How To Do Your First Pull-up
Over the years of coaching a countless amount of women to their first pull-up, most didn’t believe they could ever do one. Once they got their first it didn’t take long to get to 5 pull-ups, 10 pull-ups or weighted pull-ups.
The goal is just one, after that the rest is easy.
Why are pull-ups such a great exercise?
Pull-ups demonstrate relative strength as well as use muscles that are typically underactive in most sedentary people. When in yoga class, spin, or group fitness classes the back is often neglected due to the absence of equipment needed to properly train it.
Yoga, for example, places a lot of stress on the shoulders and chest muscles which can lead to rounded shoulders. This is terrible for posture, health, and can lead to injuries down the road.
Pull-ups will help balance out the strength and muscle built between the front and the back. The lats are the prime movers of this exercise which is the largest muscle in the upper body.
Having a strong back can keep the shoulders in an optimal position which will make your waist look smaller! These are a must do exercise!
If you hang from a bar and try to do a pull-up but cannot obviously you will need to build strength, but that is half of the puzzle. If your body fat percentage is on the higher side, over 25 percent, then you are carrying extra weight to pull up which makes it a lot tougher.
If you lose body fat while gaining strength it will happen a lot sooner than just gaining strength alone.
How long before I can do 1 pull-up?
In my experience with clients, I’ve seen an average of about 2-4 months before their first pull up. There were of course outliers who did it in a matter of weeks and some who needed to lose more body fat first which resulted in it taking 5+ months.
Similar to the squat there are many types of pull-ups. Chin-ups, neutral grip pull-ups, pull-ups, wide grip pull ups, the list goes on. We will focus on the neutral grip pull-up first as it is easier to obtain as well as more comfortable on the shoulders and forearms.
Just like learning the squat which uses a 3 exercise progression to easily master, the pull up follows a similar approach. The three modalities we will utilize are the cable lat pulldown, band assisted pull-ups and bodyweight variations.
Stage 1: The Lat Pulldown
This is where we build our foundation for the pull-up and a lot of our strength. With the ability to increase or decrease the load by small increments it allows us to start at any strength and get stronger immediately.
The lat pulldown is a very simple exercise to learn, a lot easier than the squat. There are two things to ensure while performing the lat pulldown. The first is to keep the shoulders depressed while pulling.
The second is to work with a full range of motion while performing the exercise. This means holding the bar with the arms fully extended overhead to pulling the bar just below the chin. A pull up only counts when the chin is over the bar.
However, pulling the bar to the clavicle is also acceptable, just do not pull the bar below the collar bones. When you are using an adequate weight you will not be able to make this mistake. The goal is to train the proper muscles and build strength in the correct range of motion, if you are able to pull the bar to your lap you are doing the exercise incorrectly.
There are two variations of the lat pulldown you will use. The supinated grip, known as chin-up grip, and the neutral grip. The chin-up grip is when your palms are facing towards you while holding onto the bar and neutral is when your palms face towards each other.
The Set Up
First, sit facing towards the bar and adjust the pad that locks your legs down into place. When the weight gets heavier you will start to pull yourself out of the seat instead of the weight down so it’s important to have a snug fit with the leg lock.
Once your legs are secured stand up and ensure the correct weight is selected before getting a good grip on the bar. If you are performing a chin up grip then your hands should be placed at shoulder width. If you are performing the exercise with a neutral grip then the attachment will dictate the width of your arms.
While squeezing the bar with both hands sit on the seat while sliding your legs under the pad to secure your legs into position. Your arms should be fully extended over your head while holding onto the bar.
If your shoulders are elevated then depress them before initiating the movement. Lean back slightly and keep the chest high. Similar to the thought of a string coming from your clavicle pulling you up, this allows for the proper muscles in your back to be activated and not make your arms do all the work.
Now you are in the starting position. Pull Down the bar down to below the chin. Pull by driving the elbows down towards your pockets. The forearms and wrist will stay in line. Once the bar passes your chin you reverse the movement under control and allow the bar to travel back up until your arms are fully extended again.
