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3 Best Exercises For A Stronger Pull-Up

pullups-karen-smith-sfgtanktop-375x400It’s great to see the shift in the way women are seeing and thinking about pull-ups. The myth that pull-ups are for men and that women can’t do them has been kept alive for far too long. As 1 of 10 women to successfully complete the Iron Maiden Challenge, women often ask me for help as they work toward their first pull-up, doing more bodyweight pull-ups, or advancing to weighted pull-ups.

For the curious among you, The Iron Maiden (or Beast Tamer for men) is a challenge attempted at the StrongFirst Kettlebell Certification consisting of three events. One of those three events is the Tactical Pull-Up (thumbless grip) with the bell hanging from your waist via a belt and chain. Women must use a 24kg (53lb) bell, and men must use a 48kg (106lb) bell. The challenge takes a great deal of focus, patience, and smart programming.

Smart Training For Strong Pull-Ups

To achieve this type of strength, it’s important to follow a program that has been tested and has produced positive results. Rushing this process often leads to injury or burn out.

Working on pull-ups needs to be approached with the mindset that this process will be a marathon, not a sprint—especially once you start adding load to your pull-ups.

A word of caution: You must listen to your body whether you’re working toward your first pull-up or advancing from bodyweight to weighted pull-ups. You have to pay attention to any signs that your body is being over-trained. If you begin to feel discomfort or pain in your elbow or shoulder, don’t ignore it.

If you’re ready to start your pull-up journey, I guarantee these three key exercises will get you stronger and improve your Pull-ups.

NOTE:Read the details for each drill first, and then watch the video at the bottom of the article.

1. Heavy Deadlifts

The key word is heavy! The goal here is to increase your deadlift MAX to 1.5 – 2x your bodyweight. Think about this for a second, you are struggling to get your body over the bar. so what better way to make it easier than to start lifting a far heavier weight than that.

What’s needed:  Barbell, Plates (bumper or iron), chalk (possibly) and, of course, proper technique

How to Perform Deadlifts

  1. Approach the bar until your shins touch it
  2. Conventional: Place your feet about shoulder width apart, hinge at the hips and grip the bar just outside your knees, ORSumo: Place your feet about 2x shoulder width apart, hinge at the hips and grip the bar inside your knees
  3. Tighten your grip, load your lats, and wedge between the bar and the floor.
  4. Tense your body, and with a power breath lift the bar to the standing lockout position with full hip extension.

TIP: You should be lifting with a neutral spine. Do not allow your back to round on the way up or when returning the bar to the ground.


2. Hollow Drills

The Hollow position will get your incredibly strong if practiced often. You would start practicing the hollow holds on the ground, then progress to hollow rockers and advance to hollow hangs, with both, straight arm and flexed arm.

What’s needed: Floor space, Pull-up Bar, (and a sofa or partner)

How to Perform the Hollow Position Drills:

Hollow Holds

  1. Lay on your back
  2. Press your low back into the floor while tensing your abs and glutes
  3. Lift your feet and arms a few inches off the floor and hold while breathing behind the shield (explanation is in the video, as well as regressions if this position is too advanced)
  4. Increase the hold time as you gain strength, if you low back comes off the floor stop and reset

Hollow Rockers

  1. Follow the same steps for the Hollow Holds
  2. With a tense body, rock like a boat but do not use your arms and legs to move you
  3. As you gain strength increase the number of reps/set you perform

Straight-Arm Hollow Hangs

  1. Grip the bar in an overhand thumbless grip
  2. Pull-up shoulder into their sockets (contract your lats)
  3. Engage your abs and glutes (pelvic tilt = point belly button toward face)
  4. Squeeze your thighs together and point your toes
  5. Hold and increase time as you gain strength

Flexed-Arm Hollow Hangs

  1. Grip the bar in a narrow underhand grip
  2. Get above the bar (assistance, jump, climb or pull if you can)
  3. Press your elbows down and back to hold yourself tight above the bar
  4. Bar should be at neck or chest height (do not rest your chin on the bar)
  5. Hold and increase time as you gain strength

3. Weighted Hangs

Yes, weighted. Many people look at me like I’m crazy and say, “I can’t get a bodyweight pull-up, and now you want me to add weight?” YES! Adding weight to your body is a great progression to gain strength and make you feel lighter when you are trying to get your body over the bar. Weighted hangs are also great for lighter training days if you are already doing weighted pull-ups.

What’s needed: Pull-up Bar, Weight (weighted vest, or kettlebell, and eventually a weight belt)

How to Perform Weighted Hangs

  1. Follow the same setup for the straight-arm or flexed-arm hollow hang
  2. Add a weighted vest or place your foot through the handle of a light kettlebell
  3. Hang; increase your time as you gain strength
  4. Once you increase to a bell that you cannot hold with your foot, switch to using a weight belt and chain to hang the bell from your waist.

How to Include In Your Training Program

Heavy deadlift can be added to your training program 1 – 2 days per week, while the Hollow Drills and Weighted Hangs can be done daily. As I mention above, listen to your body! At the first sign of pain in either your elbows or shoulders you need to STOP, rest for a few days, and then proceed.

After spending 4-6 weeks on the above drills, test and see if you have your first chin-up or pull-up. If you were already doing pull-ups, test your max set or add weight to your pull-ups.



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About The Author: Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person. Learn more about Karen on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.