How To Do A Pull-Up: The Most Comprehensive Guide

Man at the top position of a pull up

The pull up is one of the best muscle and strength building exercises.

However, there are people throughout the world who can't do one. 

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.

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.

Preliminary information

There are some factors you should be aware of before embarking in this journey.

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.

These are factors such as weight and gender.

Weight

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 you are above average weight, your diet will strongly influence your progress with this movement (and any other bodyweight exercise for that matter).

Gender

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.

Men

​15%

On average men have 15% body fat

40%

On average men have 40% more upper body muscle mass than women

  • Do better with increased intensity
  • Recover slower than women
  • Can produce more power and force

*Suggestions:

  • Train with harder progressions for less repetitions
  • Take longer rest breaks, train about three times a week

Women

25%

On average women have 25% body fat

50%

On average women build muscle mass at about half the rate of men

  • Do better with increased volume
  • Resist fatigue better than men
  • Can train with higher frequency

*Suggestions:

  • Train with easier progressions for multiple repetitions
  • Train at least three times a week, up to five sessions
  • Take shorter breaks

*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 than it takes other people.

Remember that you are on your own journey and the goal of doing pull ups is possible regardless of your gender.

Muscles used

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 in the movement, 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 the most common weak links found in people who cannot do a pull-up.

As you'll see, there are only a handful of primary movers.

Those are the muscles that should be targeted when addressing the weak links.

Picture showing the anatomy of the back, from the nape to the lower back

Primary muscles used in a pull-up

Latissimus dorsi

The latissimus dorsi (lats or wings) are the muscles that originate from the mid-lower back and inserts into the humerus.

Depending on the pull up progression 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).

Diagram showing the latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae and serratus posterior superior muscles

Biceps

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, requiring the latissimus dorsi to do most of the work.

Diagram showing the long head and the short head of the biceps muscle

However, if you turn your palms towards yourself and do a chin-up instead, the biceps will be engaged more.

Chin-ups are an easier progression because the biceps supports the movement.

Furthermore, there is minimal engagement from the brachioradialis which tends to be a weak link for the majority of beginners.

Lack of strength in the brachioradialis is a common weakness, so it will be addressed 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.

Example:

In a lat pulldown you are seated, so you don't need much stabilization to hold the position.

In comparison pull ups are done hanging, so the core engages 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:

  • Triceps
  • Pectoralis major (yes, the chest muscles)
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Obiques
  • Lower back

As you can probably see, there is a lot of muscle activation in performing a single pull up.

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 and cues to keep in mind.

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. 

Inverted row

Man doing inverted rows on gymnastics rings

Specificity in training is key.

The faster you can go into a progression that mimics the exercise, the faster your progress will be.

Even though the inverted row (a.k.a. Australian pull up) doesn't totally mimic the movement pattern in a pull up, it is a great exercise to build pulling strength.

What we love most about inverted rows is that the intensity can be easily adjusted.

Changing the intensity is as easy as changing 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.

  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip

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.

  • Keep your body in a straight line

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 shoulders 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 and holding a straight line will be a breeze.

  • Full range of motion

Start with your elbows locked and a neutral back.

Depress and retract your scapulae, pull so your chest touches the bar, then return to the starting position.

Don't forget to relax your back at the end.

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 pull up

Four frames picture of a man starting at the top position of a pull up and descending to the bottom position

Eccentric training is one of the best ways of building 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:

  • Chin over the bar

The starting position is with your chin above the bar.

The chin over the bar is one end of the range of motion.

Furthermore, it will allow you to take advantage of the isometric position at the top position of the exercise.

You will want to work with the entire range of motion, from end to end.

  • Lower slowly

The slower you lower to the ground, the more benefits you will get.

We recommend you to lower with a speed that allows you to do more than one repetition.

We always recommend beginners to start with a three seconds eccentric, then progress by either increasing the time, weight, or doing pull ups if they have already attained the necessary strength.

  • Elbows fully locked

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.

Furthermore...

When you are lowering, as your arms are straightening, keep your shoulder blades down.

After your elbows are fully locked, hold 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 above.