Once your arms are fully extended you repeat with no time in between until your desired amount of reps are reached. Upon completion, while the arms are fully extended slide your legs out from the pad and stand up lowering the weight back down onto the stack before letting go of the bar.
This is the foundation of a pull-up! Not too technical. Now it’s time to build strength and get to the bar.
Stage 2: Band Assisted Pull Ups
Once you have achieved an adequate level of strength on the lat pulldown it’s time to add band assisted pull-ups into your arsenal.
Band assisted pull-ups are great for two reasons. It uses accommodating assistance meaning at the bottom of the pull-up, the hardest position, it adds the most assistance and at the top, it adds the least assistance.
The second reason is it now incorporates more of the core and mimics the pull-up with its instability. During the pull up you might have the tendency to swing and this will teach you how to control that while building strength and confidence to perform your first unassisted bodyweight pull-up.
The Set Up
You will need a band of the correct strength and a bench or stool.
I recommend these bands from EliteFTS:
How you wrap the band will increase or decrease the assistance it gives you. The shorter the band is when it starts the more assistance it will give you and the longer the band the less assistance it will give you.
For neutral grip, I recommend to loop it over both handles and for chin-up grip I recommend looping it over the bar once.
Once the band is set and secure pull the bench about 6 inches from the band. This ensures your legs won’t hit it while doing your reps but is close enough to step back onto the bench when done.
The bands are very strong and can throw you off balance if you are not careful or come loose if your foot is not secure and snap back at you. Take each step slowly when first getting used to using the band.
Getting the band around your foot will give you the most assistance as well as keep you in a similar position of the pull-up. Grab the band from the inside with both hands and straighten your arms beneath you while keeping some slack at the bottom.
While holding the band use your body weight to drop the loop low enough to step one foot into the band.
Once the band is under the middle of your foot, step your foot back down onto the bench before standing up. Use the band to keep balanced as your return to an upright position.
Grab the bar with either a chin-up grip with arms at shoulder width or neutral grip with the palms facing each other.
While holding onto the bar firmly, step off the bench with the foot with the band wrapped around it first. You will now feel the tension of the band. The stronger the band the more it takes to control it. Keep your front leg slightly bent while lowering yourself with your other foot on the bench so your arms are fully extended overhead, similar to the lat pulldown.
Once you step off with your other foot ensure you are not swinging. If the shoulders are elevated pull them down and lift the chest up and now the steps are identical to the lat pulldown. Lean back slightly and pull yourself up until your chin reaches above the bar. Lower yourself back down under control and once the arms are fully extended repeat until your desired reps are complete.
While hanging from the bar step back with your free foot onto the bench and then bring your other foot onto the bench.
Let go of the bar and keep balanced by using the band to guide your hands down until you are holding on at knee height. Keep the arms straight and press down into the band while stepping out of the band. Be prepared for the force of the band. Stand back up while holding the band, releasing all of its tension before letting go.
This is the next part of the foundation of a pull-up! A little more technical. Now it’s time to build even more strength and stability to get to the bar.
Phase 3: The Body Weight Pull-Up Variations
There are two bodyweight exercises that help top off your strength and confidence needed to do your first pull up. Negatives and Isometric holds.
Negatives build tremendous strength as well as build your confidence of being on the bar unassisted.
Isometric holds also build strength and can be used to work on sticking points in the pull-up.
Negatives place a lot of stress on the muscles used to perform the pull up which can lead to a lot of soreness. If you follow the program at the end of this post step by step you’ll already have the strength and work capacity to utilize negatives to their full extent without excessive soreness or injury.
The negative is the eccentric action of the pull up only. Instead of pulling yourself up, you lower yourself down under control. With adjusting the speed of the descent the difficulty changes. The slower you go the harder it is.
