One of my earliest childhood memories was the first time I saw a woman do a pullup and it completely blew my mind! That early female inspiration was “Sarah Connor” or Linda Hamilton in the movie, Terminator 2. I’m sure most of us remember that famous scene where she is doing pullups in her prison cell. I knew from the moment I watched her rep out in that movie, that I was going to learn to do a pullup one day. Flash forward to almost 20 years later, and I finally achieved that goal as an adult. It took a lot of discipline and not only did it make me enthusiastic about my own training, but it also inspired me to begin pursuing a career as a personal trainer. I wanted to coach other women to get their first pullup, too!
What I love so much about doing pullups is the attention it brings me when I’m at the gym repping out. After all, it’s rare to see women doing pullups and it definitely turns heads! Another great thing about learning to do pullups was how much it has changed my body composition. Pullups helped develop my lats which gave me that awesome hourglass figure I always desired. They also strengthen your hands, arms, and even abs!
Pullups also keep you honest about your weight. The amount of reps I can do is usually contingent upon whether I’ve gained or lost weight without ever having to step on a scale. I know a lot of women can feel intimidated about pursuing this goal, as I once was. Don’t worry, I have several different progressions that with practice will help you get your first rep.
If you’re going to get your first pullup, you have to learn how to hang properly from a bar. You’d be surprised how difficult this can be for your hands, grip, and the smaller muscles of your arms to support your entire body weight. Find an overhead bar, grasp it with an overhand grip, and hang. You will notice at first that there is a tendency for your shoulders to shrug up towards your ears. When you’re learning to hang, you should also learn how to pack your shoulders from this position. This teaches you how to engage your lats, the bigger muscles of your back, to help you pullup when the time comes for your first rep.
To perform a “packed” hang, you need to squeeze the bar tightly and think about “bending it in half.” The bar won’t move, but your body will tense and allow you to actively pull
your shoulders away from your ears. You can practice packing and unpacking your shoulders for several reps.
Dead Hang for 3 rounds of 10-30 seconds
Shoulder Shrugs 5-10 reps
Once you’re comfortable hanging from the bar and performing shoulder shrugs with ease, your next step is to try a flex hang. Find a bar around eyelevel and place your hands on the bar. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart in an underhand grip, with your fingers facing you. If you don’t have a low bar, you can always use an overhead bar and a step or box to assist you. The idea is to jump high enough to get your chin over the bar, as you drive your elbows down into your sides and hold this position. Think about squeezing the bar tightly and tensing your abs and glutes to help you hang longer.
Flex Hang 2-3 sets of 10-30 second holds
Australian Pullup (Bodyweight Row)
The great thing about progressive bodyweight training is it teaches you how to manipulate the leverage of your body in order to make an advanced exercise, in this case a pullup more manageable. The Australian pullup, also known as a bodyweight row, is a great way to develop pulling strength on your journey to the full pullup. It is known as an Aussie, because you need to get “down under” the bar with your body in a horizontal plane. This will make the leverage of your body more favorable for you to practice pulling your body towards the bar by also using your feet for support. For this exercise, you need to find a bar around hip height and get down under it. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and lay back as you extend your arms and legs. Your body should be in a straight line and your feet together. Tense your abdominals, squeeze your glutes and pull your chest towards the bar. If this variation is too difficult, you can bend your knees, further “shortening” the length of your body and allowing you to push off your feet during each rep.
Bodyweight Row do 3 sets of 10 reps
Practicing partial range of motion pullups are great to add to your routine once you can do the previous steps with ease. For this exercise you will need an overhand bar and a box or step directly beneath it. I would recommend using an underhand grip to grab the bar, like you did in the flex hang. Jump for the first part of the rep, and then attempt to pull yourself up the rest of the way. Once you get over the bar, you can practice the eccentric, or lowering phase of the exercise where you lower back down as slowly as possible.
Partials/Negatives do as many as you can in one set, rest for 25 minutes and repeat
When I train a client to get their first pullup, I usually coach them into learning the chinup first. The chinup involves more bicep recruitment which is easier to develop than the lat strength required for a full overhand pullup. It’s more natural to use the muscles in our frontal plane more often than the ones in our posterior chain when we are first learning this exercise. However, a chinup should not be dismissed as a less advanced exercise, just another step towards the mighty pullup and just as powerful.
I approached my chinup training as a 1RM in weightlifting usually doing 35 sets of 1 rep to failure with long rests in between. Eventually, 1 rep will turn into sets of 2, 3… and so on.