Q&A: Working Up To Unassisted Pull-ups and Dips

Question: I can do a lot of bench dips, but I can’t do one on the parallel bars. I would also like to be able to do pull-ups, but can barely do one. I work out at home and do not have a pulldown or dip machine or an assisted pull-up and dip machine, just a power rack with a pull-up bar and a dip attachment. What can I do to work up to being able to do these exercises?

Answer: There are two things you can do to improve your ability to perform these and other bodyweight exercises. The first is to strengthen the muscles involved using other exercises and modifying the exercise to make it easier. The second is to decrease the amount of weight you have to lift, either with assistance from other muscle groups, using elastic bands, or by losing body fat unless you are already very lean.

To strengthen the muscles you use to perform parallel bar dips you can perform push-ups, bench presses, chest flys and lying triceps extensions. To strengthen the muscles you use to perform pull-ups you can perform bodyweight rows using a waist-high bar, bent over rows, pullovers, and arm curls.

Chin-ups and dips on the UXS bodyweight multi-exercise station

Chin-ups and dips on the UXS bodyweight multi-exercise station

I recommend starting with chin-ups (shoulder-width underhand grip) rather than pull-ups (wide overhand grip). A closer, underhand grip puts your biceps in a stronger position and involves other muscle groups like your chest and rear delts more, making the exercise easier. This also makes the chin-up (and close, underhand grip pulldown) a better choice for building strength in general than the pull-up (and wide, overhand or parallel grip pulldown) which isolates the lats more.

There are three ways you can make dips and chin-ups easier while working up to doing them normally. The first and simplest is to place a bench, stool, or step ladder below you and use your legs for assistance. Provide as little assistance with your legs as required to perform the lifting phase or “positive” of each repetition, then try to perform the lowering phase or “negative” with no assistance from your legs.

Performing these exercises with assistance from your legs is much safer than using an elastic band to reduce the amount of weight you lift since there is no risk of the band slipping or breaking and striking you. Unlike bands, which provide progressively less assistance as you go higher, you can provide as much or little assistance with your legs as you require over the full range of motion.

You can also perform negative-only repetitions, performing all of the positive work with your legs, carefully handing off your weight from your legs to your arms while holding yourself motionless at the top or “end point” of your range of motion, then very slowly lowering yourself with your arms, attempting to take a full ten seconds to perform the negative. If you do this, be very careful not to jump up during the positive or shift the weight from your legs to your arms too quickly, and stop when you are not able to hold yourself motionless at the end point when handing off or able perform the negative slowly enough to take at least five or six seconds.

Another way to make these easier is to reduce the range of motion, only performing the easier top half of the dip and bottom half of the chin-up. Gradually increase the range as you become stronger until you are performing full-range repetitions. If you still need to make it easier you can stop and rest for a few seconds between reps. This is called rest-pause training. Gradually reduce the rest time as you become stronger until you are performing the repetitions continuously.

You should perform these at the beginning of your workouts, starting with the one you have the most difficulty with, or after starting with a leg exercise like barbell or bodyweight squats.

To learn more about how to perform chin-ups, pull-ups, and dips and how to reduce or increase the difficulty of these and other bodyweight exercises read Project Kratos: Bodyweight High Intensity Training Program Handbook and watch my bodyweight high intensity training discussion and demo video.

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