Don’t let anyone fool you: Pullups are hard, even for those who work out religiously. It takes remarkable strength to pull your body weight up above a bar from a static position. But guess what? We know you like a challenge!
To master a pullup, you’ll need motivation and determination combined with strategic training. Pullups use your lats and biceps primarily, while also recruiting your deltoids, rhomboids, and core. These are the muscles you’ll need to strengthen.
We’ve curated five exercises as a starting point to train for pullups. Get started earning your sweat equity today.
Do 5 or 10 minutes of brisk cardio to kick off your workout, then add in some dynamic stretches to get your body ready for strength training.
Mix and match these five exercises throughout the week, aiming to perform three of them at least two days a week.
For the bodyweight exercises, challenge yourself to add more time or a few more reps each week. For the weighted exercises, go as heavy as you can go while maintaining correct form, aiming to progressively overload your muscles.
1. High plank
The first step to executing a push-up is perfecting this foundational movement, in which you’ll support your own body weight with a stable core and upper body.
- Start on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees slightly behind your hips. Keep your neck neutral.
- Bracing your core, push up from your toes to straighten your legs, forming a straight line from your head to your feet. Make sure your lower back doesn’t sag.
- Hold until your form starts to wobble.
- Complete 3 sets.
2. Hollow hold
This floor exercise mimics part of the movement of a pullup, teaching you to engage your back and core.
- Lie down on your back on a mat with your arms extended above your head.
- Bracing your core, raise your head, arms, and legs so each forms a 45-degree angle with the floor.
- Holding steady here, pull your arms and legs toward your midline, stopping when each is perpendicular to the floor. Hold for 5 seconds.
- Return to the starting position from step number 2 and repeat.
- Complete 3 sets of 5 reps.
3. Bent-over row
Strong upper back muscles — especially your lats — are required to master a pullup. The bent-over row targets them specifically, while also strengthening and stabilizing your core.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and hinge at the waist until your upper body forms a 45-degree angle with the ground. Your knees should be slightly bent.
- Begin to bend your arms, pulling your elbows up and back until you reach the top. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower back down and repeat for 10 reps.
- Complete 3 sets.
4. Dumbbell pullover
This exercise hits the lats and chest, both of which need to be strong to do a pullup. Use a light dumbbell, like 10 or 15 pounds, until you perfect this movement.
- Grab the dumbbell with both hands. Position yourself on a yoga ball or bench so your upper back is supported on the surface, arms are extended above your head, your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, and your torso is straight.
- Maintaining a strong core and keeping your arms extended, start to pull the dumbbell up and over your head. Stop when your arms are perpendicular to the floor.
- Lower the weight back down.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
5. TRX row
Of these five exercises, the TRX row is most similar to a pullup, as you’ll pull your body weight by engaging many of the same muscles. Remember that the closer to parallel your torso is to the ground, the more challenging this exercise will be.
- Grab onto the TRX handles, and step away from the anchor to pull the straps taught, arms extended.
- Walk your feet underneath and in front of the TRX straps, and bend your legs so they form a 90-degree angle. Your core should be tight, forming a straight line from your knees to your head, and your arms should be supporting your weight.
- Inhale and begin to pull yourself straight up by bending your arms, pulling your elbows down toward the ground. Make sure your back and butt don’t sag.
- Once you reach the top, slowly lower yourself back to the position in step number 2, and repeat.
- Complete 3 sets of 6 reps.
This process will take time. Especially if you’re a beginner, you’ll need a few months to work toward the goal of completing a pullup with good form. Once you’ve mastered the five exercises above, move onto assisted pullups, either with a machine or by using an assisted pullup band.
Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.