“Be able to do a pullup” is a common fitness goal, and if you work hard—with negative pullups, inverted rows, and more—someday you’ll get there. Go ahead, take a minute to celebrate. But don’t drop the workouts that you were doing pre-pullup.
It’s tempting to change up your training, because for weeks or months (maybe years!) you were doing the things that you do when you can’t do a pullup. You may have been doing negative pullups, where you start at the top of the movement and slowly lower yourself down. You may have been doing inverted rows, where you pull yourself toward a low bar or railing. You may have been doing assisted pullups on a machine, banded pullups with decreasing thicknesses of elastic, lat pulldowns, dumbbell rows, and more.
But your first pullup is not a graduation from all of that. You should not leave the resistance bands and the lat pulldown machines in the dust. They need to stay with you during the next phase of your journey.
You need to lock in that first pullup
So you did a pullup today. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do one tomorrow. That’s probably confusing, so let me explain.
We all have a range of abilities that we can do on any given day. For example, if you squatted 225 pounds last week, that doesn’t mean you could also squat 225 today. We might say that your “range” is 200-225, and when you’re well-rested and psyched up, you’re able to hit the top of that range. But even on a bad day, you know you can hit at least 200.
Pullups are like that, too. Maybe when you started working toward a pullup, your strength was in the range of 50-55% of what it takes to do a pullup. That means that when you get your first pullup, your range might be something like 95-100%. The day you did the pullup is a 100% day. The next day, maybe you’re only at 99%. You’ll wonder why you “can’t” do one anymore.
What you need to do now is keep working until doing one pullup is the bottom of your range of abilities. If you’re hovering between being able to do 0-1 pullups, you want to expand that range until it’s about 1-3 pullups. By the time you can do two or three pullups some days, you’ll be able to do one pullup any day.
By the way, everything I’m saying applies to chinups, as well. (A pullup has your palms facing away from you; a chinup is with palms toward you.) Chinups are slightly easier than pullups, so if you can do a pullup sometimes, you might already be able to do chinups pretty consistently. Feel free to mix chinups and pullups in your training.
How to get your second pullup
Getting that first pullup doesn’t unlock a whole new world of workouts; it just gives you one extra tool. You already have a variety of exercises you currently do that build your pullup strength, and you can do those exercises at a variety of rep ranges and difficulty levels. To that, you can add “do one pullup.” That one pullup is not enough to replace everything else.
If you need a refresher on great pullup accessories, they include:
- Negative pullups (slowly lowering yourself down). You can do these for reps, or you can aim to make each set a single, ultra-slow, perhaps 10 or 15 second motion.
- Banded pullups (with a resistance band supporting your feet—either hanging from the pullup bar or stretched across the rack underneath you). You can do more reps with a heavier band, or fewer reps with a lighter band. These work best when done as a slow, controlled rep.
- Box or bench pullups, with one or both feet on a surface underneath you. Push with your foot just as much as you need to complete each rep.
- The lat pulldown machine or the assisted pullup machine. Both of these work your upper body pulling muscles, although they aren’t as effective at training your core or your body position.
- Rows, rows, rows. My favorites are Kroc rows with dumbbells that are so heavy you need to “cheat” by twisting your whole body (this is a good thing, since it gets your core working). Other great rows include barbell rows, seated cable rows, bent-over dumbbell and kettlebell rows, and bodyweight inverted rows. When you’ve finished your other pullup accessories for the day, do a few sets of rows.
Your pullup program may have included other exercises as well, like planks and other core work, or maybe even stretches for your shoulders. Keep doing those, too. If you’ve only been doing one or two of the things from the list above, feel free to add one or two more.
Do not feel like you have to do all of them. I’d pick one of the pullup variations each day—negatives, banded, or foot-assisted—and then add two more exercises from the rest of the list (one machine and one row, or two different rows).
How to do more and more reps
That singular pullup you can do, at least sometimes? Definitely do it at the beginning of your workout. One pullup, rest a minute or two, then attempt it again. Once you fail, move on to the rest of your workout—the negatives and rows and so on.
If you can do a pullup more than once in a day, you’re getting close to being able to do two or three in a set. If you do a pullup and it doesn’t feel like a struggle, go for a second rep. Soon enough, you’ll be hitting sets of two or three.
Once you can consistently do at least three pullups, you can start making this more of a cornerstone of your workouts, rather than a fun bonus. Do three sets of three every day that you do upper-body exercises, and it’s now that you can drop one of your other pullup exercises. (Still, keep the rows in.)
At this point, if you want something more intensive that has you doing pullups almost every day, consider the “3RM” version of the Fighter Pullup Program. Once you can do sets of five consistently, I’d recommend the Armstrong Pullup Program instead, which is a bit more sustainable. And soon enough, you’ll be repping out pullups, instead of just doing one.