The pull-up is one of the best muscle and strength building exercises.
However, there are people throughout the world who can't do a single repetition.
We are here to give you all the nitty gritty details on how to do a pull-up by finding your weak links, addressing them, and integrating pull-up progressions in your workout routine.
In the first part we will present the factors that influence your ability to do pull-ups.
This will help you assess the necessary effort it will take you to reach that first repetition.
Furthermore, you will know exactly what changes to make in your lifestyle – if any – so that you can maximize your results and do your first pull-up.
In the second part we'll take a glimpse at the progressions, build a 3-phase workout plan, point out the most common weak links, and teach you how to address them.
This information will give you a bird-eye view on how you may structure your lifestyle and goals depending on where you’re starting from.
There are two factors that will greatly influence your progress with the pull-up.
These factors are weight and gender.
The pull-up is at the top of the food chain when it comes to pulling movements.
There are hardly any other exercises that offer more benefits in terms of muscle development, convenience, and simplicity.
However, your weight will strongly influence your capacity to progress with this exercise.
The heavier you are, the harder it will be.
As opposed to free weights or machines, you cannot drop the extra weight in a split second if it is over you current strength levels.
If you're an average weight individual, you just need to build enough strength so you can lift you body and in the process eat more to build on muscle mass.
If your weight is above average, your diet will strongly influence your progress with this movement (and any other bodyweight exercise for that matter).
Studies have shown that there are slight differences between men and women when it comes to training.
We have outlined the major differences below and mentioned some suggestions.
On average men have 15% body fat
On average men have 40% more upper body muscle mass than women
On average women have 25% body fat
On average women build muscle mass at about half the rate of men
*Intensity vs volume
Intensity: how difficult an exercise is relative to your 1RM. The 1RM (repetition maximum) is the amount of weight you can lift for 1 repetition only. The closer you are to your 1RM, the less repetitions you will be able to do, and the more intense the exercise will be.
With bodyweight fitness you will influence the intensity of the exercise by changing the variation, not the weight.
Doing an archer pull-up instead of a regular pull-up will make the exercise harder.
Doing an eccentric pull-up instead of a regular one will make the exercise easier. More on that later.
Volume: the total amount of repetitions you can do in a workout. The higher the intensity, the less volume you will be able to sustain and vice versa.
You may be able to do 3 x 10 (three sets of ten repetitions) of regular pull-ups. But if you try that with one arm pull-ups you may find it impossible.
Why? Because the one arm pull-up is way more difficult and your body is not able to generate that amount of strength for prolonged periods of time (multiple repetitions).
**The above suggestions are made in the context of training to achieve your first pull-up.
Studies mentioned above:
Depending on the case, it may take you less or more time to do your first pull-up.
Remember that you are on your own journey and the goal of doing pull-ups is possible regardless of your starting point.
What muscles do pull-ups work?
Understanding the information in this section will help further down the line when we’ll be addressing possible weak links.
In the end, you are only as strong as your weakest link.
If you have a basic understanding of what muscles are being primarily engaged during pull-ups, you will know what issues to address in the future as you progress in your training.
Below, we'll also show some of the best exercises to address common weak links found in people who cannot do a pull-up.
As you'll see, there are only a couple primary movers.
Those are the muscles that should be targeted when addressing the weak links.
Primary muscles used in a pull-up
The primary movers in a pull-up are:
The latissimus dorsi (lats or wings) are the muscles that originate from the mid-lower back and insert into the humerus.
Depending on the pull-up variation we’re using, this muscle will be engaged to varying degrees.
The most engagement comes from a wide grip, overhand pull-up, while the least engagement comes from a narrow grip, underhand pull-up (chin-up).
The biceps brachii is a two headed muscle that originates from the scapula and inserts into the elbow/radius (overly simplified).
In a typical pull-up, the biceps is in a technical disadvantage, forcing the latissimus dorsi to do most of the work.
However, if you turn your palms towards yourself and do a chin-up instead, the biceps will be fully engaged.
This will make pulling yourself up way easier.
Furthermore, during chin-ups the engagement of the brachioradialis is reduced. This is helpful because the brachioradialis is a common weak link with pull-ups.
