Pulling is an extremely important exercise to do

The hard part is over. You made it to the gym (or you’re at home all set up) and that’s usually half the battle.  Now you’re ready, what’s the plan Stan?  This is where a lot of people get stuck but don’t worry, I’ve got your back.

This is part two of a six-part series that focuses on the exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck.  This series will go as follows


Pulling (chin ups/lat pulldown etc.,)

Pushes (push-ups, dumbbell presses etc.,)

Hinge (hip extensions, deadlifts etc.)

Carries (carrying heavy stuff)

Groundwork (planks. birddogs etc.)

Part Two- Pulling

When you were a baby, (not that long ago right?) you would pull yourself up on a stable object to a standing position to walk while using this for support. Did anybody teach you? No, because this movement is hardwired into your brain.

Pulling something towards us is a natural movement that is often neglected while lifting because most people are working on their mirror muscles or they forget about what they cannot see. 

Training your back muscles will improve your posture, give you strong, stable, and mobile shoulders and work the biceps, the most flexed muscle of all time. Come on you know you want to.

The pulling variations here are broken up into vertical and horizontal movements and are listed from easy to more difficult. Only move on when you feel comfortable and ready for the next progression.

Horizontal Pulling
1.     Standing cable row

Lifting one side at a time while standing will train your core and improve strength imbalances between sides. Remember to keep your chest up and to keep your shoulders down to get the most out of this exercise. This is best trained between 8-15 reps and 2-4 sets.

Note- Can also be performed with a resistance band .

2.     Dumbbell single arm row

This variation is a little harder because more grip strength is needed, and you are working against gravity as opposed to the cable row. If you have never done this, keep the weight on the light side and do 3 sets of 15 reps. Remember to keep your chest up, shoulders down and row the dumbbell towards your hip.

3.     Dumbbell three-point row

You go from hand and knee support to only one hand, making this a little trickier because it demands more core strength. So start on the lighter side until you feel confident with the 3-point position. Start with 3 sets of 15 and when you get a little more confident, go heavier and do sets of 8-12 reps.

4.     Inverted row/TRX row

TRX row

These are similar exercises with a few crucial differences. The inverted row allows for an overhand (palms down) or an underhand (palms up) grip while TRX row allows for a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and both the over/underhand grip.

If you have any elbow issues, go with the TRX row because neutral grip pulling is easier on the elbows and shoulders.

The TRX row is easier by moving your feet further away from the anchor point and the inverted row is easier by placing the bar higher on the squat rack/smith machine. To make each exercise more difficult, do the opposite. Both should be trained in the 8-20 reps 2-4 set range as the upper back needs more endurance for posture and strength purposes.

Vertical Pulling

Before proceeding with the vertical pulling exercises, make sure you’re able to get your hands overhead without any compensations from your lower back or ribcage by ‘passing the test’ below.

Note- You can do these exercises even if you don’t pass. Be careful and let discomfort be your guide.,  

Shoulder mobility test

If contact is lost between your hand and back on either side or either hand cannot touch the floor behind you, you have limited shoulder mobility. If you ‘failed’ stick with the horizontal pulling exercises and work on you shoulder mobility with the exercise below.

1.     Seated Lat pulldown

With your feet on the floor and your knees secure, this makes it one of the easier vertical pulling variations. But easy doesn’t mean it’s simple. Make sure you let your back muscles do the work and avoid excessively swaying back and forth to lift the cable stack

If you’re new to the movement, go light and work with a weight that you can do for 3 sets of 15-20 reps. When you feel more confident, go heavier and do 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

2.     Half kneeling Lat pulldown

This is a great variation if you need to work on your  hip mobility because this exercise gives your hip flexors an active stretch. With only two points on the ground, this exercise trains your core and balance also. Make sure to keep your shoulders down and chest up plus actively squeeze your back glute muscle.

Work with a resistance that allows you to do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on each side.

3.     Tall kneeling Lat pulldown

This variation prepares you for the granddaddy of all vertical pulls, the chin up (which will not be covered in the post because of its complexity) because it mimics the core strength needed to perform it. The tall kneeling position will also work on actively stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the glutes, making this a big bang for your buck exercise.   

Squeeze your glutes, keep your knees and toes on the floor and shoulders down and chest up. Perform for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

4.     Tall kneeling single arm Lat pulldown

Unilateral exercises like this give you more core action (because your body is thrown off-balance) and helps strengthen imbalances between sides. And as a bonus, you’ll look like the coolest person in the gym.

Again, keep your knees and toes down, squeeze your glutes and shoulder and down and chest up.  Perform for 3 sets of 8-12 reps on both sides.

Note- Both 3 &4 can be done with resistance bands too.

Wrapping up

Training the muscles, you cannot see (unless you turn around in the mirror) is the most important exercise you will do. They will improve posture, upper body movement and appearance. Not only will I have your back, you’ll have your own back. 

If you’re looking for an exercise program to set a solid foundation after a layoff, I have a 6-week program ‘Get Back In The Saddle’ that will give you a fantastic exercise foundation to build on.  You can buy it  here.

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