Ah, the pull-up. If you’ve been weight training for a while, I’d be willing to bet that at one point or another one of your goals has been to get good at pull-ups. And it should be — nailing a pull-up is a great thing to have on your gym CV.
Simple as they are, there’s no doubt they can be one of the toughest exercises to nail, especially if you’re newer to upper body training. That first pull-up won’t happen overnight.
But I have some great news for you. There are other exercises you can add to your upper body sessions that will help you achieve faster pull-ups or build your strength to get even more reps.
“What are the exercises then?” I hear you say. Well, trainer Em Donkers, AKA @nrgfitness, has compiled seven of the best exercises to incorporate into your routine to build that pull-up.
So let’s get into it.
1. Lat pull-down – 10-12 reps, 3-4 sets
A classic. If this isn’t already in your pull-day, what are you doing? It can be performed on a cable with a multi-grip attachment.
- Sit on the lat pull-down machine, adjusting the knee pad so that your feet are flat on the floor and you are tightly seated
- Push your chest upward and out, and retract your scapula
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip and pull it down, tucking your elbows in towards your sides
- Slowly return the bar to the starting position before taking your next rep
2. Bent over row – 10-12 reps, 3-4 sets
This one can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells, and with an over or underhand grip. Em uses two dumbbells and overhand grip.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Grip your barbell or dumbbells with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, palms facing the floor
- Pull the weight in towards your core to contract, and return to the starting position for your next rep
3. Scapular squeeze – 12 reps, 3 sets
This one does exactly what it says on the tin. But it’s an upper body exercise you might not have heard too much about. Use the cable machine for this exercise, and start with little to no weight if it’s your first time. Em performed this one kneeling but you can do this standing up too.
- Kneel with your back up straight and shoulders back
- Grab each cable with your hands, palms facing inward
- Pull your shoulder blades back and in, contracting your scapulars together
- Return to your starting position for the next rep
4. TRX Row – 12-15 reps, 3 sets
This one uses just body weight, but will definitely get your back working. Want to make this exercise even more difficult? The further forward you set your feet, the tougher it will be.
- Adjust your TRX ropes so that the handles are at chest height
- Set your feet hip-width apart and grip the handles with your palms facing towards each other
- Lean yourself back until your arms are straight and fully extended
- Pull yourself in using the handles, keeping your elbows tucked in
- Lower yourself back down for your next rep
5. Single arm lat pull-down – 10-12 reps, 3 sets
Lat pull-down, but isolate each arm. This is a great exercise to even out any imbalances, making that pull-up much more manageable for both sides. Use the handle attachment on your cable machine for this one.
- Lower your right knee to the floor, keeping your left foot flat so you’re kneeling down
- Grab the handle with your right hand, palm facing inwards and your core tight
- Put your left hand on your left hip for stability
- Make sure your arm is fully extended, your shoulders are back, and your chest is pushing out
- Lean back slightly and look straight ahead
- Pull the handle towards your chest and keep your elbow tucked
- Return to the starting position for your next rep
6. TRX Lift off – 10-12 reps, 3 sets
Another TRX exercise that’s great for back and bicep strength. 3,2,1, lift off.
- Sit down below your TRX ropes with your handles at about chin height and your feet flat on the floor in front of you
- Grab the handles with your palms facing slightly inwards
- Pull yourself up and off the ground so that the TRX handles come to your chest, keeping your elbows tucked in
- Lower yourself back down, and start your next rep
7. Single arm row – 10-12 reps, 3-4 sets
This is another great exercise to help fix any imbalances. Em does this one while standing, however you can also use a bench for support.
- Holding your dumbbell in your left hand, stand with your feet hip-width apart
- Take one big step back with your left foot so that you are in a lunge position
- Make sure your back leg is straight and your front leg is bent, keeping your knee in line with your ankle
- Lean forward slightly so you’re looking at the floor, rest your right hand on your right thigh for stability
- Lower your dumbbell to the floor until your arm is fully extended
- Pull the dumbbell towards your chest, keeping your elbow tucked into your body
- Lower the dumbbell back down for your next rep
Take home message
With Em’s help, you’ll improve your pull-ups in no time at all. Focus on building overall upper-body strength, evening out any imbalances, and build that strength up gradually. Oh, and make sure you’re fulled properly. Psst … Em uses THE Pre-workout in Mango & Pineapple to fuel their sessions.