We will be discussing that in the weak links section.
Muscles used for stabilization
Muscles throughout your entire body engage when you are performing a bodyweight exercise.
This is not an exaggeration.
All exercises need stabilization muscles.
However, certain exercises require more stabilization than others.
In a lat pulldown you are seated, so you don't need much stabilization to hold the position.
In comparison, pull-ups are performed while hanging, so the core engages more to prevent your body from swinging and jerking around.
Let’s mention the muscles used to stabilize the entire range of motion of a pull-up:
Fortunately, you will not have to develop all these muscles before you can do a pull-up.
All you need is to focus on the primary movers.
How to do a pull-up
Now that we understand some pull-up principles, it's time to get to the progressions.
We will be presenting how to do the exercises with good form, as well as some cues to help you maintain the good form.
In the next section you will find a plan to follow.
All these coupled with consistency will have you do your first pull-up in a matter of weeks.
Specificity in training is key.
The faster you can go into a progression that mimics the end goal (i.e. pull-ups), the faster your progress will be.
Even though the inverted row doesn't totally mimic the movement pattern in a pull-up, it is a great exercise to build pulling strength.
The perk of inverted rows is that the intensity can be easily changed.
To change the intensity just change the angle of your body in relation to the ground.
The closer you are to parallel, the harder it will be.
However, there are a few key points you need to keep in mind.
These are cues that will prevent you from performing the exercise with poor technique.
Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
Doing this will mimic the grip used in pull-ups.
If you grab the bar with an underhand grip it will mimic the chin-up. This is not bad, because the two exercises are closely related.
However, since specificity is key, the more specific you can be, the better the results.
To properly do this exercise you must not pike at the hips or keep them overly extended.
Your body should be a straight line from your head to your heels. If you have the necessary core strength go ahead and do a posterior pelvic tilt (PPT).
The PPT is the movement in which you tilt your pelvis posteriorly (towards the front of your body).
The pelvic tilt will fully engage your core muscles making it easier to keep a straight line.
Start with your elbows locked and a neutral back.
Depress and retract your scapula (shoulder blades), pull your chest to the bar, then return to the starting position.
Scapula depression: pushing your shoulder blades down. Think about the opposite movement of shrugging (which is scapular elevation).
Scapula retraction: moving your shoulder blades toward the spine. Think about pinching your shoulder blades together.
Once you return to the bottom position relax your shoulder blades.
So, again, start with a neutral back. Engage your shoulder blades, pull your chest to the bar, then fully extend your elbows.
This is one repetition.
Depending on the angle in which you do the movement, mobility may prevent you from touching the bar with the chest. If that is the case, get your chest as close to the bar as possible.
Try to increase the range of motion over time.
Eccentric training is one of the best ways to build strength.
With eccentrics you are training the pull-ups in reverse, building strength through the entire range of motion of the exercise.
Follow these guidelines to perform the exercise correctly:
The starting position is with your chin above the bar.
The chin over the bar is one end of the range of motion.
This position will allow you to take advantage of the isometric contraction at the top.
You will want to work with the entire range of motion, from end to end.
The slower you lower to the ground, the more benefits you will get.
The lowering part is called the eccentric (negative), and your muscles are acting as a braking system as you lower.
Most strength output is produced during this part.
We recommend you to lower with a speed that allows you to do 3-5 repetitions.
We always recommend beginners to start with a three seconds eccentric (lowering over a period of three seconds).
Afterwards, they can progress by either increasing the time of the eccentric, adding weight, or doing pull-ups if they have already attained the necessary strength.
At the bottom position your elbows should be fully locked.
This is the other end of the range of motion.
If you want to avoid weak links you must work the entire range of motion, from top to bottom.
When you are lowering, as your arms are straightening, keep your shoulder blades down.
After your elbows are fully locked, keep your shoulder blades down for one more second, before you let yourself sink in a completely dead hang.
You can see the difference between an active hang and a dead (passive) hang in the video above.
There are three levels of eccentric pull-ups:
Level 1: Feet touching the ground
If you can't do a full eccentric pull-up yet, use your feet to 'reduce' your weight and the intensity of the exercise.
