The Beginner’s Guide to Pull Ups

Pull ups are an amazing exercise.  They work a huge amount of your upper body musculature, they’re low maintenance (all you need is a bar!), and they’re badass.  They’re also hard. Pull ups can be a very difficult exercise to learn to do, not necessarily in terms of biomechanics (although if you’re “kipping,” you’re doing it wrong…sorry CrossFit friends, it’s true) but because of the sheer strength they require.  Pulling one’s own bodyweight is not something that the average Joe does often, if ever, in his daily life.  It’s a shame that so many folks miss out on the benefits of such a great exercise.  Ladies, I’m talking to you in particular.  Don’t be intimidated by pull ups!  They are difficult, don’t get me wrong, and even more so for women because our bodies are naturally built with less upper body strength than men…but you’re stronger than you think you are, and you can become even stronger than you think you can be.

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Feel free to pin this guide for easy reference as you work your way through the progressions!

I want to share a simple progression you can use to work your way into doing pull ups.  This progressive sequence is for anyone, male or female, who wants to work their way to doing pull ups.   The exercises outlined below build upon each other in the order listed, so as you progress through each level, you can utilize the exercises from earlier in the progression to continue building your strength and increasing your pull-up badassery.  I would suggest training each of the given exercises 2-3 times per week, for 2-3 weeks or however long it takes to build up the strength to move to the next level.  Once you’re at the next level, train that exercise 2-3 times per week, and incorporate the previous exercises once per week (if you choose to do so).

Give it a shot, enjoy my horribly awkward video demos, and let me know when you’re able to knock out your first pull-up!

Lat Pull-downs

Pull-downs are a great way to build up your lat strength as you work your way into pull ups.  You want to be training in a strength or hypertrophy rep range (1-5 reps and 6-12, respectively), using heavier weights so as to gradually build up to lifting (or more accurately, pulling) your bodyweight.  As you go through the movement, make sure to use maintain good form and pull the bar down to/past your chin (if you can pull it all the way to your chest, you should probably be lifting more weight…), focusing on contracting your back and bringing your shoulder blades together to pull the bar down.  Make sure to move the bar back to overhead at a steady, controlled pace – still maintaining your form! – so as not to miss out on the eccentric part of the movement (more on eccentric strength below…).  If you don’t have a gym membership or a home gym with a lat pull machine, feel free to jump right in with negative pull ups (next progression, see below) – it will be slightly more difficult than if you’d worked up from lat pull downs, but if you have a solid fitness base already, you’ll be fine.

Negative Pull Ups

Time to hit “the bar!”If you don’t have access to a pull up bar, THIS is the one I used in college and I would highly recommend it.

Once you’ve built up your lat strength with pull-downs, try incorporating negative pull ups.  If you already have a solid strength base, you might want to incorporate negatives right off the bat while also training pull-downs for strength/hypertrophy as described above.  It’s not an exact science, but I would say that once you’re able to pull-down 70% of your bodyweight for at least 3 reps, you’re ready to give negatives a shot.  A negative pull-up is simply the eccentric (or “lowering”) portion of the movement.  Your muscles’ eccentric strength is greater than their concentric (or “lifting) strength, so by training negatives you will play to your strengths.  You’ll be strong enough to perform the eccentric portion of a pull-up (the negative) before you are strong enough for the concentric (lifting, or pulling up) portion.  In short, negatives will get you to full pull ups in less time than if you went straight to attempting full pull ups.  To do the negative portion of a pull up, you will need to stand on a box/bench/chair that puts the bar at about the same height as your face.  Grab onto the bar, engage your upper body as you transfer your weight from your feet to your hands, and step off your bench.  Slowly and with great control (focus on allowing your shoulder blades to move outward, just as you focused on bringing them together when doing pull-downs), lower yourself until your arms fully extend but do not lock out.  You must maintain control throughout the movement for it to be of any value.  Step back up on your bench and repeat for 5-12 reps.

