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!

New Favorite Mini-Work Out

This week, I finally got my act together and tried out band assisted pull-ups.


(this cannot be understated. I have run around telling all my friends)

Unlike negatives, band-assisted pull-ups don’t make me feel like I’m too weak to do ‘the real thing.’  Second, unlike variations with the feet elevated, they are pretty easy to set-up in the large college weight room where I do most of my lifting. Third, they don’t make me feel like a doofus. Most of the time when I’m in the weight room, I’m the only girl there. Half the time, I’m the only one using the squat rack (for squats), and I’m one of two people I’ve ever seen do deadlifts. I try not to look any more out of place in the weight room than I already feel. When I start training somewhere I feel more comfortable, or at times of day when there’s no one around, I’d be really tempted to check out these progressions. For now though, band-assisted pull-ups are more than enough to keep me happy until I can manage one of the real thing.

I was looking for a CC image of a chick doing pull-ups, and ended up with this gal. A cursory stalk of her flickr pictures suggests she's pretty badass.

Finally, and most importantly, because they require very little equipment, I can do band assisted pull-ups any time I want!  I borrow an iron gym type thing from my friend across the hall, pop my band on there, and hop to. I combine it with hanging ab exercises for a nice, short, climber-specific work outs which I can use to start the morning or break up a long evening of work.

The Exercises:

  • Band Assisted (or regular) Pull-Ups
  • Hanging straight leg raises
  • Hanging bent leg raises

I do as many as I can manage of each exercise for each set. With the band-assisted pull-ups, my current max is 2,  but I can almost always do 1 with adequate rest in between sets. I start with the pull-ups, then do a set of the straight leg abs. More pull ups, then a set of the bent leg abs. I repeat this until I’ve done three sets of each type of abs, then grin at myself in the mirror like an idiot. Try it out!