Perfecting the Pull-up

by Stew Smith

I received this request from a young Marine seeking to better her PFT scores:

"I am a female in the Marine Corps and would like to know how I can not only better my flexed arm hang, but be able to perform pull-ups too."

The pull-up is one of the most challenging exercises. If you are 10 to 20 pounds overweight, it can seriously affect your ability to do any pull-ups. But there is good news: I have several clients of both genders and all ages who, with just a few months of training, have gone from not being able to do a single pull-up to doing 10 perfect dead hang pull-ups!

The common denominator between men and women who can do pull-ups is that they practice them regularly. The best way to train to increase the number of pull-ups you can do is simply to do pull-ups until you are exhausted every other day. If you want to get started doing pull-ups or work your way up to doing more, here are some methods to try:

Assisted Pull-up

This is a pull-up I learned at Army Airborne School, where they had a lower bar about 4 feet from the ground for soldiers who couldn't do a pull-up. Soldiers sit on the ground, extend their arms to the bar and pull their chin over the bar leaving their feet on the ground. This method reduces the weight being pulled up by 40 to 50 percent. It's tougher than it sounds, but it can be your first step to doing a real pull-up. You can also do this with a pullup / dip bar machine using the dip bars as your assisted pullup bars.

Lat Pull-downs

This exercise is basically the same as a pullup except it is done with a machine that you can find in most weight rooms. Simply sit under a hanging bar attached to a stack of weights and pull the bar just below your chin. It is best to choose a weight that is roughly 40 to 50 percent of your body weight. Do as many repetitions as you can for at least three sets.

Negative Pull-ups

This is the last step in accomplishing your first pull-up -- or doubling your present maximum. It is also the way to build your endurance for the FLEXED ARM HANG. Hold your self in the flexed arm hang position for 10 seconds, then you must fight gravity and slowly lower yourself down to the count of five seconds.

Biceps Curl

Get two dumbbells weighing 10 to 30 pounds. Keeping your elbows stationary and your palms facing away from you, bend your elbows so your hands move from your hips to your shoulders. Repeat for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Bent Over Rows

This dumbbell routine will help develop your biceps and your upper back muscles required for performing pull-ups. Repeat for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Only do pull-ups a maximum of three times a week - not every day. Every other day is recommended. This will help you rest your back and arm muscles properly and prevent over-training.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Military.com Fitness eBook store and the Stew Smith article archive at Military.com. To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at stew@stewsmith.com.


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