5 Pullup Exercises to Build Back, Core, and Arm Strength
THE PULLUP IS the gold standard for bodyweight exercises. It’s an old-school move you first learned on the grade school playground before you ever imagined it would be anything more than fun. It’s simple: Just grab the bar, then pull your chin up to or above it.
As a grown-up, however, there are very few feats of strength more impressive than watching an athlete smoothly and effortlessly knock out rep after rep of pullups. For some trainees, however, advancing to the level of mastering the pullup is more complex than just grabbing hold of a bar and letting it rip, especially if you haven’t done much strength training sense those schoolyard days.
The movement takes more than just arm strength. You’re also going to have to learn how to engage those posterior muscles—your traps, rear delts and lats—as well as your core muscles. When everything is on point, you’ll be closer to pullup mastery, say Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and Advisory Board member David Otey, C.S.C.S.
“Most of us are sitting all day—that is not training our back muscles is not training our core muscles,” Samuel says. “And then we go into the gym and we think we can just magically do a pull up and then we can’t… We have to learn a variety of key motions that are going to set us up for success in our pullups.”
To get to pullup number one (and beyond) takes some extra muscle assistance. Here are five of the best accessory exercises you should be incorporating into your workouts to help you get into pullup shape.
5 Must-Do Exercises to Pump Up Your Pullup
Eccentric Overload Pulldowns
4 sets of 6 to 8 reps
One of the best ways to increase strength is by overloading the muscle. With eccentric overload pulldowns, we can do this by pulling a heavier load with both arms, then having to control the eccentric (stretching) portion with one side—similar to how you would work the negative portion of the pullup. Once you’re able to better control heavier loads, you’ll be able to see the gains translate to better control as you work your pullups.
Since eccentric overload pulldowns require unilateral work with heavier loads, it’s best not to make this a high-rep movement. Otey says four sets of six to eight reps work best here. While performing these, work on fighting through the negative portion as long as possible—try for about four seconds with each rep.
Reverse Grip Curl
3 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 reps
Reverse curls can be done a number of ways, but to best mimic a pullup, using a straight bar is as close as you can get. Not only are reverse curls great for creating additional grip strength, the movement is similar to how your arms will be engaging and working during each pullup. Remember: Pullups are performed with a pronated (overhand) grip, chinups are performed with a supinated (underhand) grip.
“If you want to really mimic what is going to be like on a straight bar with a pull up, grab a straight bar and do our curls that way,” Samuel says. This is a great grip-strength challenge besides being a great arm workout, and the biggest thing for the pullup is setting the stage for us understanding the position at the top.
Higher volume works best here. To maximize this move, try three to four sets of 12 to 15 reps.
3 sets of 30 to 40 second hangs
You may not consider hanging from a bar as a very active movement, but think of it this way: If you can’t hold yourself for very long on a pullup bar, then how many reps do you think you’ll be able to knock out during a single set?
The dead hang is perhaps the first step toward improving your pullup performance. Simply hanging—especially for an extended period of time—hits a number of muscle groups, starting with your grip, shoulder stability, core engagement. The less time you spend swinging and flailing the more energy you’ll have in the tank to begin working on adding more reps. Own this move, while at the same time working to eliminate those energy leaks—this will translate into a longer hold.
Three sets of 30 to 40 seconds is a good starting point. Try adding additional time to add to the challenge.
3 to 5 sets of 30 to 60 seconds
Having superior core control is an underestimated but highly critical component of creating and maintaining proper pullup positioning. Pullups require total lower back control—you don’t want to be flopping all over the place—which is exhausting while you’re hanging. In a solid pullup position, all your core muscles, including your lower back and obliques are all working to keep the spine nice and stable. The hollow hold trains exactly this.
“This is one of those exercises where you can really dial in on focusing on [things like], How do I maintain my rib position? How do I maintain core stability between the hips, shoulders and arms?” Otey says. “That’s where I need to really translate it for proper and effective pullups.”
Aim for three to five sets, holding for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. It’s best, however, to start low and work your way to longer holds in order to maintain the necessary integrity of the movement.
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Master the inverted row and in time, you’ll finally be able to master the pullup. This move takes you through the steps toward the pullup; the inverted row teaches you how to draw the arms back and get your shoulder blades moving in a way that properly engages the back muscles.
Although it may not be as challenging as the pullup, the inverted row allows you prepare for the more difficult exercise by honing full bodyweight integrity. The inverted row is a great way to learn both the proper hand placement for a pullup and preparing your back muscles to engage properly as well.
What makes inverted rows a great exercise—and perhaps even more beneficial for your goals than assisted pullup machines or bands—is that it’s more scalable. You can easily increase or decrease the difficulty level depending on your foot placement.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.