Let’s be honest with ourselves: Equipment is never really the barrier to getting fit. You can get in very decent shape by simply doing bodyweight workouts. You can shed weight with a pair of shoes and a flight of stairs. You can get top-to-bottom ripped — and we do mean ripped — with nothing more than a simple pull-up bar, what Derek Holmes, a personal trainer in Chicago calls. “the most under-appreciated tool at the gym.” A good pull-up bar workout, he argues, is an essential part of any fitness regimen. “Yes, it’s used for pull-ups,” he says, “but it can do so much more.”
The challenge and the beauty of this single piece of equipment is that by design, everything you do with it involves using your own body weight as resistance. So you’re unlikely to injure yourself the way you could by using a machine with too much weight. On the other hand, the pureness of these moves also makes it hard to fudge them — meaning you’re going to have to work for each rep.
Remember this: If you’re struggling to eek out a single upside-down crunch this time, don’t give up. With every effort, you’re laying the foundation to come back stronger and try again tomorrow.
“Any time you’re working in a space you’re not used to — in this case, up in the air — it’s going to automatically be harder and use muscles you didn’t know you had,” says Holmes. “Start with low reps, take as many breaks as you need, and build from there.”
Ready? Start here, with 7 moves in 30 minutes that will have you hurting good.
The Move: Hanging Runs
What it works: Shoulders, forearms, obliques, hip flexors
How to: Hang from the pull-up bar, arms straight. Using your shoulders, forearms, and core to stabilize your torso, cycle your legs through the air in the running motion for 30 seconds. Release and relax, then go again for 30 more seconds. Repeat 4 times.
The Move: Triceps Dip
What it works: Yup, triceps
How to: If possible, raise your chest above the bar via a classic pull-up, overhand grip (palms facing away from your body). Continue to hoist your torso above the bar until your arms are straight and your hips are parallel to the bar. (Note: If this is too hard, use a bench or chair to get yourself into position.) Bend elbows out to the sides and slowly lower your body until arms are bent at right angles and chest is parallel to bar. Straighten back to start. Do 10 reps, 2-3 sets.
The Move: Upside-Down Crunches
What it works: Rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles); transverse abdominis (deep abdominal muscles)
How to: Hanging from the pull-up bar, swing your feet back and forth to build momentum, then hoist your legs in the air, let your torso tilt back, and swing your legs high and through your arms, allowing them to loop over the top of the pull-up bar, knees anchoring your body on the bar. Once you feel balanced, gently release your hands and lower torso toward the floor, so you are hanging by your knees. Engage your abs, reach your arms toward the sky and curl your torso up toward the bar as far as you can; release. Do 10 reps, 5 sets.
The Move: Incline Row
What it works: Biceps, core
How to: Toss a rope over the top of the bar so that you are holding the ends of the rope in each hand at chest height. Walk yourself forward until you are standing underneath the bar. Keeping your feet firmly planted and legs and torso in one straight line, begin to lean back, straightening your arms and allowing your weight to be supported by the rope. When your body is at a 45-degree angle to the floor, bend elbows and begin hauling yourself back up to standing. Lower and raise yourself 10 times; rest for 30 seconds, then repeat.
The Move: Hanging Leg Raises
What it works: Shoulders, forearms, quads, transverse abdominis, obliques
How to: Hang from the pull-up bar using an underhand grip (palms facing you). Keeping your legs together and as straight as possible, contract your core muscles, engage your quads, and raise your legs as high as you can, aiming to make them parallel to the floor. Release. Do 5 reps, 4 sets.
The Move: Hanging Knee Circles
What it works: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques, hip flexors, gluteus medius
How to: Hang from the bar using an underhand grip. Keeping legs together, bend your knees and raise them to your chest. Twist your lower body and drop knees to the left side. Keeping them still bent and together, circle your knees low and back to your centerline, then twist to the right and circle knees right and high, then back to the start position (making a full circle). Make four circles to the left, then reverse and make four circles to the right. Rest, then repeat.
The Move: Cradle Rock
What it works: Biceps, triceps, lattisimus dorsi, core
How to: Start from hanging position, underhand grip. Bend elbows as if you are going to do a pull up, then bend knees and swing bent legs high toward the ceiling, dropping your head and torso back so that your find a “balance point” in a cradle-like position. Engaging your core, being to “rock,” raising your feet, then head, back and forth in a rocking motion. Rock 10 times, release. Do 3 sets.
How to Train to Do a Pull-Up
OK, if you must include the OG of bar exercises, here it is.
First, the proper way to do a pull-up: Grab the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away), hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Let your arms hang straight, then engage your core, bend your elbows, and pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Slowly lower back down. Aim for 10 reps, 2 sets.
Can’t do it? Here’s a three-month game plan to impress your CrossFit friends. Don’t lose sight of the full-body workout above though!
Month 1: Perform multiple sets of single pull-ups to accumulate 10 sets of 1 (for 10 reps total) over the course of a full workout. “Your progress comes down to repetition,” says Dean Somerset, a personal trainer and certified exercise physiologist from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “If you’re walking down the street, do a single rep from the street light or from a construction scaffold. At the gym, do a single rep between each set of exercises. If you can do two, even better.”
Next, perform multiple sets of slightly less than your max reps. “Let’s say you can comfortably do 6 reps,” Somerset says. “Completing 10 sets of 3 reps will allow you to accumulate 30 total reps without fully maxing out any of the sets, except maybe for the last few.”
Month 2: Accumulate the same volume of reps in fewer sets, decreasing reps if needed. “You could complete six reps per set over five sets, or perhaps eight, seven, six, five, four for a total of 30 reps, with some light overload on the first 2 sets,” Somerset says.
Month 3: Get max reps on the first set of your workout when you’re fresh, following a light warmup. “If you’re able to hit ten, you’re golden, but if you fall short, the rest of the workout is 10 reps for every one you were short,” Somerset says. “If you managed nine, you have ten reps left in the workout. If you managed eight, you have 20. Follow the volume breakdown from month two and complete in as few sets as possible.”
Follow this routine and you’ll be able to regularly raise yourself above the bar — and have the back and arms to prove it.
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