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How To Get Your First Pull-Up

Mar 15, 2017


  • Getting your first pull-up is all about achieving the right strength to body weight ratio
    • The heavier you are, the stronger you must be
  • Mobility before strength, you need proper range of motion and connective tissue strength to perform a proper (and decent-looking) pull-up
  • Frequency: you need to be training pull-ups at least once a week, ideally 3x
    • Don't expect progress overnight, skill work is all about consistent practice


You want it so bad you can taste it. That's good! The first thing you need is motivation. The next thing you need is a recipe. Today I am excited to share 6 steps towards getting your first pull-up. Why 6 steps? Great question, but I don't have a good answer....because that's how many steps there are in this recipe!

How long will this take you ask? It depends. There are several things to keep in mind when working towards your first pull-up. Getting a pull-up is no easy task. Depending on your training age (how long you have been consistently strength training), your upper extremity injury history (range of motion issues may limit your ability to follow these progressions as prescribed), and your body weight (the heavier you are, the greater strength you will need and strength takes time to develop). If these factors are not limitations for you (i.e. you have an athletic background, non-significant injury history, and a BMI <25), it is reasonable to expect your first pull-up within 3-6 months of consistent practice. However, if you are brand new to strength training, have some mobility restrictions, or are carrying a little extra weight, you will have to be more patient and committed to a longer term of training towards your goal. Which is fine by the way, Rome wasn't built in a day (see how comforting clichés can be?). 

Why is it harder for women than men to get a pull-up? Another solid question. Men have more upper body strength than women. Women tend to carry a bit more of their muscle (and fat) mass in the lower body and thus struggle with a skill like the pull-up that requires strength from the lats, shoulders, and chest. For both men and women, pull-ups are all about your strength:body weight ratio. You may recall a time in your childhood when swinging from the monkey bars was effortless. Now as an adult the thought of hanging from one arm while you flail through the air seems like a recipe for bed rest. This is because as a child our strength:body weight ratio is high. As we emerge from puberty this ratio tends to shift as our level of strength is surpassed by our growing body weight. This is also why those who are overweight will have a much harder time achieving their first pull-up. It is very difficult to develop the strength required to pull your body up to a bar, this is only made more challenging by carrying excess (and frankly unhelpful) mass. Fat cannot contribute to muscular contraction and thus acts as dead weight when it comes to body weight strength exercises. You don't have to be thin to do pull-ups, in fact you can be overweight and nail them, you just have to accept it may take a little longer than you bargained for. 


A forethought: every good workout starts with a proper warm-up. Spend 3-5minutes warming the tissues with some foam-rolling and mobility work. For warm-up ideas visit my YouTube page.

Step #1 Master the Lat Pulldown
If you are brand new to strength training it is important that we develop strength through the lats while maintaining proper scapular positioning. You should be able to comfortably pull ~50% of your body weight for a set of 10 reps before moving on to step #2.

Step #2 Master the Hang & Shoulder Set
One of the hardest parts about performing a pull-up is getting yourself from a dead hang position to a position of tension through the lats and chest that you can actually pull from. To practice you must first be able to hang from the bar. That means holding on with both hands and using your arms to support your body weight for a minimum of 10 seconds. The goal is to work up to a 30 second hold. Once you can hang from the bar for 30 seconds it is time to try some shoulder setting. This is where we practice going from a dead hang to a position of tension. You accomplish this by pulling the shoulders down and away from the ears. You should feel tension (and probably a struggle!) through your lats. This is good! Now let yourself down slow and repeat. Practice lifting yourself out of a dead hang to a position of tension 3 times in a row. Your goal is to be able to do this 10x without rest!
Step #3 Master the Ring or TRX Pull-up
TRX or ring pull-ups are a modified version of the assisted pull-up. In this version we use our arms as much as possible to lift ourselves up, using the legs as much as needed to complete the movement with proper form. Start with bent knees and feet right under your bottom. Set your shoulders first, then begin pulling with the arms as you stand with the legs. Once you can do a set of 5 with perfect form, work on straightening the legs. The straighter the legs, the less they will be able to help you! Your goal is be able to complete 5 reps with perfectly straight legs.
Step #4 Master the Eccentric Pull-up
This is a toughie. Eccentric pull-ups concentrate on the lowering phase of the pull-up. To do this correctly you will need a bench or box to stand on that puts your chin at the height of the bar. With both hands on the bar and shoulders set (which is no big deal because you mastered step 2!), gently step off the box one foot after another. Now lower yourself down as slowly as possible maintaining good form. When you get to the bottom step back onto the box and repeat! Your goal is to be able to 5 of these in a row (no rest, just get back on that box and go again!) counting to 8 seconds on the way down....and I mean 1-mississippi seconds not hyper-speed counting.
Step #5 Master the Assisted Lift
There are two ways to go about this: with a partner or with your own toe. Ideally you will have a partner to train with at all times who doesn't mind holding you under your sweaty armpits....but we can't all be so lucky. I prefer the partner and toe lifts over band or machine assisted pull-ups. Machines provide consistent assistance the entire way through the movement and thus do not adjust to the sticking points of the movement where you need the most help nor the easiest parts of the movement where you could go it alone. Bands are most helpful at their maximum stretch (aka the bottom of the movement). Remember step 2 where we talked about how hard it is to lift yourself from a dead hang to a position of tension? Well the band takes care of that issue and never allows you to develop the strength to pull yourself from a dead hang...because it practically sling shots you out of the bottom of the movement. Instead, grab a partner who can hold you just under your shoulder blades and lift you through your sticking points and leave you the hell alone at your strong points. Partners: only assist the person as much is necessary to keep them moving....any more and you are not doing them a favour. Pullers: don't hate your partner for not helping enough....their hands should feel like a gentle whisper grazing your skin....Weird. If you are a loner and need to practice Step 4 then try this toe-assisted version where you use only as much of the stepping leg as you need (integrity is key here people).

Step #6 Practice Steps 3-5
This is very important. You must carve out time in your training to practice steps 3-5 on a weekly basis! You will keep at this until you have achieved your pull-up. This step takes dedication and patience. You cannot expect to train pull-ups "once in a while" and bang out reps come summer time. You must train at minimum once a week. Ideally you will have a different pull-up progression programmed on 3 training days per week!

Common Mistakes
1) Expecting magic to happen overnight. See Step #6
2) Forgetting to work on your mobility as hard as you are working on your strength. Do not neglect your lats, chest, traps, and T-spine. For foam-rolling demos visit my YouTube page.
3) Shrugging the shoulders and using your traps and chest to make up for weak lats/shoulders. Remember step 2 and practice good shoulder setting. You should not see your shoulders creep up toward your ears when performing a pull-up. 

Well this concludes my mini-guide to getting your first pull-up. I hope you have learned something and are more motivated than ever to achieve this badass skill. There aren't a lot of exercises I recommend for their show-off value, but pull-ups have got to be one of them. A proper pull-up is a reflection of your commitment to building the necessary strength of mind and body required to achieve this challenging skill. As always, if you have any questions you can reach me by email at: [email protected] or find me on Facebook or Instagram.


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