Partial ROM Pull Ups

Once you’ve mastered negatives, it’s time to attempt pull ups with one small modification – you’ll be using a modified range of motion.  This means you will essentially be doing half pull ups.  You will once again start off standing on a box/bench/chair and grab the bar while it is in front of your chin.  Transfer your weight to your hands, step off the bench, and lower yourself until your elbows are at about 90°, then pull yourself back up so that your chin is at/above the bar.  Continue lowering yourself halfway and then pulling yourself back up, maintaining proper form all the while.  Try not to let your body swing too much – the assistance of momentum might feel like a relief, but it will prevent you from gaining the strength you need for full pull ups.   As with all these exercises, focus on contracting your back and bringing your shoulder blades together during the concentric portion of the movement, and keeping control as your lower yourself.  You can increase the ROM as you get stronger, eventually lowering yourself completely (arms extended but not locked out) and doing full pull ups.

The Full Monty…Bodyweight Pull ups

When you are regularly able to string together 5 or more partial ROM pull ups (again, it’s not a science…you know your body, so if you feel strong enough earlier than that, go for it!), you should be ready to try cranking out full pull ups.  Congratulations!   Just make sure to keep good form…no “kipping” allowed!

 

A Few Important Notes…

  • When doing any of these exercises, you can change up your grip – pronated/palms forward, supenated/palms facing you, or neutral/palms facing each other – to engage slightly different accessory muscles.  You will probably find that you are stronger with one grip than with the other two.  That’s normal, but remember to train with the other grips regularly to prevent imbalances or grip-related weaknesses.
  • Warm up well!!!  This does not mean a 10 minute cardiovascular warm up on the treadmill, but an actual resistance-based warm up for the muscles involved in a pull-up.  It could be lat pull-downs, pull-overs, rows, etc., or a combination (don’t max out on those, obviously; just work your way up to your working weight for a few sets). It will surprise you how much more your are able to do properly warmed up vs. starting out cold or after a halfhearted warm-up.
  • On the other hand, don’t leave pull ups until the end of your workout when your muscles are most fatigued.
  • Do NOT use pull ups as part of a superset when you are just starting out.  Give yourself adequate time to recover between sets so that you have more “gas in the tank” left for what is probably the most challenging exercise in your work out.
  • Once you are able to at least do partial ROM pull ups, you can incorporate accessory/alternative exercises such as bicep curls, rows, lat pullovers, etc.  By performing these exercises, you are working many of the same muscles required for pull ups without actually doing pull ups.  This can be really helpful if you are feeling burnt out and need to switch things up for a mental break, or if you have been stuck and unable to progress beyond a certain number of partial or full ROM pull ups.  I’ve often turned to these alternative exercises for a couple weeks and come back to pull ups only to find that I’m able to crank out 1-2 more reps per set than before.  (For more on increasing your pull-up abilities, see below.)
  • A word on assisted pull-up machines: Obviously, assisted pull-up machines are created to do everything the above progression is for – to help the user build up enough strength to do unassisted pull ups.  The problem I’ve found with assisted pull-up machines is that they simply are not sufficiently congruent with the movement of a bodyweight pull-up to be of much practical use.  Now, if you are brand new to strength training, the assisted pull-up machine could be useful in helping you develop more upper-body strength.  However, it will be very difficult to transition directly from doing assisted pull ups to doing bodyweight pull ups.  It is far preferable to learn “at the bar,” and develop your pull-up strength by practicing negatives, banded pull ups, and decreased ROM pull ups as outlined above.

 

And lastly, for those that are already doing pull ups and want to step up their game:  

  • If you’re not already, change your grip position (pronated vs. supenated vs. neutral) every so often.
  • Increase reps by doing more sets of less reps (i.e. go from 3×8 to 5×6).
  • As described above, use alternative exercises for the same muscle groups (i.e. rows, pullovers, curls, etc.) and train those exercises for strength (heavier weights and lower reps, such as a 5×5).
  • Incorporate weighted pull ups (you will have to decrease your reps significantly at first…for example, if you normally do sets of 8, you might be able to do sets of 3 or 4 with 15-20 lbs added).

 

That about covers it…so start practicing, and I hope to see yall at “the bar!”

 

Just a reminder – if you don’t already have a pull up bar, this one is a great choice and very reasonably priced.

If you have any questions or would like more guidance on working into doing full pull ups, just let me know!  

 

[PS: Big “thank you” to my wonderful sister, Claire, who did all the filming for me.  She has her own blog over HERE, where she chronicles her adventures in short-term mission work and shares some of her photography.  She’s got a heart of gold and a lot of talent, so check her out!]

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