I have always been in awe of people who can do pull-ups—even if it was just one. The amount of strength it takes to pull your entire bodyweight up is nothing short of a great athletic feat. My 2013 goal was to master pull-ups, and while I am still not quite there, I am a lot further along than I was at the beginning of the year.
When embarking on a new goal, the first thing that you need to realize is that change does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice and many attempts when trying to master something difficult like pull-ups. So, if it means practicing a few days a week, every week for months, then that is what needs to be done in order to reach your goal. That was what it took for me to get to where I am today with pull-ups.
Here are some steps to help you reach your one-rep max pull-up (or at least get close to doing one):
Step 1: If weight training is not part of your workout routine, then now is the time to change that. Pull-ups require complete upper body strength as well as a strong core. Working your biceps and back will help you when performing pull-ups, but you also need to include chest, shoulder, triceps and abdominal exercises as well. Try doing a full body strength training session three times a week and making sure you hit every major muscle group in your upper body.
Step 2: Inverted bodyweight rows are the perfect starting point for pull-ups. Although challenging, they are not as difficult as regular pull-ups and can help you strengthen the muscles that are used the most during pull-ups. Think of these as a modified version of a pull-up the way you would modify a push-up by placing your knees on the ground.
To do an inverted row, find a bar that is about waist high and sit down so that your hips are directly under it. Grab hold of the bar with your hands (you can do an overhand grip which will work more of your back or an underhand grip which will utilize more bicep muscles). Lift your hips off the floor so you are in a hanging bridge position, so to speak, with your legs straight out in front of you. While squeezing your shoulder blades, bring your chest up to the bar and then lower back down. Do a few of these before taking a rest. If you find it too difficult, place your feet flat on the floor and bring them closer to your body rather than having your legs fully extended.
Step 3: After a few weeks of strength training and bodyweight rows, you are now going to attempt to do assisted pull-ups. You have a few options for doing this. If you are at a gym that has an assisted pull-up machine, then use it. If not, find a place where you can hang a long elastic band high up from a bar that you can do a pull-up from (many cable machines have handles on top of them for pull-ups and you can put the handles of the elastic band through the machine handles and use it this way). Use a bench or stool to climb up and place your feet in the band as if you were standing on it. Grab a hold of the bar above you and do a pull-up. Try to focus on using more of your back muscles and less of your bicep muscles. You will notice the difference if you squeeze behind your shoulder blades as you are lifting yourself to the bar.
Step 4: Now that you have done the strength work, the modified bodyweight row and the assisted pull-up, you are ready to try for that very first unassisted pull-up. Go to the highest bar you can find, hold onto it and let your body hang down. With control and all of the upper body strength you now have, pull your body up as high as you can to the bar—the further, the better. If you feel like you can do more than one, then go for it.
Even if you cannot go all the way up, even getting half-way up is a major accomplishment. Like I said, pull-ups are not easy, which is why they are often used as a way to measure strength. But, if you stick to the four steps for a few weeks and keep increasing your weights as you go along, you will soon be able to do the one exercise that shows complete strength and leaves spectators in awe.