Level 2: Bodyweight only
Level 3: Weighted eccentrics
If you can do one or two full pull-ups, doing them as part of your workout would bring you no value.
That is just testing your strength.
You will gain a lot more if, instead of doing sets of two pull-ups, you would do weighted eccentrics.
We guarantee that the results will be coming in quicker.
Chin-ups are easier than pull-ups.
In a pull-up the biceps is in a technical disadvantage so it can't assist optimally.
However, in a chin-up the forearm is supinated; the biceps is in a technical advantage and can assist optimally.
The drawback is that the recruitment of the lats and brachioradialis decreases.
Therefore, there will not be a 100% transferability in strength between the chin-up and the pull-up.
We recommend you to start doing chin-ups if you've gotten bored with eccentric pull-ups and want to switch things up.
Let's imagine you have done your first full pull-up, bottom to top and back to bottom.
From here on you just have to keep doing what you've done to reach this point and tweak some minor things in your workout.
In the following section we'll see how to structure a workout program to reach your first pull-up.
How to structure your routine to achieve your first pull-up
Now that we’ve gone through all the progressions needed to get you to your first pull-up, it’s time to build a workout around them.
The progressions alone are not a workout.
However, you will include them in your workout routine three times a week.
If you don't have a bodyweight workout yet, we have you covered. Just click here.
In this chapter we'll cover:
Training days, sets, reps, and rest
If you can't do a pull-up it means that you are lacking strength.
Therefore, the guidelines below will focus on optimizing strength, rather than optimizing hypertrophy (muscle mass) or endurance.
You will train three days a week with a rest day in between.
That can mean M/W/F, Tu/Thur/Sat or the like.
There are two reasons behind this:
The more you do an exercise, the better you become at it.
Doing pull-ups three times a week will elicit a good response from your central nervous system.
What does that mean?
Your body will make changes to support the exercise: your muscles will get more dense and increase in size, and your tendons and joints will get stronger.
This is called adaptation.
Whenever you train you are depleting the glycogen in your muscles and micro-tears are forming in the muscular tissue.
At beginner levels you need at least a rest day between workout sessions where the same muscle group will be targeted.
With time you will be able to perform up to five-six days a week.
However, intensity dictates how much rest you need.
A pull-ups world record holder can easily do dozens of pull-ups daily without the need for a day off.
On the other hand, a beginner would soon find himself overtrained or even injured.
That's why beginners need to take it slow and have one or two rest days before training a certain muscle group again.
Let's look at the principles of strength training to figure out what our sets, reps, and rest scheme should be.
Check the progressions above and pick one that is intense for you.
Pick a progression of which you can only do at most 5 repetitions.
Let's imagine you chose inverted rows. Here is what your program would look like:
You start by doing five sets of three repetitions (5x3).
Between each set there will be a three minutes rest.
Over time build up to five sets of five repetitions (5x5).
Once you can do five sets of five repetitions (5x5), decrease the sets and increase the repetitions until you can do at least three sets of eight repetitions (3x8).
When and how to progress
Once you can do 3x8 (three sets of eight reps) of any progression, you can start training the next one.
Once you get started with a new progression, you may only be able to do 1-2 repetitions.
If that happens, just do as many repetitions as you can of that progression, then continue with the previous one.
You have the goal of doing 5x5 eccentric pull-ups.
You start doing the eccentrics and can only do three reps.
You stop at three and, with no rest in between, do two inverted rows (previous exercise) to complete a total of five reps.
This counts as one set.
You then go ahead and do four more sets.
Keep training like this until you can do 3x8.
Pull-up workout plan
It's time to discuss the workout plan that will help you reach your first pull-up.
Unfortunately, we will not be able to give you a specific time-frame for achieving your goal, because everyone starts at a different level.
However, we will split this plan into multiple phases each with its own requirements and end goal.
In the first phase the focus is going to be building up strength with the inverted rows.
To reach three sets of 8-10 inverted rows you will be starting out with 5 sets of 3 repetitions.
You will be training three times a week with a day of rest in between training sessions.
Additionally, in every single workout session you will strive to do better than in the previous one.
In the real world the progress may be faster or slower.
