Who says women can’t do pullups? Certainly not Neghar Fonooni, a Baltimore personal trainer who, in the span of a year, went from doing assisted pullups to hoisting her own body weight plus a 36-pound kettlebell over the bar.
“The first time I got a really clean, unassisted pullup, I jumped down, looked around the gym and said, ‘Did anybody see that?’ It was amazing,” she says.
According to Fonooni, 30, pullups are becoming an increasingly common goal among women, even though, or perhaps because, they seem so hard. Hard but not impossible.
Here are her top tips for getting your first pullup:
1. Do pullups. It might sound like stating the obvious, but you won’t get better at pullups without doing pullups. Start with assisted pullups using a band.
2. Get help. Fonooni prefers using elastic bands instead of assisted pullup machines to build up strength; bands force you to engage your core and lower body. To use, loop the band around a pullup bar and place one foot into the band to help lighten the load. Use a box or bench to reach the band.
3. Understand the movement. Form matters, whether you are doing assisted or unassisted pullups. Start with arms fully extended, from a dead hang, and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.
4. Start slow. Beginners should start with assisted pullups once a week for three to four weeks, aiming for 10 reps to build up muscle endurance and to get used to the movement.
5. Challenge yourself. As you get stronger, decrease the assistance by using a thinner band with less resistance, lower the number of reps and work up to practicing three days a week.
6. Mix it up. Fonooni suggests practicing chinups, with palms facing in, and flexed arm hangs, in which you start with your chin over the bar and slowly lower yourself. Chinups allow you to engage additional muscles in the forearms and biceps, making it slightly easier than a standard pullup, which is a lat-heavy exercise. Combining the different exercises will help prevent overuse injuries.
7. Use your whole body. Pullups are a full-body workout. Activate your core — abs, back and glutes — as well as your arms.
8. Don’t lose hope. Progress will be slow, Fonooni says. For many women, it could take weeks, months or more than a year to get that first pullup.
9. Celebrate. When you finally get over that bar, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little happy dance. Then get back up there and go for a second one.