How to Make Your Arms Strong Enough to Do Pullups

Don't let your preconceptions about pullups stop you.

Don't let your preconceptions about pullups stop you.

Pullups aren't just for guys. Girls can grab a bar and pull themselves up too, and get a total upper-body workout in the process. If you've tried pullups and your body isn't ready, don't give up. Strengthening the muscles of your back and arms can get you closer to doing this impressive move.

Upper Body Strengthening with Dumbbells

Use a pair of dumbbells to perform bicep curls to strengthen your arms. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward. Allow the dumbbells to hang along the sides of your thighs. Keep your elbows close to your trunk as you bend the elbows to curl the weights toward your shoulders. Extend the elbows to complete one repetition.

Perform dumbbell rows to strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscle that lies along the back of the ribs and is intrinsic to the pullup. Stand next to a workout bench so that your left side is next to the bench and your body is perpendicular to the bench. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Kneel your left knee on the bench and support your body with your left hand flat on the bench. Hang forward until your back is parallel to the floor and pull the dumbbell up to your chest by bending the elbow. Extend the elbow to complete one repetition. Do eight to 12 reps on the right and then move to the left side.

Be sure you have the right weight. Do eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise with a weight that makes it hard to complete the last couple of reps with good form. Work up to three sets and do the moves two to three times per week, leaving 48 hours between workouts. Perform the exercises on the same days that you train other muscles of the upper body.

Modified Pullups for Muscle Building

Use an Olympic bar secured at shoulder height on a squat rack, or position a Smith machine bar at shoulder height, to do modified pullups. Grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width using an overhand grip. Extend your legs until you create a straight line with your body -- balanced on your heels with feet together. Straighten your arms so that you are hanging down and then bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your body rigid. Lower to the starting position to complete one repetition. Work your way up to 12 or more repetitions for three sets.

Adjust an assisted pullup machine to help you do eight to 12 repetitions -- heavier weight provides more assistance, making the exercise easier, while lighter weight makes the exercise harder. Step onto the platform -- or kneel, depending on the type of machine you are using -- and grab the handles with an overhand grip. Step onto the lever or platform and allow your arms to extend so you are hanging. Pull your body up until your neck is the same height as your bar. Use control to lower your body back down. Complete between one and three sets of eight to 12 repetitions. Over time use less weight assistance until you are able to complete at least one pullup without assistance.

Perform negative pullups. Use a spotter or a platform to position you with your chin over your bar, elbows bent and hands grasping the bar with an overhand grip. Step off the platform or have the spotter release you and slowly lower your body until your elbows are extended. Do eight to twelve for one set at each upper-body training session.

Add these assisted pullup exercises to the upper -ody strengthening with dumbbells exercises, doing them at least two or three times per week on nonconsecutive days. Be patient with your training. Expect it to take three months or longer of dedicated training to achieve one pullup.

Items you will need

  • Dumbbells
  • Workout bench
  • Assisted pullup machine
  • Squat rack and Olympic bar

Tip

  • If you have been training for months or even years to do pullups and still can't, this may be one exercise that is not possible for you. The shape of your body can sometimes make pullups impossible for women and men, Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost and dean at the University of Dayton, explained in "The New York Times" in October 2012. If you are exceptionally tall or have very long arms, the physics of your body make pullups almost impossible. You can still get numerous training benefits from performing modified pullups with a Smith press bar or assisted-pullup machine.

Warning

  • If you feel pain in your shoulders, stop the exercise immediately.
 

About the Author

Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.

Photo Credits

  • Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images