Again, this is just an example and it may differ from person to person.
Here is a list of goals to assess your progress:
Once you achieve the end-goal it's time to start the second phase of the program.
In the second phase we will be working with eccentric pull-ups to increase your strength and get your body used to the movement pattern of a pull-up.
Just like above, you will be starting with 5 sets of 3 repetitions and slowly build up to 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions.
The frequency stays the same, three days with a rest day in between.
However, you should know that eccentric training is very taxing on your body. Therefore, you should be especially careful with your rest days, sleeping schedule, and eating habits.
Progression is done just like above:
And, again, you may progress faster or slower.
And here's the list of goals to assess your progress:
By the time you reach your end-goal you should be able to do at least one pull-up from top to bottom.
However, if for some reason that is not the case, there are three things that you can do.
Choose one of the following:
1. Increase your time for every eccentric from 3 seconds to 5 or even 8 seconds
2. Add 11 lbs (5kg) and continue doing the 3-second eccentrics
3. Jump to Phase 3
As we've mentioned above, you should already be able to do pull-ups by now.
However, if you cannot do a single pull-up yet, you'll start working on some chin-ups to force your body to adapt.
* Tempo refers to how fast you perform an exercise.
30X1 translates as:
- (3) you start at the top position with your chin above the bar and lower for three seconds
- (0) take no rest at the very bottom
- (X) explode back up by pulling as hard as you can
- (1) stay one second with the chin above the bar before you lower back for three seconds
As with inverted rows and eccentric pull-ups, you'll be starting with 3x (3-5) chin-ups and build until you reach the 3 x (8-10) range.
However, with this one you will be focusing on both the concentric (pulling) and the eccentric (lowering) portions of the exercise.
Once you reach the end goal you are guaranteed to do at least one pull-up. Realistically, you would actually be looking at around 4-5 pull-ups for multiple sets.
And to speed up the process...
Focusing on fixing weak links can save you weeks or even months of unnecessary effort.
If you want to know how to train to do a pull-up, you need to have the ability to spot and fix potential weak links.
Taking into consideration that the progressions outlined above build up smoothly one after another...
The weak links will most likely be a problem before starting with the progressions, or after you have already achieved your first pull-up.
The most common weak links are related to latissimus dorsi strength, scapula stability, and/or grip strength.
Fixing latissimus dorsi weakness
The earliest issue you may face before achieving your first pull-up is the inability to do even a single inverted row.
This issue is not as common; the inverted row is a fairly easy exercise and the intensity can be changed by changing the angle between your body and the ground.
However, if you are unable to do a single inverted row, there are two main exercises that you can start working on.
These will build the necessary strength to get you to your first inverted row.
Bent over dumbbell row
For optimal results follow the guidelines in the video above.
Even though it is a common exercise at the gym, there are lots of people who do it wrong.
There are two form mistakes you have to avoid:
Hunching your back will focus more on your upper traps region than your latissimus dorsi, so you'd be training the wrong muscles.
Furthermore, it can ingrain bad habits in terms of form. If you take those habits and apply them to barbell rows or deadlifts there is a big chance you will destroy your back.
As for the knee on the bench...
If you keep one knee on the bench and the other leg on the floor, you are asymmetrically loading your pelvis.
This can lead to inguinal hernia.
Instead, straddle the bench (keep the bench between your legs), both feet planted on the ground, and do the exercise in this position.
Working this in conjunction with the bent over dumbbell row will take you to your first inverted row while keeping you injury free.
The lat pulldown is a vertical pulling movement and the row is a horizontal movement.
Working the horizontal and vertical planes of motion together will lead to balanced muscles and will prevent posture issues.
These two exercises on their own will not be specific training on how to do a pull-up.
You may be inclined to think otherwise, especially since the lat pulldown seems to mimic the same movement.
Remember that there are lots of muscles that engage during a pull-up that don’t engage during the lat pulldown.
Once you can do an inverted row you will want to work up to the 5X5 repetitions and continue to go through the progressions.
This will ensure that you are training specific to your goal.
Fixing scapular weakness
Lack of strength in your scapula will limit your potential with doing pull-ups.
