A fitness trainer and sports doctor explains how to safely train for an unassisted pull-up in as little as four weeks, with top tips and training exercises.
The festive season is officially winding down, and we’re already a good few days into the first month of 2021. Unfortunately, while the cold, dark month of January isn’t a particularly popular one at the best of times, with the ongoing coronavirus crisis it looks as though this year’s is going to be that bit more difficult to get through.
Unassisted pull-ups are an ideal exercise to try your hand at in these tough times, because not only do they require you to push yourself, they will also help you to strengthen the muscles that so often become tight while working from home.
“The pull-up is one of the most challenging but effective bodyweight exercises,” says fitness trainer and doctor Folusha Oluwajana, “and they engage many different muscles, giving you a lot of bang for your buck.”
While they mostly target “the large muscle of the back, the latissimus dorsi,” pull-ups also involve many other muscles “including the biceps, rhomboids, pecs, deltoids, plus other smaller muscles.” As a result, “they are a great way of training your whole upper body with just one exercise.”
As Folusha goes on to explain, since “pull-ups help build the strength in the back, shoulders and arms,” they can do great things for your posture, “as well as improving your grip strength.” And, if you ever wanted to mix things up a bit, “you can also use different variations to alter the emphasis on different muscles, for example by changing your grip position.”
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Because they really can be quite challenging for most people, “learning how to do pull-ups is very rewarding,” Folusha continues. “Seeing yourself progress and get stronger and more confident will make you feel great!”
Plus, in spite of their difficulty they are also really time efficient and accessible, since “minimal equipment is needed as you only need a bar, and no setting up is required.”
How many weeks does it take to train to do an unassisted pull-up?
There is no hard and fast rule for how quickly you should be progressing towards an unassisted pull-up, because “this will vary from person to person,” explains Folusha. “Several factors can affect this, such as pre-existing upper body strength, grip strength, your total body weight or how frequently you can train and recover.”
But, depending on the individual and how often you train for it, “achieving your first unassisted pull-up could take anything from approximately four to 12 weeks.”
According to Folusha, one of the most important things to remember is that you need to be consistent. “It may be tough, but don’t be discouraged and put off training for a few weeks,” because all you’re likely to do then is lose any progress you’ve managed to make.
“Start by incorporating your pull-up practice into your training routine two to three times a week,” says Folusha, and do them at the start of your workout “before you get a chance to skip them.”
Exercises to help you train to do an unassisted pull-up
Your training regime should incorporate exercises that mimic the movements and work the same muscles as pull-ups do. Here, Folusha outlines four of the best that will help you on your way to doing pull-ups unassisted.
Inverted bodyweight rows
“Inverted bodyweight rows are a really good precursor to pull-ups,” says Folusha, because “they use the same muscles and require you to lift (almost) your own bodyweight. She goes on to explain that “you can use a bar in a squat rack, TRX or gymnastic rings,” and be sure to “start with your body at a more vertical angle initially, and as you get stronger move into a more challenging horizontal position.”
To help prepare your grip and shoulder strength for an unassisted pull-up, try dead hangs, which basically require you to hold your body bodyweight on a pull-up bar without actually pulling yourself up. “They help you learn how to engage your back muscles and retract your scapulae in order to initiate a pull-up.”
Assisted pull-ups with a resistance band
Before doing any pull-ups unassisted, try doing them using a “long resistance band to support your weight.” Then, “as you get stronger, use a lighter band for less support.”
Negative (or eccentric) pull-ups
“Eccentric training is a great way to build up strength in any exercise,” says Folusha. “Start at the top of the pull-up, with your chin above the bar and your arms bent,” using a stool or partner to help you. “Then, lower yourself down slowly until your arms are fully extended.”
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