Better Than Bands - 6 Exercises to Help You (Finally) Do Your First Pull-Up
This article is for you if you want to learn how to build enough strength to perform your first pull-up or if you've been doing band-assisted pull-ups with little to no progress in 6 months to a year.
There is nothing inherently wrong with using a band to assist you with your pull-ups. The challenge is that it isn't doing much to help you improve.
You see, when we use a resistance band for pull-ups, the tension is greatest in full extension at the bottom of the pull-up. This is where you get the most assistance.
This is also where people tend to have the least amount of strength and muscular development. We're a bit stronger at the top of the pull-up than we are at the bottom.
If we're always using a band, then we'll likely never progress or improve the part of our pull-up that needs to most love. That or we’ll rely on momentum or poor mechanics which significantly increases our risk of injury.
Now, I’m a big believer that the best way to get better at something is to do more of that thing. Pull-ups present a unique challenge given their all or nothing nature. Either you can pull yourself up or you can’t.
Fear not! We shall prevail! Let’s instead focus on the movement pattern, not just the movement itself. A pull-up is an upper body pulling movement. Specifically, it’s a vertical pull.
To develop our bodyweight pull-up, we can work on developing strength in other vertical and horizontal pulls. Here are six of my favorite movements to help progress to your first pull-up.
Slow Descent Pull-Up (Vertical Pull)
This is probably the best way to help develop a full pull-up. If the name is any indication, the emphasis is no on the pull-up itself but in slowly descending back to the start position.
How you get yourself to the top of the pull-up is up to you. You can hop up if the bar is low enough or use a box to assist.
From there, get yourself into a chin-above-bar position. Then, go as slow as you can as you begin to lower yourself toward the ground.
At first, it may feel like your arms are completely giving out and you're just dropping toward the ground. See what happens when you only use bands!
But, don't worry. Like everything, you'll get better with time, and in this case, you won't be getting pseudo-better, you'll actually be getting strong.
Resistance Band "Pull-Ups" (Vertical Pull)
Not to be confused with "Band Assisted" pull-ups, this is like doing a lat-pulldown on a pulley machine but with resistance bands.
Like with a band-assisted pull-up, the tension is greatest at the bottom of the movement except for this time all of the tension is being used to help strengthen your back and arms.
Simply throw a resistance band over your pull-up bar, assuming your bar is secured or your using your gym rig, or anchor it as high as you can.
Then, hinge at the hips until the top of your head is aligned with your anchor point. If you're directly under the bar, you can do this sitting or standing.
With your palms forward, pull down on the bands so that your elbows move away from your body. When you get to 90 degrees or just a bit further, squeeze and hold, then return back to starting.
Bent Over Row (Horizontal Pull)
While the pull-up and row are in two different movement planes, a pull-up is a vertical pull whereas a row is a horizontal pull, they both primarily work the same muscle groups albeit in different ways.
Developing your row is a great way to support your pull-up progress.
The key with the bent over row is in the "bent" part, that is, the hinge.
Find a stable position with your feet, either staggered (one in front of the other) or spread a bit wider than shoulder width. I recommend the former if you're starting out.
With a little bend in your knees, hinge at the hips, so your knees don't go up or down, but your upper body starts to move toward the ground in front of you.
Try to get your body as parallel to the ground as you can.
You can also do this from a flat bench as well, too by placing the same knee and hand on the bench leaving the other arm free to do the movement. However, know that you'll get much more full-body work in using your body as support over a bench.
Once in position, your arm or arms will start fully extended.
Then, pretend you're in a shootout in the Wild West, and you're reaching for your trusty revolver. This will make sure you're pulling your hand straight back instead of up toward your shoulder. Ideally, the weight should end right around your midsection. If your hand is aligned with your hip, it is likely too low, but most of us end too high.
Renegade Row (Horizontal Pull)
Similar to the Bent Over Row above but this time with much more core engagement.
Instead of hinging at the hips, you'll be in a high plank position. Your arms will be fully extended, but instead of on the palms of your hands, you'll be gripping dumbbells.
Starting in that plank position with your feet about shoulder width for balance, brace your core by squeezing your abs and your glutes. Then pull one elbow directly back until your hand is about in line with your torso. Be sure your elbow goes straight back and not out to the side.
Once you return the first arm to the ground, repeat on the other side. You can either complete reps on one arm before moving to the other or alternating arms each rep.
Assisted Pull-Ups (Vertical Pull)
I like box/platform assisted pull-ups more than band-assisted pull-ups because you have much more control over how much assistance you use.
Yes, this will require some self-discipline since it's very easy to use more assistance from your legs than you really need. But when done correctly, this is one of the best ways to build up to a full pull-up by practicing the actual movement.
Inverted Row (Horizontal Pull)
The inverted row is another horizontal pulling movement that helps you build strength in the back and arm muscles needed for a full pull-up. This movement is one of my favorites because you're able to use your body weight to adjust the intensity quickly. Simply adjust your angle - the more vertical you are, the less of your body weight you engage and the more horizontal you are, the more of your body weight you engage and the more challenging this movement becomes.
These six movements will help move you to pull-up domination. Don't let this discourage you from doing band-assisted pull-ups. These have their place. Just be sure to integrate at least two or more of these into your training, preferably one vertical pulling movement and one horizontal pulling movement. Two to four sets of eight to twelve reps should be about what you need!