Today’s guest post comes from Meghan Callaway. She’s recently released an awesome Ultimate Pullup Guide, which is on sale until October 27th for 50% off, so check it out while it’s on sale.
The pull-up is one of the biggest bang for your buck bodyweight exercises you can do. With the pull-up, you will improve your upper body pulling strength, build the muscles in your upper body, develop controlled mobility in your shoulders and shoulder blades, and even develop anterior core strength and lumbo-pelvic stability. The list of physical benefits is huge.
But the mental benefits of being able to perform one or many pull-ups might even be more impressive. Having the ability to do one or many pull-ups can lead to feelings of confidence, empowerment, and downright badassery, and these feelings often have a positive carryover to all parts of life, not just in the gym or on the playground.
Unfortunately, most people, but especially females, cannot do a single pull-up. I can confidently say that in most cases, people struggle to perform one or many pull-ups not because they are weak and physically incapable, but because they are not training for the pull-up in a way that will be conducive to their success.
Here are a few of many reasons why you might not yet be able to perform a single pull-up, or why you might be struggling to increase your number of reps.
#1. You are overusing your arms
If you are performing a pull-up with proper technique, the muscles in your mid and upper back should be performing the majority of the work. So many people struggle to move their body in a vertical path to the bar because they are actually pulling themselves up with the muscles in their arms and are neglecting the larger and more dominant muscles in their mid and upper back.
When you are performing pull-ups, you want to initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades together and down (towards the opposite hip) rather than leading the movement with your arms. While your arms will be part of the equation, they should only be aiding the larger muscles in the back, and not performing the majority of the work.
To demonstrate my point, here is a video where I am performing pull-ups using just two fingers. Doing this essentially removes most of my arms from the equation.
#2. You are treating the pull-up as an upper body exercise when it is actually a full body exercise
Let me get this out of the way early. The pull-up is a full body exercise. Most people fail to thrive at performing pull-ups because they are so focused on their upper body and neglect the rest of their body. This often leads to an unstable body that I liken to a limp and very heavy noodle, and a body that swings back and forth of the bar like a pendulum.
When it comes to performing pull-ups, being efficient matters. The shorter the distance your body has to travel to the bar, the easier it will be to complete one or many reps. If you focus solely on your upper body and disregard the rest of your body, you will lack the requisite levels of scapular controlled mobility, lumbo pelvic stability, and even lower body intentional stiffness that are necessary if you hope to be able to perform one or many pull-ups.
In short, full body strength, controlled mobility in certain parts of your body, and intentional rigidity in others matter.
#3. Your path to the bar is long and inefficient
This point ties in to what I discussed above. When it comes to thriving at pull-ups, the shorter the distance your body has to travel to the bar, the easier it will be to execute one or many reps. Some people absolutely possess the strength to perform pull-ups.
However, due to poor technique, they focus solely on their upper body and totally disregard their anterior core muscles, glutes, the muscles that control the movement of their scapulae, and even their lower body. This poor form causes the body to swing back and forth either during the concentric or eccentric components of the movement, in the bottom position, or all of the above.
Rather than travelling to the bar in a short and efficient line, the body is now required to move to the bar in a much longer and inefficient arc. This will lead to an increase in time that the muscles are under tension, and will make performing one or many reps significantly more challenging.
#4. You are not training for the pull-up specifically enough
When it comes to training for the pull-up, specificity absolutely matters. So many people who have the goal of being able to perform pull-ups waste valuable time performing lat pull-downs, seated rows, and even machine assisted pull-ups and wonder why their ability to perform pull-ups never improves.
While these exercises aren’t bad and can serve a purpose, they are not specific enough to the pull-up. No matter where you currently are in your pull-up journey, there are pull-up regressions and other exercises that are very specific to the pull-up in that they help you develop the skills that are vital if you wish to be able to bang out one or many reps. As you get stronger and improve your pull-up specific technique, there are more challenging pull-up regressions you can perform.
I liken your pull-up journey to climbing a stairway. As you master the skills and increase your full body strength, there are more advanced pull-up specific regressions and exercises you can perform. Eventually, you will get to the top of the stairway and will be able to perform an unassisted pull-up. Once you reach this first major landmark in your journey, and even long before, the sky is the limit.
#5. You are relying on band assisted pull-ups
Before I cover this point, I will say that I am not a fan of machine assisted pull-ups at all. While you can use them for volume and hypertrophy, they are not specific to pull-ups, as you do not need to possess any level of spinal stiffness, lumbo-pelvic stability or lower body strength. You simply kneel on a pad, mindlessly pull your body to the bar, and free fall to the bottom position. If this is what you do, don’t be surprised when you go to perform an unassisted pull-up and feel as though you have never trained for a pull-up in your life. Machine assisted pull-ups are not specific to unassisted pull-ups.
Band assisted pull-ups, when used properly, can serve a purpose. However, they are only one tool that you should use in your arsenal, and it’s imperative that you own all of the same components that you would when you are performing unassisted pull-ups. A detractor of the band assisted variation is that the band provides the assistance at the bottom of the movement when most people do not require help. Also, many people think that because they are using the band, they can once again focus on their upper body and neglect the rest. Do you see the common theme here?
The pull-up is a full body exercise and must be treated accordingly.
You can use band assisted pull-ups to work on your technique and to increase your overall volume. However, it’s imperative that you focus on controlling the movement of your shoulder blades, keeping your anterior core muscles braced, glutes engaged, and legs flexed. You want to mimic the exact form of unassisted pull-ups, and want to use as little band assistance as possible.
Here is my client Sue performing band assisted pull-ups. She is in her 70s and has the goal of being able to perform an unassisted pull-up. Sue has also been performing many other pull-up regressions, and exercises that develop full body strength, lumbo-pelvic stability, and scapular controlled mobility. This is pretty awesome as this was just Sue’s second time performing this variation.
#6. You are not training for the pull-up consistently
When it comes to achieving any goal, consistency trumps intensity. The pull-up is no different. In order to experience success, you need to be training for the pull-up on a consistent basis. This does not just mean performing pull-ups. You can work at performing pull-up regressions and exercises that develop upper body strength, lower body strength, lumbo-pelvic stability and scapular and shoulder controlled mobility.
These exercises should be performed progressively, intentionally, and habitually. An intelligently designed pull-up program that meets you where you currently are in your pull-up journey, which is followed on a consistent basis, will lead you to your goal of being able to perform your first pull-up, or many. You will gain confidence, competency, and pull-up mastery.
#7. You lack the self belief
In order to achieve absolutely any goal, you must believe that it is possible. As the saying goes, if you believe, you will succeed. This absolutely applies to so many things in life, including your ability to perform one or many pull-ups. Some people possess adequate levels of strength and pull-up specific technique, but they lack the self-belief and confidence, and this is what prevents them from achieving pull-up glory.
That being said, while self-belief is vital, having a plan of attack so you can feel confident, competent, and can attack your pull-up specific goal with intent is crucial.
Meghan Callaway is a trainer in Vancouver, BC Canada. Her new Ultimate Pullup Guide can help you get your first pullup or bang out more than you thought possible, all while making you look hot and awesome at the same time. It’s on sale for 50% off until October 27th at midnight, so pick up your copy today.