The pull-up is one of the greatest feats of relative strength. It works many muscle groups including muscles in the back, shoulders, arms, and core. Being able to pull your bodyweight is important for a lot of different movements, not to mention that it’s an impressive skill. In my opinion, pull-ups are the best bodyweight exercise you can do and they’re up there with the most effective exercises of any kind.
Before I go on, I want to quickly address the misconception that women can’t do pull-ups. We can. That’s me in the gif below performing a full pull-up starting from a dead hang. I can knock out several more of those, and so can a lot of other women. Anyone can learn to do pull-ups, it’s just a matter of practice and persistence.
- Grab a bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). I recommend positioning your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. The wider your hands are, the harder the exercise will be.
- Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended (elbows straight). This is called a dead-hang.
- Pull your shoulder blades slightly down and back. Activate your abs by tilting your belly button towards your head and slightly lifting your thighs towards your head. In contrast to a dead-hang, this is an active position in which your muscles are tense. Training in this position strengthens your core and prevents swinging.
- Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Think about pulling your elbows down and back. Your entire body should move as one solid unit without flailing the legs, bending at the hips, straining your neck to get your chin up or swinging your body. This is why keeping your abs tight throughout the movement is important. Pause at the top for a moment.
- Lower yourself back down in a slow and controlled manner. Again, avoid swinging and don’t allow yourself to drop down. Keep lowering yourself until your arms reach full extension and your elbows are straight.
If you can’t perform the standard pull-up with strict form through the full range of motion, train by performing the following exercises:
- Find a bar positioned at approximately waist height, or use a suspension trainer. If you’re working out at home, you can make do with the edge of a sturdy table or a broomstick positioned across two sturdy chairs.
- Get under the bar, facing upwards. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, hands approximately shoulder width apart.
- Extend your legs so that they are completely straight and your weight is resting on the edges of your heels. Extend your arms so they’re completely straight. Brace your abs by pointing your belly button towards your head.
- Pull yourself up to the bar by pulling your elbows back and down. Your body should move up towards the bar as one solid unit, with your hips rising at the same time as your shoulders.
- Pause at the top for a moment before lowering yourself, slowly and under control, back to the starting position (arms completely extended).
Aim for 8-10 solid repetitions. Once you can perform 10 repetitions consistently with good form, elevate your feet on a box or chair to increase the resistance.
How will this help?
While the horizontal row is a horizontal pulling motion rather than a vertical one like the pull-up (and therefore has a different neural activation pattern), it trains many of the same muscle groups. These include the latissimus dorsi (the major muscles responsible for the performance of a pull-up), trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, and forearm muscles (which are responsible for grip strength). Strengthening these muscles will translate to better pull-up performance, and given the difficult nature of the pull-up, it’s often necessary to start this variation to build a base level of strength before moving to more difficult vertical pulling movements.
A chin-up is performed with almost exactly the same technique as a pull-up, except that you grip the bar underhand, with your palms facing your body. Chin-ups are generally easier to perform than pull-ups because the underhand grip puts the biceps muscles in a position of mechanical advantage compared with their position during the pull-up, so they can help more.
Jump up to the top position of a chin-up. Brace your abs and slightly raise your legs as described in the standard pull-up. Slowly lower yourself down, under control, until you reach full arm extension. It should take you at least 4-5 seconds to lower yourself all the way down. Jump up to the top position again and repeat. Rest for several seconds between each rep to avoid fatigue. Eccentric exercises can cause a lot of short-term muscle damage and soreness, so it’s a good idea to take it easy on them, especially at the beginning of your training. Perform as many repetitions as you can with good form, working up to 8-10 quality repetitions.
How will this help?
See my article on push-ups for details of the value of eccentric practice. Performing negative chin-ups are easier than negative pull-ups. If you find negative chin-ups to be too easy, you can perform the same movement with the standard pull-up grip.
Perform a full chin-up with the assistance of a partner, chair, or resistance band. Try to keep your form the same as a full chin-up, but use some assistance to overcome any strength deficits which are preventing you from performing a full, unassisted chin-up. Only use the minimum amount of assistance you need to get yourself past your “sticking point”, which is the most difficult point in the movement. Work up to 8-10 repetitions with good form.
Partner assisted: Have a partner stand behind you and help you pull yourself up by placing their hands around the sides of your mid-back, at about the level of your lower ribs, and gently pushing you up. Your partner should assist only enough to help get your chin above the bar and allow you to lower yourself under control. Many people have their partner assist by holding their feet or legs, but I think that changes the movement pattern and body position too much so I prefer to assist from behind the ribs.
Band assisted: Loop a heavy resistance band around the bar. Put one foot in the band and use the band’s resistance to assist in pulling yourself up. Remove your foot from the band and lower yourself under control to the bottom position. It’s often difficult to scale the amount of assistance from the band (it sometimes provides too much assistance and doesn’t force you to use enough of your own strength to perform the movement). This method is recommended if a partner isn’t available.
Chair assisted: Place a sturdy chair (or any sturdy structure) under the bar. Put one leg on the back of the chair and use your leg to help push yourself up. Use only enough assistance as is absolutely necessary to get your chin above the bar, then lower yourself under control. Using the chair changes the movement pattern and your body position, so this method is recommended if a partner or band aren’t available.
How will this help?
If you want to perform standard pull-ups, you need to practice the movement as a whole. Assisted chin-ups aim to replicate the movement pattern of a full chin-up, training the neural pattern required to coordinate the full movement while strengthening the involved muscle groups. Training chin-ups rather than pull-ups at this stage makes the movement easier, allowing you to progress faster. If you can already perform chin-ups but not pull-ups, move to assisted pull-ups.
Putting It Together
Pull-ups are a skill, and like any other skill you need to practice them often to get better.
If you can already perform at least 1 or 2 perfect pull-ups, try practicing a few pull-ups in every session, or even a few times per day to fast track your progress. Make sure you stop before your form starts to break down, and aim to do just one more pull-up in at least one set per week.
If you can’t do a pull-up yet, start by practicing horizontal rows at least 2-3 times per week, or even a few times per day to fast track your progress. Make sure you stop before your form starts to break down, and aim to do just one more rep in at least one set per week. Try to work your way up to doing 3 sets of 10 horizontal rows with your feet elevated. Horizontal rows alone probably won’t do it, though. If you want to be able to do a pull-up, you have to practice pull-ups. Start with negative and assisted chin-ups and work your way up to negative and assisted pull-ups, then start practicing the real thing.
Remember that if you keep practicing you will eventually get there!