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Perfect the Pull-Up

I have a confession to make. I am not very good at pull-ups. Now, as my mother taught me growing up, “realistic expectations are the key to happiness.” Thus, I am not upset that I suck at pull-ups; why would I think I should be good at something I never do?

The interesting thing is that, as a trainer, I know how to get better at pull-ups. I just never followed the steps. Perfecting the pull-up was never a goal. This is an example of the famous saying by Dr Fordyce, a seminal thinker in cognitive behavioural theory: “Education is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to brick.” One doesn’t have anything to do with the other.

Having information is not the same as doing something with that information. Knowledge is only important once you are ready to not just “wish” a change into existence, but to form a goal and take the steps to set yourself up for success.

I think I am ready to — at least think about — attempt to “perfect the pull-up.” Are you?

4 Steps to perfecting the pull-up

1. Incorporate back exercises that mimic the motion of a chin-up. The lat pull-down machine is perfect for this. Perform both wide grip and narrow grip lat pull-down exercises to simulate performing wide-grip and narrow-grip pull-ups. I already do this exercise. Step 1 complete. Excellent.

2. Do modified chin-ups using a Gravitron or buy and use (on a tree or a pull-up bar) a heavy pull-up band. These bands come in different sizes. They assist you and thus allow you to build up to lifting your own weight. Start with the thickest band — it will lift the most weight. Slowly progress to lighter bands and do more of the work yourself.

3. Do negative chin-ups using a chin-up bar. Negative chin-ups are beneficial because the body can always lower more weight than it can lift. To do a negative chin-up, jump up so your face is higher than the bar and then control down as slowly as possible. Over time you will get stronger and actually be able to lift yourself up. If needed, use a Bosu to help you with your negative chin-ups. Stand on the Bosu with your hands on the chin-up bar. Use the Bosu to propel yourself up so your face is higher than the bar, and then lower your weight down slowly.

4. Do as many unassisted pulls as possible. Then, complete the set using a combination of steps 2 and 3. Meaning, try a few negatives. Once you can’t do any more negatives, use the strap. Or, do a few where you use the strap to pull yourself up and do a negative. Work up to doing 3 full sets of 5 or more unassisted pull-ups.

There is a similar logical way to get stronger at the push-up. If you are curious, take a look at this past blog: Perfect The Push Up


Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer in Toronto who loves audiobooks, planks and having a growth mindset. You can follow her blog or find her on Facebook.