How to Use a Pull-Up Bar for a Full-Body Workout
You can do more with this simple training tool than you think
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While many gyms across the country are still closed, athletes and trainers are getting creative. Kathleen Stabler, a certified Gym Jones instructor and the owner of True North Performance Coaching in Albuquerque, New Mexico, put together this full-body routine using nothing but a pull-up bar and a bedsheet. “You can target everything in your body, head to toe, front and back, with this routine,” she says. “You can give yourself an excellent workout with little to no equipment—and sometimes a far better one than what you might get by mindlessly moving around weights that are too heavy for you to maneuver properly.”
Perform the following routine, which incorporates a mix of bodyweight moves and pull-ups, twice a week for a combination of strength training and conditioning. Don’t skip the warm-up (outlined below), and stick to the exercise order. “Paying attention to form is the key to making these effective,” Stabler says. “It doesn’t look like a lot, but this is a hard workout.”
Begin with this circuit to get your blood flowing and your muscles warm: 30 seconds of jumping jacks, 30 seconds of jogging in place or high knees, and 30 seconds of mountain climbers. Do the exercises back-to-back or with 30 seconds of rest in between if needed. Complete three to five rounds, gradually increasing the pace and intensity each time.
What they do: Strengthen the lats, biceps, forearms, shoulders, upper back, and core.
How to do them: Grip the pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away. Hang with straight arms, and engage your shoulders and core. Slowly pull up until your chin is over your hands, then lower yourself with control back to the starting position for one repetition. Continue to engage your core and back to keep your body as still as possible throughout the movement. If you can’t complete ten reps in a row, do as many as you can unassisted, then use the jump-and-lower technique outlined in the next paragraph to finish out the set.
Negatives are a great way to build up to pull-ups: grab the bar, jump up until your chin is over your hands, then lower yourself as slowly as possible to work the eccentric phase of the movement. You may have to place a chair or box beneath the bar to get the height you need.
Volume: Five sets of ten reps. Rest for one to two minutes between sets.
Bodyweight-Row and Push-Up Ladders
What they do: The inverted bodyweight row strengthens the back, shoulders, biceps, forearms (grip), and core. The push-up strengthens the chest, triceps, shoulders, back, and core.
How to do them: The idea here is to perform these exercises together, going down the rep ladder for the rows (start with ten reps, and decrease by one rep each round until you work down to one) and doing the opposite for the push-ups (start with one rep, and add one each round until you reach ten). Do ten rows and one push-up, then nine rows and two push-ups, then eight rows and three push-ups, and so forth, all back-to-back.
If you have a fixed pull-up bar (i.e., it’s wall mounted or on a power tower), loop a bedsheet over the top of the bar so that both ends hang evenly to each side. Or just use a closed door for your setup (see photos): tie a big overhand knot at one end of the bedsheet, place the knot over the top of the door, then close the door to jam the knot on the other side.
To do the bodyweight row, stand facing the door, grip the edges of the bedsheet, then walk your feet toward the door to adjust the inclination of your body (the more horizontal you are, the more difficult the exercise will be). Engage your core and back, and hold your body in a straight line from heels to head. Start with your arms fully extended, then bend your elbows and retract your shoulder blades to pull your chest all the way to the bedsheet. Pause for a second, then slowly reverse the movement for one repetition.
To do the push-up, start in a standard push-up position on the floor, with your arms straight, your hands below your shoulders, and your feet together or no more than 12 inches apart. Bend your elbows to lower your chest until it’s an inch or two from the ground. Then push back up to the starting position for one repetition. Maintain a rigid plank from your head to your heels throughout the movement (no lifting, sagging, or twisting the hips). For an added challenge, instead of placing your palms on the floor, wrap them in the ends of the bedsheet and perform push-ups like you would using TRX or suspension straps.
Volume: Decrease ladder rows from ten to one, and increase ladder push-ups from one to ten.
Complete the next four exercises as a mini circuit, cycling from one to the next in the given order, for five rounds total. For example, do 15 squats, 15 frog jumps, 15 lunges (with each leg), 15 sit-ups, and repeat.
How to do them: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Hold your chest and head high, pull your shoulders back and down, and keep your spine stacked in a neutral position. Then bend your knees to lower into a squat until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor (or as low as you can go with good form). Come up halfway, lower yourself back down until your thighs are once again parallel (or to your low point), then finally stand all the way up for one repetition.
Add weight to make it harder. You can hold a gallon jug of water in front of your chest like you’re doing a goblet squat, or use or wear a loaded backpack, holding it in front of your chest or wearing it backward to better center the load.
Volume: Five sets of 15 reps.
Frog Jumps (Touch-Jump-Touch)
What they do: Strengthen the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core while training explosive power in the legs. The wider stance also puts more emphasis on the hip adductors.
How to do them: Start beneath the pull-up bar and just outside the doorframe, in a wide stance with your toes angled out slightly. Squat as described above, and touch the floor with your fingertips. Keep your back straight and your torso as upright as possible. Then jump vertically to touch the bar (if you’re using a doorframe pull-up bar and have a low doorframe, aim for the ceiling so you can jump as high as possible). Land softly, immediately lower into another squat, and repeat.
Volume: Five sets of 15 reps.
What they do: Primarily strengthen the glutes, quads, and adductores magni (inner thighs) while working the hamstrings, calves, hip stabilizers, and core.
How to do them: Take a large step backward to enter a stationary lunge stance. Square your hips and engage your core. Then bend your knees to lower your hips until your front thigh is roughly parallel to the ground and your back knee is hovering just an inch or two off the floor. Reverse the movement to the starting position, switch leg positions, and repeat. Alternate legs each rep. Keep your chest high, your pelvis neutral, and your back straight throughout the movement. Wear a weighted backpack to make it harder.
Volume: Five sets of 15 reps per leg.
Sit-Up Pillow Toss
What it does: Primarily strengthens the abs and engages the rest of the core while training forward-flexion power.
How to do it: Grab a pillow, and lie on your back beneath the pull-up bar, with your knees bent between 70 and 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor. Hold the pillow with straight or slightly-bent arms above your head. Sit up quickly, and throw the pillow at the pull-up bar. Then catch the pillow and reverse the movement for one repetition. Focus on getting this to flow smoothly, which is more challenging than it sounds.
Volume: Five sets of 15 reps.
What it does: Primarily trains grip strength and works the shoulders, back, and core.
How to do it: Grab the pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward. Hang with straight arms until failure. Keep your shoulders and back engaged. Think of squeezing your shoulder blades together, tilting your chest slightly up toward the bar, and lifting your ears up and away from your shoulders. Wear a weighted backpack to make it harder.
For the climbers out there, this will feel ridiculously easy. If you have a hang board, complete the dead hangs on the edges of a hang board, or substitute in your favorite hang-board routine.
Volume: Five hangs until failure. Rest for one to two minutes between efforts.