 10 reps x 3-4 sets on the thinnest band available.
Band assisted pull up demo. Keep your glutes squeezed to stop your legs pinging forward!
It’s likely at this point that you can do 1-2 reps unassisted - have a go! The worst thing that could happen is you don’t lift yourself up - but then you know where you are with it. There’s nothing wrong with not being quite ready for something but you won’t know unless you try!
GOAL 2: 10 reps unassisted.
Unassisted chin up demo - underhand grip.
In order to achieve this I would use bands and/or cluster sets. See what you prefer/make the most progress with!
Bands: Total rep goal = 10 reps. Complete as many as you can unassisted and then complete the remainder with a light band, pausing for one second at the top and lowering for two seconds on the way down. Aim to do one more unassisted rep each week/every 2 weeks.
Cluster sets: Total rep goal = 10 reps. Simply split these reps into smaller groups and aim to make those splits slightly larger as the week goes on.
Eg. Week 1: 2+2+2+2+2/ Week 2: 3+3+2+2+2/ Week 3: 3+3+3+1 etc.
Once you’ve reached your goal of unassisted pull ups/chin ups then the possibilities are endless. You can add additional load, increase your reps, slow your reps down, change your grip etc. All you need to do is keep working hard at it!
If you need some more detailed guidance for getting your first pull up then drop me an email for a bespoke online plan! Please note that the aim of this blog post is to increase your knowledge and structure to create an effective training program and the use of any information provided on this site is solely at your own risk. Ruth Ellen Coaching does not guarantee any specific results and does not take responsibility for any injury that may occur from physical training. Consult a doctor before undertaking any new exercise or physical exertion.