If the stability or strength of your scapula and shoulder is an issue, there is a high chance that you won’t notice it until you have already achieved your first pull-up.
If you are unable to break through a certain number of reps, your scapulae may be at fault.
To fix this you can do what’s known as a scap pull-up.
Working this exercise for three sets of 8-10 repetitions will help you out tremendously.
Fixing grip weakness
Another common weak link is the lack of grip strength.
If you can do a few pull-ups, but at some point your arms can no longer bear the hang, this is an issue with the grip strength.
These are some ways in which you can address this issue specifically for pull-ups:
At the very end of your workout take a few more minutes and hang from the bar for time.
What I like to do is hang for 45-60 seconds, rest, then repeat two more times.
Eventually, you will be able to hang from one arm.
In our opinion, this is one of the best grip specific exercises.
Instead of doing a basic pull-up in which you grab a bar, wrap two towels around the bar and grab onto those and pull yourself up.
Do this and your grip strength will change tremendously for the better.
Top position isometric hold
I remember that when I started, even though I was able to do several pull-ups, the movement was jerky and it looked as if I had no control on the bar.
That is when I came across an exercise that changed my form and my range of motion within two weeks.
Take five minutes at the end of your workout sessions and do this: pull your chin over the bar - preferably chest to bar - and hold that (isometric) position for 30 seconds, rest for one minute, and repeat.
Repeat for 2-3 sets.
Honestly back then I was not even able to reach the 30-second mark but in just two weeks I was way better at doing pull-ups than I had been for the previous months.
Word of caution: this position is quite demanding for the elbow joint. We recommend you to do it only twice a week.
How to address weak links
The above mentioned exercises could and should be used to fix the issues.
When addressing weak links you don’t want to stop doing the main progressions.
The exercises presented to fix weak links are only there to bridge the gap – they are accessory exercises.
Therefore, you won’t drop the main progression (e.g. inverted row, eccentric pull-ups, etc.), but you do those then incorporate exercises to work on the weak links.
Free weights are particularly good in fixing weak links because you can isolate a certain area or muscle.
So if you have a weak link in your lats, you would do inverted rows or eccentrics, as well as bent over dumbbell rows, or lat pulldowns.
Same goes for the other areas.
How to do more pull-ups
Now that you’ve learned how to do a pull-up, how should you go about turning that one rep into 10-20?
There are two strategies I like to use, depending on what exercise I’m doing and how my recovery goes.
Let’s assume that you are able to do a single pull-up.
What you would do is do that one repetition then, with no rest, you go ahead and do four more eccentrics (so you reach a total number of five repetitions).
Basically you reduce the intensity during the set (hence the name).
Repeat that for every single set.
With time, you will get to do two pull-ups, then three and so on until you reach five.
Greasing the groove is a great method that can be used to increase the number of reps in a fairly short period of time.
The idea behind this concept is that the volume during the set drops while the frequency increases (leading to more overall volume).
This in turn facilitates neurological adaptations (i.e. your body gets used to the movement).
However, for this to work you need to be able to do more than one repetition.
Ideally, you will be able to do at least six.
Once you are able to do six pull-ups, take 50-80% of that, and do that amount of reps in 4-6 sets dispersed throughout the day, 4-6 days per week.
So if you are able to do a maximum of six pull-ups, you will grease the groove by doing 4-6 sets throughout the day, each consisting of 3-4 repetitions, anywhere between 4-6 days per week.
While greasing the groove works wonders for most exercises, there are some exercises which don’t benefit from this method.
If you try to grease the groove with an exercise such as the planche you will soon find the muscles supporting the exercise fatigued.
This method works best for exercises that work big muscle groups in particular, such as pull-ups, squats, push-ups, etc.
Remember that working out is a marathon, not a sprint.
Everyone is different and we all start from different places when it comes to weight, height, training experience and so on.
Train smart and focus on longevity rather than doing a lot to achieve your goals faster.
Doing too much too quickly is a surefire way to getting injured, especially if you are a beginner.
Now that you know how to do a pull-up, you can start (or continue) the journey on becoming your best self.
Be patient and have fun with it. In the end you’ll get there.
Over to you.