I say earn because pull ups aren’t easy. They are hard. There’s no getting around it.
Most people have a hard time doing even one. Maybe this sounds like you. If so, I want to help. Because walking by the pull up bar with your eyes to the ground is no way to go through life. Doing bar work is awesome, it really is. Pull ups open up your world to climbing, obstacle races and everything in between. They are even an excellent core exercise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set some goals first: This post will (1) explain a progression to help you achieve your first pull up and (2) argue the case that a pull up is something everyone needs to be able to perform – regardless of age, sex, background, whether you’re a runner, whatever – we all need to do pull ups.
So why are pull ups so challenging for so many people?
For someone who doesn’t hang from a bar very often a pull up might seem damn near impossible. And even for some really strong guys a pull up just does not come easily. Some of the really massive bodybuilders have a tough time lifting their bodyweight beyond a couple reps. And certainly a lot of competitive power-lifters are far too massive to be able to perform a pull up.
How about the average gym-goer, you ask? The New York Times ran an interesting article a couple years ago and highlighted a curious study that came out of the University of Dayton. The study focused on 17 normal weight women who could not perform a pull up. They were then put through a 3 month long strength training program and retested. Surprisingly, (and I imagine frustratingly for the strength coaches) only 4 of the 17 women completed a single pull up.
What happened!? 3 months training and only 4 of 17 succeeded?
We can easily go down a long, winding dirt road and debate the structure of the Dayton study. However, the takeaway is that pull ups are tough – even when you’re training for them!
I suggest that to understand how to perform a pull up, you first need to understand how your body moves.
Without an understanding of how to use your body’s tension and momentum, pull ups will always be out of reach.
So why should you care in the first place? Do you want to build muscle? Pull ups are a major back builder. Want to enhance your functional movement? Pull ups will teach you motor control and body awareness under strain. Want to excel in obstacle races? After all, throwing your bodyweight over an 8-ft wall is just a pull up with a crunch, right? And pull ups lead to brachiating which leads to winning obstacles races. Want to burn calories? Pull ups build muscle and muscle is a high metabolic tissue that gobbles up lots of calories.
Remember these 2 rules
1. Pull ups take skill
2. You can’t cheat physics
The second rule is on there because I don’t what you to think that understanding the theory behind a ‘perfect’ pull up is all you’ve been missing. Pull ups are a form of calisthenics and most bodyweight related exercises take some muscle. If you weigh 180 lbs, then guess what? You’re going to have to pull approximately 90 lbs with each arm. Imagine 90 lbs on the weight stack of a cable machine. Ya, it’s a solid amount of poundage.
Understand and respect these two ground rules, do you?
Good. Then let’s get down to it.
Step 1: Hang from a bar
It doesn’t need to be a high bar, it can be a low one – so long as you can lift your legs off the ground. All you need to do is reach up with a shoulder width grip and slowly load all your body weight. You should be hanging completely from your arms. But I should be clear that your muscles are activated. In other words, your arms aren’t going to be squeezing against your ears. Rather, your shoulder blades should feel as though they are engaged and ready for action.
You should be able to hang like this for 30 seconds. If you can’t hit 30 seconds, keep at it. It will come.
Grip strength is a prerequisite for a pull up. There’s no getting around it. Hit the 30 seconds mark (no cheating) and move on to step 2.
Step 2: Isometric hold at the top
Again, we’re testing grip strength. But this time you’re going to use a box to reach up and grab the bar such that your chin is just over it. What you’re doing here is mimicking the finished position of a pull up.
Squeeze the bar like you are trying to break it in half. Pinch those shoulder blades together as if you are trying to crush a pop can with them. Imagine trying to bring your elbows into your sides. What’s happening here is that you’re beginning to understand that a pull up is largely done with the back, not so much the biceps.
And as before, hold this position for 30 seconds. Then you can graduate to step 3.
Step 3: Low bar chin ups
What? Chin ups? Bear with me.
Chin ups are easier than pull ups for most people because you’re recruiting more bicep and less lats to get you up and over the bar. So, what I want you to do is either set up the rack on a power rack or Smith machine (yes, I actually recommended using the Smith machine :/) to a height that is arms’ length above your head when seated on the ground.
From seated, extend your legs straight outward and reach up with an underhand grip. Now, pull yourself up and let your feet stay on the ground.
If this is still too hard, bend those knees and use your legs to help you up. The idea is to get to the point that your hips are rising off the ground and only your heels are still making contact with the floor. When this is easy, raise one leg at a time so that only one heel is making contact. Switch legs and repeat.
Get comfortable with this movement and progressively load more and more of your bodyweight on the bar. Can you do a complete chin up? It’s time to move on to step 4.
Step 4: Band assisted
The great thing about bands is that there is more help at the bottom and less at the top. The bad thing is that just like when you played with strong rubber bands as a child, sometimes you let go prematurely. Be sure you don’t do this with the bands you use in the gym. The reason this is important is that you’re going to loop the band around your knees and tie off the other end to the bar above you.
Take a nice shoulder width grip (overhand grip – only step 3 was chin ups) on the bar and let the band help you up such that your chin clears the bar.
Experiment using different bands with different resistance. Step it down as you become stronger.
Step 5: Use momentum
Yup, even momentum has its place. Is this cheating? Yes, it is. But it’s the same reason we use push presses to lift more than we can overhead press with strict form. The intent is to work muscles with a higher load than they would normally see.
A means to an end.
The reason this is the last step in my progression is that by now you will have a good feel for the bar. Steps 1 through 4 will build your stability and core strength so that now when I’m asking you to use momentum, you won’t be throwing your weight all over the place. Instead, I’m confident you’ll have the body awareness to direct your momentum primarily upwards.
So when you get to the point that you can just about perform a pull up all on your own, do this:
Start from hanging and using a rapid knee tuck, use the momentum to kick yourself up and over the bar. Then try using only one knee. Then reduce the amount of kick. Keep regressing until you are using no momentum at all.
Pull ups are a key movement pattern. They are absolutely fundamental for someone – anyone – to lift their weight on top of something.
Compete in obstacle races? You need to do pull ups. Will you ever need to climb a tree or fence to evade mean dogs? Climb through a window to save someone from a fire? Save yourself from a fire?! I sure hope not. But I’d rather you be able to perform a pull up all the same.
When you can do one good pull up, keep going, work on getting three in a row. Why should you do 3 great pull ups? Because one could be a fluke, 2 may be luck, but there’s no faking three.
By Ryan Wagner
Feeling solid with your pull ups? Try some of these challenges.
Another progression to consider: The hang of it
New York Times: Why women can’t do pull ups
It's time to earn your first pull up by Ryan Wagner