Few movements are more practical to learn than the pull-up. Few movements will do more for your overall level of fitness, your physique, and particularly your upper body strength. The pull-up is a perfect movement to include in your program – it is basic and can be made progressively more difficult to keep you growing for as long as you wish to. You’ll see rapid development in your entire back, biceps, forearms and abdominal muscles.
If you can’t do a single pull-up yet, fear not! There are plenty of variations out there to correspond with your current level of fitness. This guide will take you from novice to master. The effort of working up to your first pull-up will in itself better your physique and build significant strength, so get yourself a pull-up bar of some sort and hop to it! Check out the guide below to learn how to work up to completing your first rep.
If you can complete all prior steps with solid form, move on to the next step. You can complete these steps as workouts in themselves or as part of an existing workout. Just sub whichever step in for one of your current major back exercises.
Be sure to take 3-5 minutes to warm up the shoulder girdle and back musculature before each session. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and is thus the most vulnerable to injury. I’m done straining my rotator cuffs, so I’m all about this part. Most of us don’t have great posture as it is, so it is important to pump blood into the shoulder area and free up any mobility restrictions and tightness before each workout. The video below is of my favorite exercise for shoulder health. Arm circles will help a lot too.
Step 1 – Hang in there
Time to get acclimated to the bar. The focus here is on grip strength and shoulder stability. Be very patient, as this might be difficult if you’ve never done it before. Grab the bar with a double overhand (pronated) grip a little wider than shoulder-width. Hang with a neutral pelvis and your core drawn in slightly. Use your core to stop yourself from swaying and to keep your pelvis in a neutral position. Relax your shoulders as deeply as you can so long as you don’t have pain. Don’t advance to step 2 until you can hang relaxed from the bar for 5 sets of 30-45 seconds.
Step 2 – Activate the right muscles
Now it’s time to learn the beginning of the motion that is the pull-up. We’re going to use an exercise called the scapular pull-up. The focus of this exercise is to activate the muscles responsible for pulling your shoulder blades back and down. By doing these, you’ll reap the added benefit of bettering your posture in a very direct way.
As we sit in front of computers and in cars our upper backs round, our heads drift forward and our shoulder blades slide up and forward (protraction) along our rib cage. As a result, the musculature which pulls the shoulder blade back and down (retraction) becomes lengthened and weak. This is why scapular pull-ups serve to directly improve your posture and make it easier to sit/stand with a proud chest.
Here’s a video demonstration that I like:
Work the scapular pull-ups until you can get 4 sets of 8 reps, then it’s time to move on to step 3.
Step 3 – Start from the top down
Your grip should be getting pretty strong by now, and your shoulders more stable. Now it’s time to perform only the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement. These are called negatives. They’ll be your bread and butter for increasing the number of pull-ups you can do. Starting with your forehead at bar level and your hands a little wider than shoulder width, slowly lower yourself down over 4 seconds. To get to the top position, either jump or use a bench/box to step up. Again, shoot for 4 sets of 8 reps before moving on to Step 4. SIDE NOTE – If you work hard enough on these, you may be able to skip step 4 altogether.
Here’s what they look like. Notice how he fights to keep his elbows out to the side, not in front of him.
Step 4 – Get a little assistance
If negatives don’t get you strong enough to get your first rep, you can either do more of them or start to do assisted pull-ups. Assisted pull-ups can be done in a few different ways. If you have a long resistance band, you can fasten it to the bar and loop it around one or both of your feet. The band will pull you toward the bar and assist in the movement. The biggest benefit of this approach is that you swap out different bands so that you get less and less assistance, weaning yourself off of them altogether.
The other approach for assisted pull-ups is to use an elevated object and to keep your foot on it throughout the movement. You can vary the amount of leg involvement to get more or less assistance. You may be able to use whatever implement you used to get up to the top position for the negatives in step 3. How long to stay on step 4 is up to you. You can progress using lighter and lighter bands, or you can stick with one band and work up to 4 sets of 8 reps with it. When you feel you’ve gained significant strength with the movement, move on to step 5.
Here’s one example of how to implement band assisted pull-ups:
Step 5 – Master your first rep and then some
Alright, then. Now let’s see what you can do! If you don’t get your first full rep, don’t be discouraged. You’ve already become significantly stronger by progressing up until this point.
What constitutes a full rep? Hanging with relaxed shoulders in a complete “dead hang” and getting your forehead up to the bar is a full rep. This isn’t the chin-up so don’t worry about clearing the bar with your chin. Your arms will take over almost entirely at the end of the motion if you do.
When you’re ready, take your grip on the bar and relax into a dead hang. To initiate the pull, think about the scapular pull-ups you did for step 2. Explosively shrug your shoulder blades back and down to start the movement, and draw your elbows down toward your hips to finish the movement. Think about pulling with your elbows, not your arms. Do not allow your elbows to point forward. They should point to your sides to better recruit the major mover of this exercise, the latissimus dorsi.
Here’s a video of myself doing some slow motion pullups. I’m going up farther than I need to in this video. I’ve since learned not to worry about the chin clearing but instead to get my forehead up to the bar. Notice the deep stretch in the back musculature at the bottom of the movement. My shoulder blades protract and slide upward, then back down forcefully to initiate the next rep.
How’d you do? Let me know in the comments!
NOTE– Some people are able to transition straight from negatives to full pull-ups. You may even find it more straightforward to perform high volume negative reps than to bother with assisted pull-ups. It’s all personal preference.
I got my first rep, now what?
Get some more, of course! This is going to take some careful programming. Start with trying to get 5 sets of 1 rep each. If you can’t get a rep for any particular set, substitute two negatives in its place. If your progress remains slow, add in more negative reps to the end of your workouts.
I can get 4 sets of 10 pull-ups, now what?
Congrats, badass. You have a couple of options now. Either play around with time under tension, check out this article for more on that, or get yourself a dip belt for adding weight. With the dip belt, you can scale up the difficulty of this exercise almost indefinitely. It’s also the best way to get “big” from doing pull-ups. It’s a worthy investment.
I hope this guide was helpful. Understand that progression is going to take a long time. Keep your pre and post-workout nutrition in check to maximize your rate of progress.
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