There are three levels of eccentric pull ups:

  • Level 1: Legs 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

Self explanatory.

  • 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.

After your elbows are fully locked, hold keep your shoulder blades down for one more second, before you let yourself sink in a completely dead hang.

Chin-ups (optional)

Man doing chin-ups in a park designed for workouts

Chin-ups 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 no longer in a technical advantage and can assist optimally. 

The drawback is that the recruitment of the lats is minimized.

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.

First pull-up

Let's imagine you have done your first full pull-up, bottom to top and back to bottom.

Now what?

From here on you just have to keep doing what you've done to reach this point and tweak some minor things into your workout.

In the following section we'll see how to structure a workout program to reach your first pull-up.

Programming

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 training regiment three times a week.

In this chapter we'll cover:

  1. When and how to train
  2. When and how to progress
  3. Workout plan

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 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:

  • Frequency

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 start to adapt to the strain, your muscles will get more dense and increase in size, and your tendons and joints will get stronger.

  • Rest

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 in between workout sessions where the same muscle group will be targeted.

With time you will be able to perform daily.

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 rest.

On the other hand, a beginner would soon find himself overtrained or even injured.

Onward.

Let's look at the principles of strength training to figure out what our sets, reps, and rest scheme should be.

  • Sets, reps, and rest time

Check the progressions above and pick one that is intense for you.

More precisely?

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:

  • Exercise: Inverted Rows
  • Sets: 3-5
  • Repetions: 3-8
  • Rest: 3 minutes

You start by doing five sets of three repetitions.

Between each set there will be a three minutes rest.

Over time build up to five sets of five repetitions.

Once you can do five sets of five repetitions, decrease the sets and increase the repetitions until you can do at least three sets of eight repetitions.

When and how to progress

Once you can do 5x5 (five sets of five 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 former one.

Example:

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.

Weak links

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.

Example:

  • Not being able to perform a single inverted row
  • Your body shaking uncontrolably
  • Not being able to surpass a certain number of repetitions

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 angles.

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:

  1. Hunching your back
  2. Keeping one knee on the bench and one leg on the floor

Why?

Hunching your back will focus more on your upper traps region than your latissimus dorsi.

Furthermore, it can ingrain bad habits in terms of form. If you take those habits and apply them to dumbbell rows or deadlifts there is a big chance you will destroy your back.

As for the legs...

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 using this form.

Lat pulldown

Working this in conjunction with the bent over dumbbell row will not only take you to your first inverted row while keeping you injury free.

How?

The lat pulldown is a vertical pulling movement and the row is a horizontal movement.

Working these planes of motion together will lead to muscles balanced and 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.

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 number of reps, your scapulae may be at fault.

To fix this you can do what’s known as a scap pull-up.

How?

  1. Start in a dead hang position
  2. Pull the shoulder blades down and back as much as you can
  3. Hold for 1-2 seconds, then return to the dead hang

Working this exercise to three sets of 8-10 repetitions will help you out tremendously.

Fixing grip weakness

A common weak is the lack 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:

Dead hanging

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.

Towel pull-ups

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 reps for 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 every workout session, pull your chest to the bar and hold that (isometric) position for 30 seconds.

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.

How to address weak links

The above exercises could and should be used to fix the issues.

When addressing weak links you don’t want to stop doing the main progressions.

Those are only there to bridge the gap – they are just a means to an end.

The good way to go about exercises meant to fix particular issues, is to use them as accessory exercises.

Therefore, you won’t drop the main progression (e.g. inverted row, eccentrics, etc.), but you do those then incorporate exercises to fix the weak links.

Free weights are particularly good in fixing weak links because you can specifically target a certain area.

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.

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.

  • Change progressions

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).

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 (increase frequency)

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 intensity drops while the frequency increases.

This in turn leads to 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 a 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 3-4 repetitions in 4-6 sets throughout the day, anywhere between 4-6 days per week.

While greasing the groove works wonders for most exercises, there are others which don’t benefit from this method.

Example:

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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

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Push-ups Tutorial

Tips to start training to achieve your first push-ups

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