One of the main rules when it comes to strength is that if you can’t perform one (or all) of the basic movements (push,pull, squat, bend) to perfection then you should not be doing supplementary lifts such as bicep curls, tricep presses or hamstring curls (I hope to never see any of you using the hamstring curl machine or so help me….).  Very simply, if you can’t do a pushup to perfection then you have no right lying on a bench trying to press a weight.  If you can’t squat then you should not be using the leg extension machine.  And the one I see the most often is pullups.  Well, actually I see it least often because people just don’t do them (most women) and the rest don’t do them right (most men).

In my opinion, if you are unable to do a single pullup there is no reason you should be over on the lat pulldown machine racking the weight.  Or even doing a biceps curl exercise for that matter.  Be honest, how many of you have biceps curls in your weekly repatoire and have never even attempted a pullup.  Thought so.

Hands down, pullups are one of the best upper body strength exercises but unfortunately they are hard as hell to do as I’m sure many of you realize.  This exercise not only works your lats (that muscle on your back that you may or may not feel under your armpits after an intense workout) but hits your core and arms pretty hard as well.  But just like any other exercise that may be difficult to master, there are progressions.  I have been working with many of my clients and my groups on perfecting band-assisted pullups.

  1. Take one of the super-bands and loop around the pullup bar on the cable machine.
  2. Standing on a plyo-box or step stool, place the bottom of the band around the middle of your foot.  A partner or spotter may come in handy until you are comfortable doing this on your own.
  3. Lower yourself into the hanging or bottom position and straighten out your opposite leg.
  4. Pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar in a controlled manner then lower and repeat for as many reps as you are completing.

If that made no sense then here is a video that will demonstrate: band-assisted pull-ups.

Another variation that I recommend before even thinking about using the pulldown machine would be to use negatives.  This is where you jump to reach the top position and slowly lower yourself down the the bottom position using a 5 count.  This will help strengthen your lats eccentrically until you are able to perform pullups with a band or on your own.

A good routine to follow at first would be to “grease the groove” by doing at least one pullup every time you are in the gym.  This will teach your body to recognize the pattern neurologically as well as build up a little strength in the process.

You could also do multiple sets of low reps such as beginning with 10 sets of 1 pullup and increasing each set by one additional pullup each week.

  • week 1: 10 sets of 1 pullup
  • week 2: 10 sets of 2 pullups
  • week 3: 10 sets of 3 pullups
  • week 4: 10 sets of 4 pullups
  • week 5: 10 sets of 5 pullups

If you can perform more than 5 sets of 10 pullups with the band then move the band from your foot to your knee or use a lighter band for less resistance.  We only have so many bands so the next progression is to get rid of the band all together and start doing real pullups.  Badass.


Written by Steve