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Pull Ups . . . Help!!

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How to Pull Off a Pull-Up

When I started my first round of P90 X over 2 years ago, guess how many pull ups I could do? . . . ZERO.  For whatever reason pull ups have always been difficult for me.  When I used to go to the gym, I would see guys who weighed much more than me doing endless reps of pull ups.  How?  Needless to say it was very frustrating.   What I didn’t know then was that with a little assistance and practice, I could complete a pull-up and more.

During my first round of P90 X I used a chair for assistance, not only that I used the seat instead of the back!!  How pathetic is that?  But as the weeks progressed I was able to turn the chair around and use the back for assistance.  A few rounds into P9o X and I was able to perform half of my reps with a chair and half without.  Fast forward 2 1/2 years and now all of my pull ups are done without assistance.  How did I do it?  I modified and I didn’t quit.  I pushed play everyday and eventually I was able to overcome the PULL-UP BAR!!

That’s what this post is about, giving you some tips that help get you over that obstacle and continue to improve your health and fitness.

Chin-up vs. pull-up.

The difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is the grip of the hands.  Pull-ups are done with palms facing away from you; chin-ups are done with palms toward you, or sometimes facing one another.(These tend to be the easiest, at least for me)  Either is effective in training the muscles of the upper back, and most people use a variety of grips to target them from different angles.  It’s a bit of a myth that chin-ups and pull-ups actually work different muscles. They may, in fact, target different muscle fibers, but if you’re pulling yourself up, you’ve engaged your upper back, lats, and shoulders.  So whichever grip feels the most comfortable for you is a great way to begin.

How to do it.

If you’re able to reach the bar while still standing, grip the bar a shoulder length apart, fully extending your arms.  Keep your torso as straight as possible and bend your knees back so your feet are behind you and off of the ground.  Inhale as you initiate a pulling motion that should continue until your chin clears the bar.  Make sure you pull with your lats as you begin to move up.  You’ll end up leaning back a bit as your torso ascends to the top position.  Exhale as you begin your descent, bringing your torso straight under you and extending your arms fully at the bottom position. Go slowly, and control your descent to stimulate your chest and triceps muscles.

The gear.

Finding a strong and safe bar is step number one.  Beachbody’s P90X® Chin-Up Bar offers a variety of grips and can be placed over the top of a door frame, which is the appropriate height for the type of pull-ups you’re attempting.  This chin-up bar holds up to 300 pounds and has foam grips that make it more comfortable to grasp.

A little help here, please?

At this point, you may be saying, “I couldn’t do a pull-up when I was 11 and weighed 78 pounds. How am I supposed to do it now?”  The answer: progression. You have to build up to it.

Your first order of business should be strengthening your back muscles.  Any pulling movement will engage these muscles, and P90X has an entire series of exercises using B-LINES® resistance bands that will help this process along.  Consider a lateral row, a lat pull-down, an overhead pull, or a straight-arm press-down in your training schedule.  I now use resistance bands to add variety to my workouts, but early on I used them for pull up movements using a door attachment that came with the bands.  It allowed me to perform similar movements without having to do a single pull up.  Once you have developed a bit of strength, you can move on to the next step.

An assisted pull-up is your next stop on the journey.  There are a few ways to do this.  As I said earlier I used a chair that was placed in front of me.  This is a favorite of Tony Horton.  In the beginning I put my feet in the seat to help assist me.  As I progressed and got stronger I was able to turn the chair around and use the back of the seat.  The farther the chair is from you the more resistance you will feel.  I suggest starting with the chair close and then moving it farther away as you get stronger.  

You can also get a friend to spot you.  Having someone hold your feet and help you lift yourself can make all the difference in the world.  If that’s too much help, cross one foot over the other and have the spotter only support one ankle.  If it’s not enough, the spotter could support you from your waist and help you rise up to the bar.


Should pull-ups become as simple as brushing your teeth, adding weight to the process can help make them more challenging.  You can hold a dumbbell between your feet (ankles) or wear one of the special weight belts created specifically for pull-ups.  You can also wear a weighted vest to create more resistance in most exercises.  

A final pull-up exercise is the negative pull-up, which should really be called the “descent-only pull-up,” since it’s not particularly depressing or cynical.  The idea is to have an assistant, either human or a chair, help you with the upward-pull portion of the exercise, then to control the downward portion on your own. This is great for those building up to being able to do the complete pull-up, and also for those looking to work to muscle failure by doing many different exercises for the same muscle group in a given session. Note that the negative pull-up works more of the stabilizing muscles, as opposed to the primary ones we have been focusing on so far.

Begin the journey

Accomplishing something like a pull-up can be a bit daunting, even for the strongest among us.  But with effort and a lot of determination, you can take the steps we’ve discussed and master an exercise you’ve been struggling with for a long time.  The key is to stick with it, modify if you have to and the results will follow.


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