Strength is for everyone, but it’s especially for women. Ask a Swole Woman is a column for people who are tired of trying to always be less, eat less, do less, and make it look perfect and effort-free. Have a question for me about strength training or anything related? If you’re ready to give your body what it needs, to test your grit, and become more than you ever have been, email AASW@self.com.
I have been weight lifting for the last two years. I'm pleased with the progress I've made on my lifts, but I'm getting really frustrated because one of my fitness goals is to be able to do a pull-up or chin-up. I cannot yet do this, and don't feel like I'm significantly closer to this goal than I was when I started this journey. Can you recommend lifts or movements to help me reach this goal? And can you give me your honest opinion as to whether or not this is even worth it? Is a pull-up a good movement in a lifting program, and does it matter if I do a pull-up or chin-up?
I see people asking about pull-ups a lot, not least because pull-ups are an absolutely sick thing to do. Few things look cooler than a pull-up, and I was about to describe what it looks like but I trust your imagination and also there is nothing I could say that would make it sound even remotely as badass as we all know it is.
While pull-ups are badass, they are also somewhat tricky. That is not to say they are impossible, so you should not believe articles that claim, for instance, women just can’t do pull-ups, even with training (that may not have focused on or used the most appropriate protocols for strength, which we’ll get to shortly). This is not my experience, nor is it the experience of many women I know who can, in fact, do pull-ups. It is almost as if the world is stacked against women, and it’s hard to succeed because no one cares very much about us, but I extremely digress.
I am tall with long arms, and it took me a little over a year to get strong enough to do a single pull-up. I also didn’t train the right way for most of that time, so your mileage may vary, especially if you have a slightly more naturally-efficient-for-pull-ups build (people with shorter arms and smaller builds tend to be able to learn to do a pull-up more easily). But just know you might be in it for the few-month haul, at the very least. We wouldn’t all respect pull-ups so much if they weren’t at least a little difficult! The nice thing about pull-ups as a goal, though, is they are a concrete result to shoot for, but also one that will teach you lots of good habits along the way, if you let it.
So on that note, to begin with: Increasing how strong you are is a lifestyle endeavor. Unfortunately, learning specific skills and movements isn’t just a matter of showing up to the gym and spending enough time there. You have to train (somewhat) smart, and you have to take care of yourself. By take care of yourself, I mean you need to eat, and you need to sleep and rest. You're probably not going to get your pull-up by training to exhaustion every single day, and you very likely can’t get it by not eating enough. Muscles are not made of nothing, and are not fueled by nothing. They need you to give them enough food and protein so they can get stronger, so be nice to them. The time your muscles are resting after you use them in the gym is when they are actually rebuilding and getting stronger, so it’s important to have days off from heavy lifting and get good sleep.
Back to the training: A proper pull-up requires upper back strength, as well as arm strength. It is a pulling motion, so anything you can do that involves pulling (any kind of row) or maintaining tension in your upper back (conventional deadlifts, for instance) will help. But pull-ups are also more of a full-body movement than you might realize: You need your core to stabilize you so your body doesn’t swing around, for instance. Fortunately for the pull-up aspirant, full-body strength training will train all the muscles you need together, and maybe more importantly, train them to work together.
The thing that may help you the most is doing modified versions of real pull-ups. A good pull-up program will give you what lifters refer to as “volume.” Volume is a tricky concept to explain, but the gist is, doing a lot more work (or reps) of a movement at a lower intensity will train you to eventually be able to do higher-intensity versions of that movement. This applies for all movements: Doing squats for sets of 10 at a relatively lighter weight will help me do sets of five at a heavier weight, which will help me do a single squat at a much heavier weight. Likewise, it’s harder for me to get better at pull-ups if I can do only one or no pull-ups. If there is something I can do that is like a pull-up, but slightly less hard, that I can do more reps of, I should train that movement because doing so allows me to get better at pull-ups without actually having to do something as hard as pull-ups. In other words, doing some kind of assisted pull-up—and lots of them—will go a long way to helping you eventually get strict, unassisted pull-ups.
But not any kind of assistance will do. I spent months on an assisted pull-up machine to no avail, because it didn’t teach me to engage my body the right way, and it let me use my arms too much and my back too little, so even though I was probably getting better at using that specific machine, I wasn’t really working the muscles I needed to be working to get a pull-up. There were two training methods that worked best for me when I was training to get a pull-up. The first was using super-bands (giant rubber bands) looped around my feet on one end and to the pull-up bar on the other. With this setup, the band will bear some of my weight while still allowing a full range of motion, which let me do more pull-ups at a time. I also trained with “negatives,” which involve jumping to the top of a pull-up and slowly lowering myself down, with the goal of lowering myself more slowly as time goes on. For instance, if I could only do a 10-second negative once, I might do three sets of four five-second negatives. And then I was done! And I could carry on with my life. Pull-up training doesn’t have to be wildly intense; even if you can’t do any of these, just hanging from a bar will help you build your grip strength and learn to activate some muscles. Just building on what I already have slowly and sustainably allowed me to get where I am today, where I can do probably five whole pull-ups at a stretch, if I am allowed to cheat and kick my legs very much on the last one.
As far as whether it matters whether you do a pull-up or chin-up, it’s really up to you. Pull-ups rely heavily on your lats (which, particularly for newer lifters, are tough to learn just how to engage), where chin-ups engage your biceps more as well as your back. If you want to learn how to really “turn on” your lats (which is important for lots of lifts) and gain more full-body strength and control (trust me, you do), you should do pull-ups. If you want to train your arms more, try chin-ups.
TL;DR: Make sure you’re doing a good full-body strength program (something like Greyskull LP, StrongLifts, or New Rules of Lifting for Women) and that part of your routine includes rows, band-assisted pull-ups, and negatives. If you’re worried you’re not making progress, a coach or trainer can help evaluate your form.
Casey Johnston is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: @caseyjohnston.