Top 5 exercises to improve pull-ups

Sean Lerwill pullups (Credit: snhfoto)

The pull-up is one of those exercises that you can either do, or you can’t do. Few people are naturally good at pull-ups, and those that are generally have a background in gymnastics or climbing or the like. For those of us without that background, we may need to work on our pulling ability, utilising other exercises to improve pull-ups.


I’m a big believer in specificity when training. As I was told on my Royal Marines PTI course:

The body becomes its function

Meaning, what we ask our bodies to do, they become good at. If you spend all your time running, you’ll be a good runner, but just because you have a good CV system doesn’t mean you’ll be a good swimmer or cyclist. What you do, you get good at.

Scientifically this is called SAIDs: specific adaptation to imposed demands. This essentially means the same thing, your body will adapt to the specific demand you place on it.

How does this relate to you improving your pull-ups? Basically, you need to be as specific as possible. That affects the exercises we will choose, we need to be as specific as possible while still including exercises that will improve your ability to pull-up.

1. Assisted Pull-ups’s a pull-up but with less weight than your entire body weight. It’s like taking weight off a bench press you can’t lift so that you can lift something. It’s still a bench press, just lighter. This is the same idea.

You can use an assisted pull-up machine or a band to perform band assisted pull-ups. Either way, as far as you can you must perform the pull-up technique as close to normal pull-ups as possible to ensure that specificity. AS you get stronger, take the assisted weighted down or use a weaker band. In both cases progressing towards no help.

2. Eccentric Pull-ups

The eccentric part of any exercise is the lowering of the weight towards the floor. The part under gravity if you will. For a pull-up this is the portion when the arms are extending lowering the body down from the bar.

We are all stronger in the eccentric portion of an exercise, some research suggests we can control more weight eccentrically then we can move (push/pull) concentrically (away from gravity). This means, you can push your strength by working with a weight you can’t lift but can lower/control. This is true of any exercise, but really helps us with pull-ups.

Stand under the bar on the floor or on a bench or box if necessary. Jump up to the bar so the chin is over it and lower down to straight arms slowly (over a 2-4 count). Jump back up so the chin is over the bar and eccentrically lower again.

3. Lat Pull Down

The lat pull down is the classic back machine, isn’t it? It’s the back bench press if you like. It’s the most specific back machine in terms of the pull-up. Apart from the legs being fixed to hold the body, the pull is very similar to a pull-up. As you perform the pull down, try to mimic your pull-up technique. Keep the hands a similar width, bring the elbows down past the body and pull the bar to the chest.

You won’t be able to match your bodyweight if you can’t do pull-ups, so don’t. Choose a weight you can pull down with control all the way to your chest and lower slowly. Work at that weight and slowly over weeks and months increase it. Keep the form and tempo as you do.

4. Inverted Row

The inverted row is a useful exercise for getting used to pulling your own bodyweight without the entire bodyweight being pulled. A bit like the press-up to the dip. The dip requires you to push the entire bodyweight, whereas the press-up cuts a lot of this weight out as the feet are on the floor. The inverted row has the feet on the floor, lowering the weight compared to the pull-up.

Try to mimic your hand position to that of the pull-up as much as possible. Equally, don’t rush the movement. Have a little hold at the top when the chest is by the bar and lower under control as best you can during the eccentric phase. Inverted rows are also great for improving grip strength for pull-ups which can let people down.

5. Pendlay Row

Many people reading this will not have heard of a Pendlay Row. It’s essentially a bent over row, but the weight is returned to the floor (ala deadlift) after each rep. This means the weight is pulled “dead” from the floor, which removes all momentum and really works the strength gain in terms of moving a heavy mass from straight arms – like the pull-up.

Work the Pendlay row into your sessions to really help build strength to your pulls. It’s not specific in terms of the movement, but as the other exercises mentioned are, it’s okay to have one that’s a different pulling mechanism but that improves strength so well. It may be that you’ve been struggling with pull-ups for a long time and this is the key that really opens them for you.

Pull-up your socks

Bottom line, great pull-up strength and ability comes from hard work. Put the work in and you’ll be banging out 20 plus in no time. All it takes is a little time and effort.

If you can already do a few pull-ups then my 30 Days to 20 Pull-ups programme on may interest you.


Train your pull-ups and then start adding weighted chins and pulls into supersets with chest exercises:


Sean Lerwill - Author

Sean is an former-Royal Marines Commando Officer & Physical Training Instructor. He has been published as a writer five times, has a BSc in Molecular Genetics and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. He is also a Maximuscle ambassador.

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