You probably already know how to do a pull-up—but let’s review just for fun: starting from a dead hang with your palms facing away from you, grasp the bar with arms shoulder width or slightly wider; engage your core to keep steady; pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, and then release all the way back down.
Easy, right? Not so much. It’s one thing to know how to do a pull-up—it’s another thing to actually be able to do one, and few can properly execute this compound juggernaut of an exercise. But we’re here to change that, and the good news is, there are specific exercises you can do to help get you above the bar.
To truly “elevate” your pull-up, you’ll need to work on the following mechanics:
1. Grip Strength
2. Core Strength
3. Latisimus Dorsi Strength
It takes patience, practice, and proper nutrition, but being able to do multiple pull-ups will help elevate your game, especially when taking on Tough Mudder obstacles like Funky Money – The Revolution, Balls to the Wall, and Skidmark’d. So add these moves to your workout—focus on one area or all three—and get ready to belly up to the pull-up bar.
Improved grip strength yields a longer hold on the pull-up bar. A longer hold means more opportunity for more pull-ups. Improve your grip strength with these moves:
- Hex Dumbell Head Hold
As the name suggests, hold the head of any hexagonal dumbbell with your fingers and thumbs and feel the burn. Shoot for 3 sets of 30 second (30s) holds and 30s of rest. Progress by increasing the weight of your dumbells.
- Hang At Arm’s Length
From the pull up bar, try 3 sets of 10s hangs with 30s of rest. Easy? Keep adding 10 more seconds to each hang until you can conquer 3 sets of 60-second hangs with 30s of rest.
- Hang At Arms While Gripping A Towel
Same as above, but one hell of an upgrade! One hand grips each end of a towel while it’s draped over a pull-up bar. The goal here is 3 sets of 10s hangs with 30s rests. Progress by adding 10s to your hang.
During a pull-up, having a solid core is how we “keep it all together”—meaning, an engaged core supports the spine and keeps the legs from adding unnecessary motion during the exercise. So how do we build core strength? Progress through the following exercises:
Lie on your back with your arms above your head. Draw your navel towards your spine and slowly lift your legs a few inches off the floor. Then, lift your arms and head a few inches off the floor without tucking your chin to your chest. Work up to performing 3 sets of 30s holds, with 30s rests. Alternatively, you can go after 3 sets of 12 slow-tempo reps with 30s rests.
- Hanging Leg Raises
If you conquered Hang At Arms Length, try adding a 90º leg lift to the challenge. Perform 3 sets of 6 leg raises with 60s rest. Alternatively, try holding your legs at the top for 10 seconds followed by 60s rest for 3 sets.
Latissimus Dorsi Strength
Although a number of muscle groups benefit from a great pull-up (biceps, triceps, chest, and shoulders), it is the latissimus dorsi, or “lats” that are the target muscles when we step up to pull-up. To build stronger lats for pulling off multiple pull-ups, add the following exercises to your workout routine:
- Seated Lat Pull-downs
Make sure your palms are facing away from you, as they would in a pull-up. Shoot for 3 sets of 8 with the weight set to 75% to 85% of your 1 rep max.
- Inverted Row
My all-time favorite exercise, the inverted row (or horizontal row) works many of the same muscles as the vertical row (aka the pull-up). Train for 3 sets of 8, progress by placing a 10- or even a 25-pound plate on your chest.
- Assisted Pull-Ups
Use either an assisted machine or a spotter for this exercise. Set your assisted weight to a level that allows you to complete at least 3 sets of 6. I advise against using resistance bands, because bands severely limit your ability to build lat and shoulder strength by taking away the isometric portion (the bottom of the pull-up). Not to mention, the force a band provides is inconsistent, as a wobble tends to occur during the concentric lift. If you don’t have access to an assisted machine or a friend to spot you, try the following exercise:
- Negative Pull-Ups
By focusing on the negative portion of a pull-up, you’re removing the upward work of the pull-up. Start by can either jumping up to get above the bar or stand on a box. The point is to have your body at the top of the pull-up bar and then work to slowly lower yourself to full arm extension. That’s a negative pull-up. This eccentric motion is great for muscle building (hypertrophy) and will lead to an overall strength increase. Shoot for 3 sets of 10 second negatives.
Grip, core, and lats are where many of us in general could use more strength and adaptations, so add the above exercises to your daily workout. It could take 4 weeks—or more—of using these exercises to build up being able to do a pull-up, so stick with it. Remember, when it comes to pull-ups, no matter where you start, you can only go up from there.
Will Gill has been part of the TMHQ team since 2016. He’s a Los Angeles-based personal trainer and travels across the U.S. motivating Mudders as the start line emcee. You can also catch him DJing in the new Mudder Village Festival. Follow him on Instagram and get your song requests in before he hits your city.