Learning to Do a Pull-up

The pull-up is my all-time favorite exercise, so naturally I write about it a lot. Unfortunately, not all of my readers can do a pull-up…yet. Many of you have told me you feel like you’ll never be able to do a pull-up. Well that’s crap! If I can do it, so can you.

Pull Yourself Together (And UP!)
As is the case with all bodyweight exercises, the heavier you are, the harder it is to do a pull-up, so the first area to assess is your weight. Hopefully, you’ve already started cleaning up your diet. Once you drop the fat, doing a pull-up gets way more realistic.

Another reason you may be having a hard time doing pull-ups is lack of upper-body strength. This is more often an issue for women. It’s just biology ladies – you don’t have as much natural upper-body strength as men. This does not mean you are incapable of pull-ups, it just means that you have to work a little harder for it. (Check out my pull-up tutorial for women for more info).

You Don’t Need Machines
When I was a rookie trainer, I used to put clients on the assisted pull-up (Gravitron) machine. In theory, every few weeks I’d be able to lower the amount of assistance until they didn’t need it at all anymore. In theory.

In reality, none of my clients ever made the leap from not being able to do a pull-up to being able to do one using the Gravitron. The problem is that it takes most of the stability away from the exercise, making it closer to a lat pull-down than an actual pull-up.

How to Work Towards Pull-ups
The two best ways to work towards pull-ups are manually assisted pull-ups and negatives. Manually assisted pull-ups are when you have your trainer spot you on the way up by pressing on your mid-back with their hand(s). (I prefer this method over the “hold the feet” method for the same reasons I dislike the Gravitron.)

Negatives and Flex Hangs
Holding the top of a pull-up and then coming down slowly will train your central nervous system to learn the mechanics of the pull-up. Jump or use assistance to get your chin over the bar, then hold the top position for as long as you can. When your arms start to fatigue, lower yourself to a right angle at your elbow and hold there. From here, slowly lower yourself to a full hang.

And of course, there’s the good ol’ Australian Pull-up.

Things like lat pull-down machines and Gravitrons aren’t totally useless, but they should not be used as your sole means of working this movement pattern. Moving your own body weight is a unique skill that requires practice and patience.

Watch the video below for more:

For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.

This entry was posted in Body Weight Exercises, Pull-ups!. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    That sounds about right.  In time your numbers will improve.  Check out this post about increasing your reps on pull-ups: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/04/how-to-increase-your-reps-on-pull-ups/

  • John

    Thanks man.

  • Elv_wan

    Al, I need your advice =) I  seem to have no problem using the underhand pull up (chin up),I can do 8 but when I do the standard pull up I can’t even do 1! Is it because my triceps are weak? I’m 200pounds! Thanks Al! =)

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    The problem isn’t your triceps, it’s your lats.  Start training overhand flex hangs and negatives.

  • Elv_wan

    Oki =) Thanks Al!

  • John Bohlig

    Thanks, Al. I have friends who will be helped by your article.Excellent as always.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, John!  You should definitely share this with your friends.

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  • Anonymous

    At age 48 and a weight of 243lbs patience is the key. Machines don’t help a whit. What does is hanging from the top position as long as possible, then lowering yourself. Losing weight would help for sure but I am up to 3 per set anyway.

    I used to do seated rows and topped out at 180lbs. I switched to nothing but dips, chinups, and pull ups for a few weeks. I tested to see how I progressed on the seated row and stopped adding weight at 240lbs, I could have gone farther but you get the idea. Same thing for the bicep curl machine. Way more progress using bodyweight exercises.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Right on, Krinks!  Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Anna

    First, I’m a big fan of you and your website Al!  You do a great job of explaining techniques and providing inspiration to all.  Cheers to that!
    I’m trying desperately trying to do a pullup (and have been trying for quite a while now) and have a question regarding the flexed arm hang.  Should I be doing repetitions of this exercise and if so, with rest or no rest?  Or should I do a series over the course of the day?  (I have a door-hanging pull-up bar).  Also, since my feet touch the ground when I’m at the bottom, is there a preference on how my legs should be positioned (in back of me or in front)?

    Thanks so much!   Anna.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Anna!  There are a lot of different ways to approach pull-up training and they all have their merits.  As for foot position, you’re probably better off learning with your knees bent and your feet behind you.

  • Dan

    I wonder if you have any pull-up advice that’s specific to tall, heavy guys with very long arms. I’m 6’6″ at about 240 pounds and can manage 10 overhand, wide grip pull-ups if I do them at the beginning of a workout. I’m proud to be able to do 10 reps considering my weight (mostly muscle) and how far I have to move it, but I’m shooting for 15 reps (one of your prerequisites for the human flag) and have begun to feel like I’ll never get there.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Dan – I don’t have any specific advice for taller guys, but there is this post on increasing reps that you may have missed: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/04/how-to-increase-your-reps-on-pull-ups/

  • Gujar_abhi

    Al i have a question abt form on pullups.

