The pull-up is one of the oldest exercises in the book, so struggling with it (and all the workouts that call for it) can be seriously frustrating. But you're not alone: "It's very common, for both guys and girls, to not be able to do a pull-up," says Spartan Race Series coach Jesse Blackwell. "They're a very demanding exercise that work a large number of muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms at the same time."
Which is why the key to knocking out a few sets is to target those individual muscles with gradually increasing resistance over several weeks—and, in the meantime, modifying workouts that call for pull-ups, so you can still get the benefits even if you can’t yet execute the full move.
Here are some of Blackwell's favorite ways to prep for pull-ups. Do these moves three times a week and in about six weeks, give the real thing a try. Everyone progresses at a different pace, Blackwell says (and women have an inherently more difficult time doing pull-ups than men, thanks to physiological differences in muscle mass and body-fat distribution), but we bet your chances of success will greatly improve.
Weeks 1 – 3
Isometric chin-up holds: Jump up into position (using a box or chair if needed) and hold your chin above the bar for as long as you can, up to 20 seconds. Repeat three times. Using a "chin-up" grip (underhand, with palms facing toward you) is generally easier than an overhand, palms-out "pull-up" grip, Blackwell says, and puts less strain on the shoulder joint.
TRX rows: Using a TRX suspension trainer, hold both handles and lean backward so your body is in a straight line, weight supported by the bands. Walk your feet forward a few steps to angle your body more horizontally and make the move more difficult. Pull yourself up by bending elbows and keeping arms by your side, chest up. Lower slowly. Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps; if 8 reps isn't a struggle, lower your body even more.
Lat pull-downs: Using a cable machine at the gym, sit on the weight bench and reach up to grab the cable bar overhand. Pull the bar to your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades down and back. Hold for 1 count and release slowly. Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps, choosing a resistance that makes it difficult to complete each set. To do this move at home, loop a resistance band around a chin-up bar or overhead attachment. Sit underneath it, pulling down on the band evenly with both hands.
Weeks 4 – 6
Eccentric chin-ups: These are similar to isometric chin-up holds, but instead of holding your chin in place above the bar, slowly lower your body for 6 seconds, until arms are fully extended. Use a box or chair to jump back up to start. Do 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps with a 6 second controlled lowering.
Lat pull-downs: Continue doing lat pull-downs as in previous weeks, but increase the resistance provided by the machine or band so that it's difficult to complete even shorter sets. Do 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps.
Band-assisted chin-ups: Attach a looped resistance band around a pull-up bar and place either your feet or knees under the band. This should allow you to do pull-ups (or chin-ups) with greater ease; aim for 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps. If 6 reps isn't a struggle, use a skinnier or lighter-resistance band until you no longer need one at all.
Aim for Quality, Not Quantity
When adding these exercises to your existing routine, do them first—before other upper-body moves that work smaller muscles groups (like curls or dips), which can fatigue your arms and make progress more difficult.
"And remember that your initial goal is to do just one pull-up," says Blackwell, "so it will benefit you to avoid high reps with light weights, and save your energy for shorter exercises with heavier loads." (Once you can do one, sticking with this routine and slowly increasing your weight and reps will help you up your count.)
One final thing to keep in mind: Shedding excess pounds will help too. "Getting strong is key," says Blackwell, "but if you are also 5 to 15 pounds lighter in six weeks, a pull-or or chin-up should definitely be easier."