Bring the bench 6 inches from the bar similar to the band set up. Ensure the bench is high enough so you can jump while holding on and your chin is over the bar. While holding with a chin-up grip or neutral grip jump and pull so you end with your chin over the bar. Hold this position for 1 second before slowly lowering yourself.
Lower yourself until your arms are fully extended overhead and at a pace of 1-4 seconds. Make sure you do not end the rep early by stepping back onto the box.
Step back onto the box and then repeat. Jumping back up only using your upper body for the lower portion of the exercise. Continue until the desired reps are achieved before resting.
This is the final piece of the puzzle of a pull-up! Not too technical but extremely effective.
The isometric hold is another great exercise to build strength in the pull-up. If finishing the pull up is the hardest part of the exercise then ISO holds can help build strength in that particular range of motion. Likewise if initiating the pull up is the hardest part for you then this will target that area only.
Isometric holds can improve strength in + or - 15 degrees of where you are training. Think of your arms being fully extended overhead as 180 degrees, while your arms by your side as 0 degrees. We can choose where we want to improve our strength throughout the movement.
If we do an isometric hold at the top it will only improve strength between 0 and 15 degrees. Likewise, if we do an ISO hold at the bottom around 165 degrees it will improve our strength between 180 and 150 degrees.
Similar to the negative, bring a bench 6 inches from the bar. Ensure the bench is high enough so you can jump while holding on to any position of the pull-up. While holding with a chin-up grip or neutral grip jump to the position you desire to train. Hold this position for as long as you can before slowly lowering yourself.
Once you fatigue and begin to descend control the negative while lowering your body. Once your arms are fully extended step back onto the bench and rest before your next set. You will only do one hold per set, unlike the negatives which can contain many reps per set.
This is a great accessory exercise for the pull-up and breaking through sticking points. Not too technical but very fatiguing.
Phase 4: The Pull-Up
Now that you have mastered the other exercises and increased your strength drastically you are ready for the unassisted bodyweight pull-up! One of the most challenging exercises for women is now within reach.
You have had a lot of practice for the pull-up doing all the previous exercises. The form is no different than a band assisted pull-up. This time it’s just without any assistance.
A couple things to be mindful of before going for your first one is to not overthink it. I’ve seen many clients hesitate for what felt like ages before going for it. Just go for it! You’ve built the strength and if you didn’t rush it your first pull-up will feel easier than a set of slow negatives or a set of 10-12 band assisted pull ups.
The second thing to be mindful of is when you step off the bench and are hanging from the bar is not to spend much time in this position. Each second you hang from the bar you lose energy and it requires a lot to pull yourself up. You don’t want to zap any energy before your first pull-up or you might be too fatigued to make it all the way up.
Which leads to the third point, if you don’t succeed on your first try. Rest 1 minute and attempt again. Give yourself up to 5 attempts before calling it a day. If you are close but can’t quite get your chin over the bar you need to build a little more strength by continuing to progress the first 3 phases.
Identical set up for a band pull up or a negative, position the bench 6 inches in front of the bar. Holding with a chin-up grip or neutral grip step with one foot off the bench and lower your body so your arms are fully extended overhead while keeping the majority of your weight still on your back foot on the bench.
Once your arms are fully extended and one leg is hanging step off with the other foot and then pull! Chest up, drive the elbows down towards the pockets and give it everything you got. Be patient it may take a couple seconds to reach the top. Once your chin is over the bar lower yourself at a quickly controlled pace.
Once your arms are fully extended overhead and you are at the bottom try for a second rep immediately. Pull with everything you have and go for it!
Continue until you cannot get your chin over the bar anymore or you’ve reached your desired number of reps.
Congratulations on your first pull up!
You now know the progressions to the pull-up! The pull-up does wonders for your back, arms and core and should be incorporated in every upper body workout. These should be strategically placed in your weekly programming to get the maximum benefit.
The number of reps, sets, and weight all depends on you and your goals. Each of my clients' programs is unique based on their goal, strength, mobility and other factors. This ensures they reach their goal with no injuries and in a timely manner.