    Should i squeeze my shoulder blade and keep my chest up or let the shoulders come upwards in the deadhang part of pullups?

    I have heard various opinions but i guess since you are an expert on BW exercises it makes sense to ask you.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I think it’s better for beginners to maintain the retracted shoulder blade position.  Keep your chest up and pull your shoulders down.

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    Many people haven’t money on go to gym and they doing exercises on the horizontal bar. 

  • Benjamin W

    Al, great blog and pull-up tutorial. I was doing assisted pull-ups using a device with bands and didln’t see any improvement. I gave that up and then started following your advice found in this tutorial. When I began I was unable to do a single pull-up but at the end of my third week I can now do 4 in a set. Thanks a lot Al!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Congrats on your progress, Benjamin! Glad my tutorial helped!

  • David

    Hey Al! Thanks for all the great tips and tutorials! I was wondering how to increase reps on full pull ups because I’m currently able to do 2 sets of 10 full pull ups, no kipping, but I’m having trouble increasing reps. I have been able to add a couple to my first set, but then can’t match it on my second. I end up doing negatives as a replacement for the reps I could not complete on my second set. My goal is to do 2 sets of 20 full pull ups.

    I was also wondering, about how many negative pull ups you would consider to be equal to one full pull up? I can’t really tell cause I have only been doing negatives after I am tired from full pull ups. I wanted to say around 5 though. What do you think?

  • RobbyTaylor

    Once you start to tire out on pull ups, try switching your grip and doing chin ups; most people find them substantially easier due to more recruitment of the biceps. Personally I try to switch grips every set. Use the harder grips earlier in the workout, then easier grips later. Eventually it will start to even out. Also you should probably be doing more than just 2 sets, and I don’t know but I hope you are doing more than just pull ups. A good idea would be to alternate it with sets of push ups or dips. Since you can do sets of 10, another option is to add a bit of weight so that you can only do sets of, say, 6, then build back up to 10 with that weight. After that, go back to taking the weight away. Or, you can do a one arm assisted variation. My personal favorite is probably the towel assist method, where you hang a towel on the bar and grab it with one hand. This hand will serve to assist the hand that is on the bar. Yet another option is to do your pull ups normally, but hold the top position for a few seconds, squeezing your upper body hard. If you feel bold, you may want to begin experimenting with one arm flex hangs (chin up grip, of course). They are quite challenging!

    As for converting negatives to pull ups, I don’t really think a given number of negavites “equals” a pull up. But, if I recall correctly, a controlled eccentric (negative) portion of a movement is approximately 40% of the work, while the concentric (positive) portion is about 60%.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, David! In addition to the advice you’ve gotten below from Robby, I did a blog post on increasing your pull-ups that you should check out: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/04/how-to-increase-your-reps-on-pull-ups/

  • David

    Great ideas Robby! Thanks a bunch! I’ll try some of those ideas soon.
    Thanks for the link Al! I had completely forgotten about that. I had read that article earlier this year, but forgot about it because I’ve been reading many other things as well.

    Just wanted to say, I’ve been doing more than just pull ups. I’ve actually been doing the Convict Conditioning series. I was thinking about getting Al’s book soon, but was unsure how to add in that extra workouts or just switch completely. I feel like I’ve been improving, I’m on step 4 or 5 for all of the CC exercises. I just wanted to get some tips for increasing pull ups. I feel like the progression is slow, but effective. My body wants to go faster, but I’m trying to stay consistent with the workout routine.

    Oh and the reason I wanted to get to 20 was because I can get a free T-shirt from the Marines. hahaha. I got a coupon for a free T-shirt with 20 pull ups achieved at my local Marines place, so I’m gonna try it in about a month or two. Even if I fail, it’ll still be lots of fun!

  • RobbyTaylor

    The CC series is great, I especially like the philosophy behind the exercises, and I use the Trifecta from CC2 regularly. But I don’t think it’s wise to limit yourself to the ‘Big Six’, for a couple of reasons. First, you are foregoing such excellent moves as the muscle up, back lever, and front lever (the front lever, by the way, will build more core strength than anything in CC1 or CC2, and pulling strength comparable to one arm pull ups, especially if you’re doing front lever rows, all with one exercise). All of these moves would be replaced by lead-up exercises to the one arm pull up and full hanging leg raise. Great exercises in their own right, but definitely limiting. Second, I am not very fond of the top level pushing exercises. The one arm handstand push up is, of course, almost impossible, and the strict one arm push up is very cumbersome to perform. But that’s not to say that the strict one arm push up isn’t good. Personally, though, I think a better pair of goals is the full range handstand push up and the planche push up. Of course, the 90 degree push up is a fantastic combination of high level horizontal and vertical pressing movements. Aside from Giuliano Stroe, who’s like 8, the world record for those is about 12.

    Raising The Bar is great, and I think it may help you to advance. After all, having another great source of information can’t hurt! What I’ve been doing is structuring my routine based upon training principles that make sense to and work for me, using exercises that I’ve learned from different sources. Pick exercises that complement each other well and help you advance specific areas of your training while still letting you build up other areas.

