Pull-ups Aren’t Intimidating (Anymore)

Since I started climbing, my yearly new year’s resolution has been to do an unassisted pull-up. Sadly, it took me 3 years to make my resolution a reality. Here are 3 mistakes I made in my training which, when corrected, allowed me to complete my goal of doing a for-real unassisted pull-up!

Mistake #1: Non-Specific Training

For the first two years, I was using climbing as my main source of upper-body training. I reasoned that since I was making progress in my climbing by climbing harder, I was getting stronger. In fact, most of my gains during this time were probably coming from learning technique.

Moral #1: Climbing is only good training for climbing. If you have a specific fitness goal, add some training specific to that goal.

The Goal!

Mistake #2: All or Nothing

When I set the goal of doing a pull-up, I didn’t know about the fitness concept of progressions. It didn’t occur to me to research easier exercises which worked the same muscles I would need to be able to do a pull-up. I would try pull-ups sometimes, always with the same embarrassing failure to pull my body up even a little bit. This was disheartening, and it didn’t get me any closer to my goal.

My (successful) progression of intermediate exercises went like this:

Eccentric Only Lowering -> Flexed Arm Hangs -> Band-Assisted Pull-Ups -> Awesome!

Okay, maybe not that last one. For a really great description of technique and options for intermediate exercises and for a thorough debunking of all your excuses for not being able to do a pull-up, check out Tony Gentilcore’s 3 part opus on the subject of pull-up progressions.

Moral #2: Don’t expect to magically wake up and do a pull-up. Find a progression you like and start following it. 

Mistake #3: Once-a-day Workouts

When I started eccentric only pull-ups, my max was about 3 in a set, and I could usually only do 2-3 sets. You can get in a lot more training volume if you train multiple times a day, while still allowing your body to recover. A friend of mine had an over-the-door frame pull-up bar, so I borrowed his for a while and started doing my intermediate exercises in the morning and at night. Tony explains this better than I can in his post, but I’ll give it a shot. Basically–since a pull-up is max effort when you can almost or barely do one, sometimes you can’t do enough in one training session to get better as fast as you want. Doubling up lets you recover to do more volume.

Moral #3: Train more than once a day for faster results .

And that’s it! Before you know it, you’ll be banging out more reps than I can. It won’t be too hard–I’ve been on the road all summer and haven’t been training, so my max is still stuck right at 1 rep.

Climber ladies–can you do a pull-up? How many? Spray about your buff biceps in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Pull-ups Aren’t Intimidating (Anymore)

  1. Congrats on your progress, girl! It’s so satisfying to work towards a fitness goal. Can’t wait to hear more updates about it.

    That said, I am some kind of freak who can manage three, sometimes four reps on a good day. I was lucky enough to do gymnastics as a kid and have really strong “big” muscle groups. In a great twist of irony, though, my scaps and lower traps are weak which as created a whole slew of back and shoulder issues. Unfortunately, those exercises are way less fun than pull-ups!

  2. Congrats on setting a goal and working towards it – keep it up!!!

    As for me, I could do around 2 sets of 5 pull-ups before I broke my ankle back in February. I was in a boot for 6 weeks, and during that time I went on a hangboard spree and was able to work up to 50 pull-ups per session, usually 2-3 sessions per week. It usually rounded out to about 5 sets of 10. I found it really helped out with lock-off strength and climbing steep terrain!

  3. I’ve completed one pull up in my life and it was while I was training for climbing. I am sure I will have to start from scratch again, but how I did it was with one of those door frame pull up bars. I had a one-room apt, so every time I had to go in or out of my room, I made myself do a half-hang from the bar. After a couple of weeks, I was strong enough to hold myself up at the high position and then a few days later, I could do a pull-up!

    You have no idea how that simple thing made me feel. :)

    • The first time I did a strict, unassisted pull-up, I wanted to shout to the whole gym, “Did you see that?!?” I had forgotten the band, and tried to do a real one just for fun. The gym was full of v. serious bicep-curling bros who probably would not have appreciated the distraction. :P

      I still do band-assisted sets quite frequently, as I can do more per set that way! I highly recommend the negatives -> bands -> pull-ups progression. It gives you a lot of training options, even when you’re over the one rep hump.

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