Scaling Pull-ups – 5 Variations for Progression

Written By Ben  |  Pull-up 

Tired of using the same old scaling options every time pull-ups are programmed in workouts? Check out 5 of my favorite exercises to choose from in your next WOD as you work towards being able to Rx them...

Prefer to watch me demo them on video? The YouTube video covers all you need to know including set up and execution! 

Pull-up Scaling Option #1: The Humble Ring Row

I've dropped this in here first as I'm sure it's one you already know of - and for good reason! It's a solid scaling tool that works the same muscles as a pull-up, and so has great carryover. It's also super easy to set up - just lower the rings to around hip height and off you go.

No climbing in and out of bands or up and down off boxes mid-WOD. It's also highly scalable, meaning that you can make it as easy - or as challenging - as you wish.

How? It's all about the foot placement. A moderately challenging ring row for you might be starting out with feet directly under the rings. Let's say it's a little too challenging for the number of reps you're completing. All we do is take a step or two back, so that you're more upright. Do this until you've found the sweet spot!

To make it harder, simply walk your feet in so that your body is more horizontal. Next level challenge would be elevating your feet on a box so that your body is parallel to the floor when arms are extended.

Try it for yourself - walk your feet in and out and discover the difference it makes to the difficulty of the movement!

Scale #2: The Seated Pull-up

I love this one for similar reasons as I love the ring row; easy set up, minimal transitions, good strength carryover but with the added bonus that it mimics the pull-up even more effectively due to the upright torso. 

It's also fairly straightforward to alter the difficulty depending on the athlete. The height you set the bar at will determine how challenging it becomes for you. The higher the bar, the more of your bodyweight you'll have to pull. 

Tip: try not to push through your legs. Think of lightly resting your heels on the floor to effectively reduce your bodyweight and focus on pulling! 

Pull-up Scale #3: The Jumping Pull-up (Best carryover to kipping!)

This is my favorite option for doing in metcons (the workout style, not the shoe!) and I actually have 2 variations to show you here. 

The first, which we'll call the Strength Jump, is completed in singles, and focuses on the top part of the rep. To start, simply jump to the pull-up bar instead of starting from a dead hang, and pull the remaining part of the rep until your chin is over the bar. 

The second, which is the one best used in workouts because of it's carryover to the kipping pull-up involves jumping from a box. To set up, choose a box and a bar that when you stand on the box with arms overhead, the bar crosses your arm somewhere between wrist and elbow.

For this exercise, it's important that you're not fully reliant on your legs, simply jumping up and down. Don't forget that this is a pulling exercise and try to think of your legs as resting on the box (again, to reduce bodyweight). This variation also allows you to mimic the kipping pull-up motion; pulling through into an arch position between reps and popping your hips to help get your chin up over the bar.

Confused? Watch the full YouTube video for an in-depth tutorial!

Pull-up Scale #4: The Banded Pull-down

Another super effective variation that I like to program in workouts as an alternative to pull-ups! This is particularly useful if an athlete struggles to work the full range of motion in any of the scaling options above. This is because the pull-down doesn't require the athlete to lift their own bodyweight at all. 

Essentially, it's a homemade pulldown machine! Check out the picture below to understand the setup; attach a PVC pipe or similar to your pull-up bar via a band, sit down directly under the bar and pull the pipe to your chest.

By choosing an appropriate band for your strength level, this exercise allows you to build strength throughout the full range of motion; from straight arms to "chin over bar".

Tip: add a 1-2s pause in as you bring the PVC down to your chest before controlling it back up for extra strength gains!

Scaling Option #5 - The Banded Pull-up (three ways!)

Last, but by no means least, is the banded pull-up! Another solid option for pull-up strength gains due to the high carryover but can be tricky to navigate during a high intensity workout. 

Check out these 3 ways of using bands and see which one works best for you;

1. Single band, hung from pull-up bar. This is the most common way and one you'll likely have already tried.

2. Double bands, hung from pull-up bar. This one might be new to you and is pretty cool for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you don't have a band pinging across your face on every rep and rubbing against your crotch! Secondly, it actually allows you to practice kipping movements by freeing up that space int the middle!

3. This one is my personal favorite, and is a little more practical for workouts - single band across the rig. You can adjust the difficulty by changing band strength and also moving the band higher or lower to suit. 

Whichever one you choose, remember a couple things;

1. Work the full range of motion; from fully extended (straight) arms to chin over bar (with a neutral head - no 'reaching') If you can't do this, reduce the difficulty. 

2. Always keep progressing. Don't get stuck on the same band, or level for months on end. Keep reducing that band strength to constantly challenge yourself until you can chuck them in the bin! 

Need more help with your pull-ups? I've got 3 pull-up guides you can access for free - strict, kipping and butterfly - get them here!

Or if you're serious about nailing that first strict pull-up, join my 8 week course (it's guaranteed to give you results, or your money back!) Find my full library of courses here.

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