    Here’s the 2 sets I’ll use for my main work out, depending on the day:

    Set A – focus on high level pulling

    -Muscle up -or- lever pull outs on rings (lower to back lever progression, pull out, lower to front lever progression, pull out. That’s 1 rep)
    -Pike push up
    -Towel pull up
    -Pseudo Planche push up

    Set B – focus on high level pushing

    -Handstand push up (wall)
    -Tuck front lever row
    -Deep dip (shoulders to hands [only do if you have great shoulder mobility. If you're on the final step of the trifecta exercises you should be able to do this]. Rings > straight bar > parallel bars)
    -Towel pull up

    I do other supplementary exercises to round out my training, but this is the brunt of my upper body strength training right now. I’m usually rethinking things and the specific exercises I do ends up changing every couple of weeks, but if you look at the mechanics of each of these exercises and how each set is structured, then look at how the two sets are structured in conjunction, you will see they complement each other quite well for overall development. As a matter of fact, this routine more closely represents Raising the Bar than Convict Conditioning, but those towel pull ups are fantastic for the grip and forearms! Variety is the spice of life, but also the key to avoid monotony and continue progressing. If you limit yourself to CC, it will be a lot easier to stall since you will be working with a limited number of exercises. That’s one reason why my routine changes so frequently.

    As for your Marine challenge, that sounds really cool! I’m gonna look into that because a free T-shirt would be sweet! Also, keep in mind that they do accept chin up grip ;) . It’s worth noting that only about 10% of Marines get 20 pull ups (or chin ups) in the PT test.

  • RobbyTaylor

    Awesome goals, Dan! Especially for a guy your size! You also want to get proficient at handstand push ups. In fact just HSPU and pull ups st your size will make you really strong! You may also want to consider muscle ups. The flag is a tough nut to crack, even for us smaller guys. But with enough work you can do it!

  • David

    Yeah. CC is great and I’ve definitely gotten stronger since I’ve begun, but I’m starting to see how it can be limiting. I’ve wanted to begin practicing muscle ups, or the exercises that lead up to muscle ups, but I’ve been lazy about finding a bar that would allow me to do a muscle up. At the moment, I’m using a door pull up bar. I think I’ll start to slowly change up my routine to add all these various exercises you’ve mentioned. They all sound amazing and fun! Even the ones that look nearly impossible at the moment hahaha.

    Wow your 2 main sets look intense. I want to get to that point eventually. That would be awesome! I was wondering though, when you do those sets, do you do your lower body on different days? I know that in CC, it kinda mixes core/push ups on one day, squats/pull ups on another, and bridge/handstand on another day. Would you recommend doing all upper body one day and then all lower body on the next? I’ve always wondered whats “best” because I’ve heard different things from many different people. Because of this, I’ve had a more difficult time deciding which exercises to do when. I think that’s why I liked CC so much. Cause it had suggested workout routines that I found to be pretty good.

    I’ll definitely need to look at how those sets are structured and the mechanics of each exercise more closely. At the moment, I’ve only heard or seen a hand full of them, so I’ll be researching the rest and try to see how it all fits together!

    Raising the Bar does sound like a great book, and I think I’ll get it soon. And yeah! Another great source can never hurt!

  • RobbyTaylor

    If you’re comfortable with the space limitation, you can hang rings from your doorway bar and do muscle ups and levers on them there…just don’t use excessive momentum haha. Of course a good tree branch or something would be better.

    Thanks man, I try to make the exercises I do as effective as possible. At work, I do 2 or 3 sets of 10 pistol squats on each leg each shift. It adds up, plus leg training isn’t really the focus of my workout it’s just giving me a good base. I used to do L sits and am working on tuck planches for time in sets with my pistols. This way my lower body and upper body have longer periods of time to rest and I still get to do about 5~10 workouts a week. I really like the lever pull outs because you hit the entire upper body very effectively, and it is easily scalable to any fitness level. It’s a nice alternative to muscle ups.

    I do the twist holds, bridges, and neck bridges as warm up and cool down for my main workout. Then I will work with handstands or experiment with a new exercise on some of my off days. There’s a time and a place for every exercise, you just have to be able to structure your routine around your daily life accordingly. If I just did 2 exercises, it would be the muscle up and pistol squat. If you want to go all out, the planche and front lever will turn your upper body into a power suit.

  • David

    I think I’ll be finding a tree branch or hopefully a bar near by soon. I’m not very comfortable with muscle ups yet, so I’m gonna start with kipping. I’m going to start lever training too, it looks so cool!

    Wow you exercise a lot and effectively! I hope to get to that point eventually. Right now, I’ve only been exercising 3 times a week along with biking 2 miles one way to school every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I need to work on upper body more. Gotta get that power suit!

    Thanks so much for all the advice! I’ll be slowly adjusting my routine to add more upper body exercises. I’ll try to post about my Marines challenge after I attempt it, and I’ll be sure to get Raising the Bar very soon!