“I CAN’T do a pull-up!”
Does this comment resonate with you? Well, you are not alone. In my opinion, there are three big reasons most females (and some males) have a hard time doing pull-ups:
First, you have listened to someone tell you that you can't.
Second, you have convinced yourself that you can't!
Third — and probably the only real reason you cannot currently do pull-ups — is that you are not training them regularly enough or not training them properly.
We have been hearing that women can’t do pull-ups — and all the "reasons" why — for far too many years, but that is a myth!
More and more women are catching on to the importance of strength training, and getting excited about proving this myth wrong. In October 2012, the New York Times started a ruckus by publishing an article titled “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups!”
I was in your shoes for many years and believed this to be true until I dove seriously into strength training. I actually achieved my first unassisted pull-up by accident in June 2008. I was at the gym and a friend swore that I could do a pull-up. I said, “Look, see I can’t even do one,” all while jumping up, getting on the bar, and knocking out my first pull-up — in shock!
I was completely astonished and truly believe the only reason I achieved it that day was because I had gotten strong and lean. (To be clear, you don't have to be lean to be able to do a pull-up, but common sense tells us that the lighter you are, the easier a pull-up might be.) I had been doing kettlebell training for a year at that point and was the strongest and leanest I had ever been.
When training with kettlebells, the military press in particular, we use an active negative by pulling the bell back down after each press (mimicking the pull-up movement) to increase back strength.
We also use planks to build core strength, plus the top of many kettlebell moves finish in a standing plank. These moves teach full body tension and strength. Guess what happens next?
I believed that I could do them, I became addicted, and I began to train them regularly.
I also began adding more pull-up training in for my students. I began testing many drills and progressions with them and tracked which struggles I saw the most and which progressions worked the best.
Remember, if you want to do pull-ups you must practice them often!
You cannot expect to get a pull-up if you are not strength training or never get on a pull-up bar.
An added bonus is that pull-ups are one of the quickest ways to change your body composition. You will get a nice strong defined back and shoulders, while also defining your whole body if you are doing proper pull-ups.
I use the following progressions to fix the above listed problems and gain strength to obtain your first pull-up, increase your current pull-up numbers, or to advance to weighted pull-ups.
Before we get into the specific exercises to help your pull-up, it’s important to understand the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up. Here is a video demonstration I put together of each.
As you can see, the palms face away from the body in a pull-up, whereas the palms face towards the body in a chin-up.
NOTE: Each of these progressions will be discussed in the brief video at the end of this article.
For a full instructional video of all 10 exercises to improve your pull-ups, watch these demonstrations by Coach Karen.
After training many students and testing many drills I have found that on average if a female works up to a 30- to 45-second flex arm hang that she normally can do at least one chin-up.
Once she has at least one chin-up, I would have her start “GTG training” (greasing the groove) daily with chin-ups.
After she has multiple chin-ups, I would then add training ladders into her program. For example: 3 chin-ups, 2 chin-ups, 1 chin-up. Rest and repeat.
Once she achieves three chin-ups, she will normally have one pull-up. At that point I would either have her train GTG pull-ups until she has multiple reps, or add the pull-up into the ladder. For example: 3 chin-ups, 2 chins-ups, 1 pull-up. Rest and repeat.
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